The Gift of Authenticity
“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Right at the start of our conversation, over steaming cups of tea, I asked her to describe what she does for a living. “I change lives”, she said. She quickly laughed it off, but there was no need, because the reality of her work really is changing lives. I had the opportunity to meet and get to know Tess Maina, a Program Assistant at the Community Service Center. The function of their department is to organize community outreach programs for students, staff and alumni to allow them to give back to their communities. One such project is the prison visits that are organized once every quarter.
I have to admit, as a young adult I often thought that anyone in prison deserved to be there. It was a harsh misconception that has gradually shifted over the years. Talking to Tess, there was no glimpse of judgment towards the inmates – people she has interacted with since her first visit to Naivasha Maximum prison as a second year student in 2017. She spoke of those in prison the way we all should, as people not so different from ourselves, people deserving of compassion and care from society. Suffice to say, she convinced me to tag along on the next visit.
Freedom behind bars
Through the years of service to society, the Community Outreach Program has visited prisons in and around Nairobi, meeting inmates and wardens and getting to hear their untold stories. A number always stand out; those young enough to be a friend or brother, people who made costly mistakes that any number of people could have made, men eloquent enough to run major corporations. All behind bars, condemned to an ironclad routine and little contact with the outside world.
On one of the visits, Tess met a man they all called ‘Chief’. Charged with robbery with violence, he has been in prison since 2016. When they met, he said “My sentence is coming to an end and I’ll be leaving soon”. He said it with such palpable excitement that she thought for sure he was to be released in a week. His sentence ends in 2024.
She could tell that he was a man of influence within the prison by the way he dressed and was addressed. Their conversation was heavy with lasting lessons.
“Sometimes, you think those locked up are worse off than those out there. We don’t have our physical freedom, but they might not have mental freedom. Which is a worse sentence?” This question is often posed to ethics students, and has stuck with Tess since her conversation with Chief. This is one of the hallmarks of service to society – learning lessons that apply in your own life from the experiences of others. Another pearl of wisdom she got from Chief was that owning up to and accepting your mistakes is the only way to make peace and move forward.
Some of the men behind bars are there through situations any of us could find ourselves in. One inmate narrates an argument between himself and his wife. It got heated, and in a moment of anger, he pushed her. We have all done things in anger, but that moment changed his life forever. Her head hit the corner of the table and in an instant, she was gone. Another man was going about his daily work as a security guard when a mob caught and lynched a man outside the place he was guarding. Accused of not stepping in or calling the authorities, he was charged and imprisoned. Stories like these are not rare, and they highlight why we need to show more care for the incarcerated members of our society.
Coming together in care
The Community Service Center has been a place of initiative and refuge for many students who have passed through the university. As George R. Bach said, “caring has the gift of making the ordinary special”. Those who participate in the Community Outreach Programs are not people with abundant wealth or endless time on their hands. They are students – living on a student’s budget, juggling school work and social activities. They are ordinary people who choose to care, and that makes them extraordinary.
As the tea ran cold, we brought the conversation to an end. You could tell that Tess’s passion for community service and her good nature draw people to her. Our conversation was punctuated with many passing greetings of people she’s gotten to know through her work. She said that the people who come together to do good bring authenticity with them. Authenticity that allows them to talk to prisoners like friends, roll around in the grass with orphaned children and scrub, build and work hand in hand with each other. The authenticity also forms strong bonds of friendship such that even after a long day of community service activities, they’re always more than happy to get together for tea.
“What more can we do for the men and women in prison?” I asked her.
“Visit them. Talk to them. Play football. Volunteer to teach skills they will need when they are re-integrated to society. Get to know their lives behind bars and then offer services and programs in line with their needs.”
If you’re ready to take on a more active role in community service, reach out to the Community Service Center and sign up for one of the many ongoing programs.
This article was written by Celia Kinuthia.
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