Mutunga (Brian) Kimanthi, head of Nyota Ing’arayo school, had graciously invited me into his home and allowed me to interview him regarding his experience in a Kenyan Prison. I’ve been calling him a jail bird and an aider and abettor but I wanted to know the full story. I wanted to write about it for others to hear a bit about what it’s like trying to do a good thing – run a school educating those less fortunate – and getting imprisoned (even if for a short while) for doing so. He was happy to tell me the story over chapatis and soda.
Mutunga is a very sweet man. It is hard to describe him other than that. He is kind and compassionate, a lover of children and has a desire to keep them learning and growing. He knows the students of his school, the parents and the young ones that visit from time to time (You’ll hardly see him without one in his arms or at his side). The children adore him, the volunteers of GVI speak highly of him and his only wish is that the volunteers stop leaving but does love it when they return, since most do.
Now Mutunga is no criminal, although we share a similar story of theft. I told him that when I was living on my own and putting myself through school I would buy the cheapest coffee and when I was adding sugar and soy, I would embarrassingly pocket a few extra packets of sugar because I couldn’t afford to buy the stuff on its own. To this day I will find sugar packets in various bags or purses I haven’t used for a while. He laughed and said he did the same thing except, instead of packets of sugar, it was just a jar. He would stick his hand in and put the handful in his pockets! We may not be smooth criminals but I suppose you could call us sweet.
So how did Mutunga end up in Jail? Well, with Nyota being an official school everyone at GVI and Nyota had thought they were through the woods and wouldn’t have to deal with Police bribes and other nuisances. We may have spoke to soon as one Friday afternoon they walked through the gate of the school and were asking for just that.
The police had arrived and immediately asked for the school’s health certificates and codes. Mutunga had shown them the health certificate but when asked for the ‘Single Business Permit’ he was at a loss. “We’re a school, we don’t make any profits off of the children” he had told them. But because the school collects student fees, according to Kenya that is called a business. The moment you get money from the public you are considered a business. “The thing with the police is, they will continue to ask you questions so you may come to a point of bribery” Mutunga explains. The police questioned him further and asked for his fire certificates, which the school had but it wasn’t in the school. He told them that if they gave him time to get them, he can prove it. Their reply? “No, you have had time and we’re here now” Mutunga asked what he should do in which they responded, “You should learn how to talk to us.” Another point of bribery it seems.
“Now tell me how to talk to you?” Mutunga questioned them. “Give us 5000 KSH and we’ll leave.” When Mutunga explains that he didn’t have the money to give them they responded with, “The mzungus (white people) have the money. See your manager and they’ll see to the right accounts.” The Police had known of GVI’s involvement with the school and saw it as an opportunity for a high pay out – of which GVI and Mutunga were not obliged to give. With the school registration, bribes were no longer being doled out as they have the legal documentation and want to do things the right way. The police wouldn’t budge either and then handed Mutunga a court summons.
The charges laid against Mutunga were threefold:
1) Need of a Single Business Permit
2) Absence of Fire Certificate
3) Absence of Fire Extinguishers.
Before the court proceedings the school had obtained the Single Business Permit and after haggling with the Fire Certification people they were able to get the certificate printed after a 3000 KSH bribe. The only thing that Mutunga and GVI had not done yet was the Fire Extinguishers. Which after this stint in jail, were placed in the school as soon as possible.
After a long wait, Mutunga finally stood in front of the judge who simply read out the charges and asked, “Is it true?” Being honest Mutunga replied, “Yes, but I can defend myself.” “No, that’s enough” and dismissed him with a 30,000 KSH (est $350 CAD) cash bail. “There is no chance to defend yourself in court, none at all. I didn’t even have to go into the courtroom, I could have bribed the guard and walked out when the Judge was on break. I was surprised they wouldn’t let me defend myself” Mutunga explained.
When I asked Mutunga how he found the jail he replied, “I didn’t love the place. It smelt very badly. No wall separates the loo from around you and it is misused. I didn’t use the toilet. I met many people from my tribe, there were more than 20 of us in the cell. Many were asleep on the floor. There is nothing but the floor in the cell but the floor has tile. It was a very smart floor. It’s just the smell, the smell was the worst thing.” Mutunga was in the jail cell waiting for his 30,000 KSH bail to be posted from about 9 am til 1 pm. All the while he was able to aid and abed a fellow cellmate. Mutunga explains:
“I texted Michele Comber (Project Manager of GVI Mombasa) when he asked me for it; ‘May you assist me with your phone?’ He needed to call his sister to mPesa (electronic money) 2000KSH to send the guard as a bribe for him to go home. In Kenya you cannot post your own bail but need someone to do it for you, so most often you have to find a way to bribe a guard. The man needing my phone explained to me that the reason he was in jail was for ‘Idleness.’ He finished his job laying cement and rested along Bamburi road in his truck at around 7pm. The Municiple Inspector came around to collect him for their ‘Idle’ behavior. Because he didn’t have enough to bribe the MI with, he found himself beside Mutunga in a jail cell; guilty of relaxing. I lent him my phone and he was able to get the money to bribe the Guard and he was on his way out.”
While Mutunga had time to help free a cell mate it still wasn’t enough time to distract from his 30,000 KSH bail. He was very worried about it as it is a great deal of money to be spent on getting him out of jail. But the wait time and the bail were necessary to keep doing things the ‘right way’ and to not succumb to the unsustainable cycle of bribery. “I could have paid them off, but there’s no stopping them from coming back in a weeks time with the same charges.” There was no point in them paying a bribe when they have the right documentation as a school and can get the Fire Extinguishers to avoid the next bribe. A large bail to pay, yes, but will pay off in the long term.
Knowing this he reflects on the whole ordeal and says, “It was okay, it was a new experience. The stinky environment was the problem.” That helps sum up the type of person Mutunga is: one who is willing to sacrifice his nostrils, take things (even smelly things) for the experience they are and continue to manage a school and educate those less fortunate children around him in spite of the many obstacles and pitfalls he must face.
The school and the community are lucky to have Mutunga’s dedication backing them up. He remains positive in a story could leave anyone with feelings of exasperation. The points of backwardness, corruption and bribery can easily give you a defeatist attitude about trying anything in Kenya. The school and GVI have worked incredibly hard to avoid these pay outs with legitimate documentation but they keep happening again and again. Right when they think they’re in the clear – another inspector comes to ask more questions and find more ‘points of bribery.’ Instead of giving up, they’re continuing on. Because there’s nothing you can do to stop them – not even with a smelly prison cell.
Mutunga had offered to share the photos he managed to take on his cell phone of the prison cell: