The results of Lifesong Kenya’s work in some of Nairobi’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods are manifested in the lives of over 100 boys who have graduated from its prison computer classes, 5 court cases involving young boys that were dropped in 2019, the 20 families they are feeding during the COVID-19 pandemic and an estimated 1000 boys who have directly benefitted from their programmes in one way or another since 2010, albeit with meagre financial resources and manpower. Basil Kungu, Waylong Bulimu, Ismail Osman and Teddy Ochung are just four of the many boys whose fortunes have been transformed by one man’s dedication to improving their life-chances against the odds.
Imagine growing up as a boy without a father to look up to for love, care and protection and as a positive role model. This can become like a curse especially in a society where people’s regard the communal role of raising children as was in traditional African communities is fast diminishing. For male teens living in low-income settlements in Kenya’s urban areas, the lack of a father-figure is a major cause of misdirection in life and a predisposing for coming in conflict with the law and engagement in crime and violence.
This is the reality that Lifesong Kenya, a community-based organization operating in Nairobi has addressed since 2010. Using a mix of skills training, character formation, mentorship on positive masculinity, financial literacy and job creation, James Ouma and his team are changing lives, one boy at a time. With the support of his co-founders, his wife Cynthia Wendo a lecturer in Chinese and Edward Mbogo an applications developer, Lifesong educates and challenges young boys to discover their inner strengths and aspire for greater and more productive lives since 2010.
So one may wonder what the name Lifesong has to do with advocacy on juvenile justice. In James’ words, we need to look at life as being a song that you sing by the way you view and respond to life’s experiences. “Back in 2008, I had been singing a song of defeat, lack and doubt. After coming up with Lifesong, I discovered I had a lot of treasures in me and I just needed to sing a different life song! Each time I wake up in the morning I want to sing a different Lifesong so that when I go to bed at night I look at what I have achieved and make better choices that help me have a cheerful life song as opposed to lamenting about the things I had failed to do and the things I lacked,” he recalls explaining to Monica Waceke, the former Televisions Programs Manager at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV during his job interview.
Apart from the training and mentorship, other programmes tackle crime and its consequences on the young offenders and their families, those who have been wronged and the wider community. Boys are helped to reconcile themselves with those that they have wronged, their families and police officers. These programmes are delivered in three locations; Ngando in Dagoretti, where Lifesong Kenya’s office is located, the Five Star Academy in Kangemi and the Kamiti Youth Corrective Training Centre housed within Kamiti Juvenile Prison.
The Turning Point
Motivated by his personal experience of lacking a father-figure to guide him towards the right direction while growing up, James encourages “his” boys to find an inborn treasure that they already possess rather than to focus on what they may lack. “When I was growing up, I needed a male adult,” recalls James.”Sadly, because I did not find such a person early enough, I ended up growing-up with neither courage nor direction.” At 20 years old, his life changed when a chance encounter with a retired teacher, Albert Ochung, offered inspiration, direction and correction, which enabled him to aspire to be a better person capable of pursuing his dreams. He was motivated and took up a commitment to become himself a father-figure to boys and male teens in great need of someone to guide them through early life. Albert now lives with his wife and family in Seme Kadero, Kisumu County as he proudly follows Jame’s work.
James’ passion for serving the less fortunate is not something new to him. His family remembers his childhood and how he used to go out of his way to help someone else in need. In his own words, “My mom keeps reminding me of how I would walk long distances to help build houses for widows and orphans when I was young.”
It is this experience and those of Cynthia and Edward, neither of whom grew up in the most favourable circumstances, that inspires Lifesong Kenya’s vision and mission. Working with young people in informal school and juvenile prison settings, their programme inspires teens to find the motivation they need to want to do better in life. Lifesong’s team of staff comprising of Kevin Ochieng, Craig Oloo and Earnest Okello are mostly people who have themselves grown up in difficult circumstances, recognize that young people need a second chance at life and are now using their gifts and talents to earn an income and give back to the community. Patience, resilience and empathy are values that permeate throughout the work and relations in Lifesong Kenya.
Power of Hope and Food
The results of Lifesong Kenya’s work in some of Nairobi’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods are manifested in the lives of over 100 boys who have graduated from its prison computer classes, 5 court cases involving young boys that were dropped in 2019, the 20 families they are feeding during the COVID-19 pandemic and an estimated 1000 boys who have directly benefitted from their programmes in one way or another since 2010, albeit with meagre financial resources and manpower.
The Lifesong Kenya’s online community led by Clifford Oluoch, founder of Odijo Foundation has been of tremendous support in achieving those milestones and encouraging some to become regular monthly supporters. “By each of us doing small acts of kindness, we can create a ripple effect whose impact can be far-reaching. Giving someone a second chance and seeing a family get food is fulfilling. I am honoured to play a small part doing this,” testifies James.
The boys they work with come from families that are, mostly dysfunctional, poor and under-educated. Their parents are mostly single mothers and even where both parents are present, the boys experience rampant parental neglect. Most parents are casual labourers who work as house helps, gardeners, ‘jua kali’ artisans and or take menial jobs where wages are too low to afford them the basic needs of decent housing, food, clothing and quality care.
In the face of this all-too-familiar reality, James’ team was inspired to initiate a food donations programme where, with as a little as one thousand five hundred Shillings, they can feed a family for a whole week. The children from Five Star Academy in Kangemi typically come from families which can no longer access the school feeding programme since the schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One week’s family ration consists of four kilos of maize flour, two kilos of rice, two kilos of green grams, one litre of cooking oil, two kilos of porridge flour, two cabbages, one kilo of sugar, two kilos of Irish potatoes and a bar of soap for washing and bathing.
“Since there are more and more young males getting arrested and ending up in prison,” asserts James, “our work enables us to reduce the number of young people who exit prison with bitterness, stigma and high risk of re-offending and going back in as hardened criminals.” For a nation struggling with crime, initiatives such as these help to greatly reduce overall crime rates and the threat towards women, children and older citizens, who are often the vulnerable targets of crime and violence.
Among the many boys who have been impacted by Lifesong Kenya’s initiatives are Basil Kungu, Waylong Bulimu, Ismail Osman and Teddy Ochung. Teddy undertook a masonry training back in his rural village in Seme Kadero while Basil was able to attend college. Ismail, 19 years old, was supported to return to his rural home in Fort Tenan, Kericho with a desire to go back to school after spending nine months in prison. He was able to rejoin high school with the help of St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House and to also forgive his father for abandoning and rejecting him.
Waylong, also 19 years old, completed his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations last year and joined Form One earlier this year. He too was able to forgive his father for abandoning him and has been using the lessons from Lifesong’s mentoring programme to make a fresh start in life. He volunteers for Lifesong and earns a little money for school shopping, bus fare and pocket money. Sam Ouma from Nairobi, now 30 years old, from Nairobi, was on the verge of giving up when Lifesong’s engagement through weekly bicycle rides and talks inspired him to change his attitude towards life. He is now transformed with a positive outlook on life and is making efforts to become a better man.
These are just a few examples of the far-reaching impact Lifesong Kenya is having on young people who would otherwise have been left to struggle through life on their own. Check out their blog for more inspiring stories. Their life-changing stories have been featured by among others the Global Leadership Network; renowned Kenyan journalist Sheila Mwanyigha and a Kenyan blogger Job Naibei among others.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Volunteering is not an easy thing, especially when you are not drawing even a cent from an engagement that often requires more energy and drive than working in a full-time job! Even meeting your own financial needs can be difficult when you have over 20 families looking up to you to share with them the little you have. Yet, this has been Ouma’s situation since he decided to quit his job as a children’s TV producer at KBC back in 2013 to focus on developing a restorative justice programme in Lifesong Kenya.
While at KBC James would use his day-off every Friday to visit the boys detained in juvenile institutions and share with them his experiences on growing up, the mistakes he committed, and the valuable life-lessons learned from them. He would spend his money on calling and tracing families, police officers and the victims of those boys’ crimes.
To his many friends who learn about his volunteering work, it seems unimaginable that there are such boys in prison and that someone would quit his job and want to spend his resources, energy and time to reconcile and restore them to their families, the people they have wronged and their communities.
For James’s colleagues like Kelvin Ochieng, a musician who supports with teaching boys valuable life skills in and out of prison, the experience can be both great and scary. “Great in the fact that we’re giving someone a second chance and telling them that though they’ve messed up they always have a chance to make their life better. Scary because people have a notion that prison is for bad guys and the interaction with the police is never always so smooth,” he explains.
Despite the many obstacles, Ouma remains confident of one day securing funds that would enable the organization to run independently of his little earnings. Even a scary jibe from his close friend that it takes an organization ten years to start attracting partners and funding could not dampen his hopes. “Raising funds and finding resources for our prisons programme isn’t easy but I believe that it’s only a matter of time before success comes our way. In the meantime, we will keep cycling from Nairobi to other towns in Kenya to continue creating awareness about our work and raising funds,” says a confident James.
To overcome these setbacks, James and his wife have to make do without lots of luxuries to sustain their programmes. This also includes cycling to and from their programme locations to save on transportation costs. He remembers with regret and laughter how he had to one time take a cake he had bought for his wife to prison computer class graduation since he had promised the children a cake but had no money. James acknowledges the understanding team he has but says that he would like to be able to pay them a decent allowance so they can live better lives as well but regrets that he just can’t afford to. At least, not yet. He also credits his wife Cynthia for her key in developing and growing Lifesong and his skills to coach and mentor boys.
Deepening and Sustaining the Impact
The ten years of Lifesong Kenya’s journey has provided great lessons that create a solid foundation for the future sustainability of their initiatives. Prominent amongst these lessons include the discovery of the brilliance and great potentials possessed by many of the teens locked away in juvenile prisons and the need to help them tap into these gifts for their benefit and eventually that of their communities. Doing a job like the one these guys do at Lifesong Kenya requires a selfless passion, unwavering commitment to valuing people and honouring their human rights.
There is also an unending need to continue with advocacy and sharing of experiences on working with at-risk male teens to create a welcoming environment for their reintegration back into their communities upon release. James notes that “Most of the families whose sons and siblings we are working with have changed their mindsets and chosen to look at our boys differently and given them a second chance.”
According to James the deepest involvement and respect for the concerned families, their choices, their ability to love, their hard work and their hope for a better future are all critical to developing sustainable communities. Expanding the school feeding programme to ensure many more children have access to nutritious and balanced meals is now a major focus. Adopting creative ways of fundraising is a key priority. Early successes with their recently piloted bicycle delivery services at a small fee to supplement their incomes to support the programmes is also a key priority.
Lifesong Kenya has ambitious plans to create a learning hub in prisons where young men can incubate their business ideas and innovation This will be further supported by a ‘half-way centre’ where boys who exit prison and need more time to reconcile with their families or the people they wronged or who lack any place to call home, will be temporarily accommodated while they get connected with jobs and learning opportunities.
In doing all these James is not forgetting about pursuing his own goals and dreams. He has embarked on learning and developing his skills as a life coach for male teens. You can learn more about his coaching and mentorship programmes on http://jamesouma.com.
Help Keep the Song Playing
With a small team and limited capacity to propel its vision, Lifesong is welcoming volunteers who are willing to support and further help to shape their programmes. So, if you are looking for an opportunity to positively impact the lives of vulnerable young people, they would greatly appreciate your time, expertise and resources. As they look to better measure their impact, professionals with project management or monitoring and evaluation skills could be a good fit for their growing team. Additional social media and storytelling skills would help get their story out there and attract more support. If you think you can help, get in touch.
You can also contribute to their current food donations drive to enable a family to put food on their tables for at least a week for only KES 1,500. For a family which lacks even the basic necessities, no amount is too small. Whatever you can afford will go a long way to alleviating hunger and saving lives.
With limited support coming from national or county government agencies responsible for child protection and correctional services, Lifesong Kenya is seeking to develop partnerships and relations with stakeholders doing similar work which can help it expand its reach and impact to give more Basils, Waylongs, Ismails and Teddystheir second chances. You could even join them on their third annual cycling trip from Nairobi to Migori Town and back through different towns, a distance of over 700 kilometres, and raise funds to support young people whom the society has given up on.
Reach out to them on email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (+254) 724 411109/ 719 573780. You can also follow and interact with them on social media on @LifesongKenya across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Discover more of their fantastic work and how you can become part of it by visiting their website www.lifesongkenya.org. Their small office is located on Gikuyu Close, opposite Nairobi Business Park, off Ngong Road, Nairobi.
This story was written pro bono by Nelson Opany as part of his Communications Volunteering Series during the COVID-19 public health emergency to give a spotlight to grassroots organizations creating positive change in communities across Africa. Nelson is a Public Relations and Communications Management professional and a Scout with a passion for volunteering. Additional editing by Ray Saunders, an Information and Knowledge Management consultant based in Geneva, Switzerland.