Update from Kenya

Posted: 17 October 2014

Sam, Intern, Nairobe

A lot happened since the last update. I was really involved in CLEAR's prison work towards the end of my time. In fact, I was conducting 3-4 seminars every week in different prisons across Nairobi. This was my particular pet project, and one that I'm hoping will continue to grow now that I've gone.

We were so warmly received and appreciated by all the prison staff and inmates-a testament to the need for work of CLEAR. We even began a series of moot courts in prison. This is essentially where we take the inmates through a series of court roleplays (how to reduce bail, how to plead mitigation, how to cross-examine etc) so as to best prepare them for when they're in court by themselves. There are many NGO's that work in Kenyan prisons, but CLEAR is unique. Many help to improve prison conditions (which is a good thing) but few work as tirelessly and life-changingly (yep that's a word…) as CLEAR in helping people actually get out of prison. CLEAR not only provides hope, but it delivers on that hope too.

It's an over-used statement but the work of CLEAR genuinely changes lives. During my time there, a number of clients were finally released from prison after 5,10 or even 15 years in prison for an offence they didn't commit. Many others benefited from our legal education. During my last week one stranger came up to me in a court corridor. We had come to his prison a few weeks prior, and he had used the knowledge we empowered him with to reduce his bail, and subsequently release himself. He was so grateful for our assistance.

I want to tell you quickly about Grace (real name not used). She is a Kenyan, and a single mother with 3 young sons. She was impregnated by another man (let's call him Greg), who subsequently refused to take responsibility for the minor, and had given her a bouncing cheque of £5,000. In secret, Greg was trying to force her to have an abortion as, according to his religion, this would allow him to marry her. The matter was taken on by another legal NGO who initiated a mediation process between Grace and Greg. Greg frustrated the whole process by not turning up and on the one occasion he did, he simply stated that the minor child was not his biologically his and therefore he could not be compelled to maintain the child. Grace could not afford to work, whereas Greg was a man of means, involved in several business ventures. He was easily capable of helping to maintain the minor. The media found her distraught in the court corridors and forwarded her to CLEAR. CLEAR has a reputation for taking on messy cases that others would simply shirk away from. We managed to request the court to give an order for DNA sampling. When it was established that Greg was the minor's father, CLEAR successfully sought a court maintenance order. This order, which he has since complied with, forced Greg to provide a regular monthly sum for the maintenance of his child.

CLEAR is doing great work but it is working on an extremely tight budget, and only touching the tip of the iceberg. There are many more voices unheard, stories untold, and lives unchanged. Throughout the 8 months, the Nairobi office was constantly over-stretched and over capacity. With an incredibly disorganised legal system, a totally corrupt and incompetent police force, and an often disinterested judiciary, it often felt like we were battling against a system designed to p*** us off. But the system is slowly changing-a Legal Aid Bill is due to come into force next year which should include a number of provisions aimed at providing those most in need with a basic level of legal representation. One thing that particularly shocked me was the helpfulness and understanding of Kenyan prison staff. They were perfectly aware of the issues facing the Kenyan justice system, and were so keen in working with various NGO's to alleviate these problems.

Given the nature of the system, at times the experience was also very frustrating. Court filing systems were a nightmare, magistrates were uninterested, and unnecessary amounts of red tape and bureaucracy provided yet further obstacles. There were a number of cultural frustrations too. Without meaning to generalise too much, things happen at a slower pace in Kenya. This has its pros-people are very laid-back and always take time to be friendly/get to know you etc. But in a professional context, this can be quite infuriating. Couple with this with levels of traffic that I've never witnessed before, and it is sometimes very difficult to get work done!

Overall, the whole experience was hugely important for me, on both a personal and professional level. As the time went on, I increasingly enjoyed it. The first few months were quite difficult. When I came to Kenya, I didn't know anyone, I couldn't speak the language, and I had very little legal knowledge. It was a serious baptism of fire, to say the least. But it's only when you take yourself right out of your comfort zone, and put yourself in ridiculous situations that you grow and develop as a person.

I can't quite stress enough the importance of travelling/working abroad for a long period of time. It widens your outlook, teaches you, and shapes your perspective in ways that you wouldn't understand until you experience it for yourself. I can honestly say that I've learnt more about myself in 8 months working abroad than I have in 18 years of formal education in the UK. Ultimately, I will look back on my time in Kenya with a huge amount of nostalgia and fondness. Who knows, maybe one day I'll work back there again!

Anyhoos, once again I've blabbered on for long enough. I would love to tell you more stories and highlights of my time in Kenya but I'd be impressed if you got past the first few paragraphs, let alone up to here-so I won't bore you any longer. I'm around London for the foreseeable future, so if I do see you, ask me and I'd love to tell each of you more!

Thanks again for all your support. And particular thanks to CLEAR and the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship for giving me this opportunity. Onto the next adventure!