In 2011, when Jimmy Kasule, 35, took a bus with a friend to Pretoria, South Africa for work, he never envisaged that things would not work out as planned. More so, he never imagined himself ending up in prison.
He is warm and talkative, with a sharp memory to reminisce the incident as though it were yesterday.
“We went through Zimbabwe but did not have our passports stamped as we were exiting Zimbabwe,” Kasule recalls.
He says after failing to get work in South Africa five months later, they took a bus back home, with some electronics for sale. They hoped it would be lucrative business.
“At some point, I noticed that we had not been cleared by immigration but my friend insisted that everything was fine. On our way back to Uganda, at Beit Bridge, Zimbabwe, we were detained for a crime of border jump and were handed over to Interpol,” he remembers. They were with two other Ugandans.
However, he never realised how grave their situation was until their eyes saw a signpost of Harare Remand Prison, while in the back of the double cabin pickup truck in which they were being transported in from Interpol. It hit home that they were headed to prison.
“I had never entered a prison and I didn’t know what was next, moreover in a foreign country and couldn’t communicate with my family. We had only told the ‘bus man’ while still at Interpol to notify our families, which he did,” Kasule says.
At 26, with a pregnant wife back home, Interpol recommended that they buy air tickets to travel back to Uganda. Each ticket was Shs1.75m per person.
“My people did not buy the ticket but, claim to have paid cash to Interpol. For six months, my family waited for my release in vain. In the first two months, we pleaded with the Ugandan ambassador in South Africa, to come and hear our case, but he didn’t,” he recalls.
While in custody, they ate rejected bread from the factories, and cabbage, known as Chingwa.
“All we did in prison was share stories, talk about films, preach to each other and exhaust everything there was to talk about. Everyone was given five thin blankets for a mattress and bedding,” Kasule recalls.
Getting out of prison
Eventually, with the help of someone from the Ugandan embassy, Kasule and two others were put on a bus to Uganda, however, they did not have enough money to pay for the visa at the Mozambique border. The three were handcuffed again and put onto a bus back to Harare, a full day’s journey.
Although painful, this was a blessing in disguise, Kasule says.
“While going back, I explained my condition to a certain woman and she offered me her phone. I told my wife, ‘go to any ticketing agency, buy an air ticket and give the ticket details to the Interpol officers. I didn’t even know that my message had gone through to her,” he explains.
That is how he was able to be released but he left prison with some lessons.
“Though I had been working previously, I had been searching for my purpose in life. In prison, we heard stories of the plight of families and how prison authorities would take money from families promising to help have their loved ones released. We heard stories of families selling their possessions with false hope to have their people released. I had left my wife expecting, and when I looked at these families, I imagined how my wife was going to be delivered of my firstborn in my absence,” he recalls.
So, I told God that when He takes me out of that prison, and I get home, I would help children of prisoners, because I knew even families of people in Ugandan prisons suffered. That became my sole prayer.”
“But when I returned to Uganda, I forgot my promise to God about looking after children of prisoners,” he confesses.
Incidentally as he worked with a tours and travel company in 2013, he met Mona – the president, Children of Prisoners, Sweden. They had a chat which triggered Kasule’s memory about his pledge to look after children of prisoners.
“I met Mona again, before she left Uganda and shared my experience in prison and the plan I had for children of prisoners. I didn’t look at her giving me money or donations. I wanted ideas and knowledge of how she was doing it. She shared her story with me and advised me on what to read. Then, I started researching on the subject,” he shares.
From that time, Kasule would organise children parties at his home every end of the year for children to have fun, but this never gave him satisfaction.
In 2015, Mona put him in touch with the first child of a prisoner.
“His father is in Luzira Upper Prison. He was on death row but was pardoned and has been in prison for 16 years. He left home when his son was six years old but today, he is 22 years old. Mona furnished me with all the details. I found the boy, and he became part of our family. We work with him,” Kasule narrates.
Furthermore, in 2017, Omega Missions Choir did a collaboration with a charity concert at Theatre La Bonita.
“Omega Missions Choir gave us Shs1.4m from the concert, Shs500,000 to register the organisation and items worth Shs900,000. They also gave us scholastic materials, clothes, for children of prisoners.”
This was a big push, Kasule notes. This is how Children of Prisoners Uganda came into existence.
How they reach out to children
Kasule admits that so far, he is working with male inmates in Luzira Prisons for prisoners on life sentence and 15 years and above sentences.
“When I go to prison, there is a form that prisoners fill which includes details of the parent in prison, names of children and their classes, guardian’s name, contact details, location details. It is these details that I follow and connect with the family. I have 840 children to reach out to and I am happy about this but it is an uphill task,” he states.
So far, Kasule has enrolled only 65 children. He desires to reach out to at least 100 children by the end of this year.
What he really does
A visit to one of the families with Kasule reveals his passion. He is welcomed like he is no stranger at the Natete-based home of one of the prisoners.
After the warm welcome, a fatherly ambiance ensues as he asks the children about how the holidays are going, accompanied with some chitchat.
“When I am with these children, I feel like a strong father. A major part of what we do is visit these families, just to check how they are doing, organise family visits to prison, helping the children through school, and overseeing their academics, giving psycho-social counselling, providing families with necessities of life, scholastic materials, organising Christmas parties and doing self-help projects, where we boost small businesses that parents might already be doing, so that they can meet their daily needs,” he narrates.
In his multifunctional single-room office in Kyengera, Kasule also has a mobile money business operator and a public address system for hire. These, he says form part of his income and funding.
“In 2017, I got a job with Uganda Bureau of Statistics as a logistics assistant and driver. From my salary, I give back to children of prisoners. When one hires this system, 20 per cent of the money goes to children of prisoners or sometimes well-wishers donate to us. For example, last year, artiste Juliana Kanyomozi made generous donations including: sanitary pads, liquid soap, rice, books, and pencils to children of prisoners,” Kasule says.
Though his biggest challenge is funding to reach out to more families, the love that children and families give him back and the joy of being a father figure to many presses him on.
One of the many plans Kasule has is building a home for children of prisoners. However, for now, they are being helped from their homes and at school level.
In the long run, he also envisions establishing schools to offer quality education to these children.
Jimmy Kasule works closely with his wife, Maurine Nakawa, (above) who is equally passionate about taking care of children of prisoners.
“Just like it was hard and challenging for me when my husband was imprisoned, I imagine it is the same or even worse for families of prisoners. It is not easy to explain how hard it was. I was stressed and thought I would have a child with a problem. After being delivered of the child, I was forced to go back to work– two weeks into maternity leave- because my husband was jobless and in prison. I had sold most of our belongings when I was collecting money for his air ticket. It was a challenging time, and to any mother out there, I relate and understand what they are going through,” Nakawa shares.