Stella Kimuyu had decidedly mixed feelings about TWR Kenya’s planned community outreach visit to Manyani maximum security prison.
The trip scheduled for late November 2015 alongside her co-workers at the Kenyan national partner of global media ministry TWR (also known as Trans World Radio) would be a wonderful opportunity to express Christ’s love. On the other hand, Kimuyu had to admit that the thought of going inside a prison – a first for her – was scary. Would she and the other women in the team be safe at this all-male maximum-security prison?
After a drive of several hours southeastward from TWR Kenya’s home base in Nairobi, the intimidating security procedures upon entering the facility provided an inauspicious start to the visit. But her fears melted away as many of the stripe-uniformed prisoners enthusiastically led the praise music at the worship service that the visitors were there to take part in.
“I witnessed them broken before the Lord, many of them kneeling in prayer on the hard floor,” Kimuyu said. “It was at this moment that I realized these are forgiven sinners – just like me. If God has accepted them despite the crimes they committed, who was I to judge them? These are my brothers!”
From that moment, she began to relax and enjoy the service, which was broadcast live on TWR Kenya’s SIFA FM station in nearby Voi. About 237 of the 975 prisoners at Manyani attended the service, and all of the inmates received gifts such as toiletries from the ministry team. Three Nairobi churches partnered with TWR Kenya, sending representatives and donating to help make the trip possible.
The surprisingly large contingent of believers – 130 of them – was evident in the service, several playing music instruments, dancing and singing. Before their confinement, many of those on hand for the service had listened to broadcasts of Thru the Bible in the Kiswahili language, and therefore excitedly welcomed program producer Geoffrey Munialo, who was the featured preacher.
Through the preaching of the prison chaplain and the witness of church groups and fellow inmates, most of these men came to faith after being incarcerated. Others confess that they were backsliders who had committed crimes and eventually rededicated their lives to Christ.
Prisoners ask to record songs
Now the more musically inclined are composing praise songs and, inspired by the live broadcast of the service, asking TWR Kenya to help them record their work. Their hope is that the music CDs would be distributed to radio stations and sold through churches and Christian bookstores. They see the plan as a way to spread the gospel, to show the public that convicts can turn their lives around, and, perhaps, to help support their families.
The proposal is under consideration, TWR Kenya Executive Director Bernice Gatere said, though there are obvious logistical difficulties to overcome. For example, the musicians wouldn’t be allowed to travel to Voi and record at the FM station, so officials would have to permit a makeshift studio to be set up in the maximum-security prison.
First, though, Gatere hopes that prison officials will allow the inmates to listen to TWR broadcasts. Many of the officials and prison workers already listen to the programming, she said, but radio has been off-limits to the inmates. Gatere was unable to participate in the November visit, but in her speech read at the event by SIFA General Manager Pamela Omwodo, the executive director appealed for listening privileges to be granted to the inmates. If the officials agree, she added, TWR Kenya will provide a radio and loudspeaker for the dining hall and other communal places.
The ministry partners also hope to improve the conditions for the prisoners by raising funds to buy mattresses.
“One of the needs that our team established was the poor sleeping conditions of the prisoners,” Gatere reported. “They sleep on thin, 2-inch mattresses (there are no beds), and sometimes three prisoners share one mattress. Others just spread their torn blankets on the floor for a bed. Prison life on this side of the world is very rough.”
Inspired to do more
Despite the initial misgivings, Kimuyu and her fellow team members clearly found the Manyani visit to be worthwhile and uplifting. During daily devotions in the days after the trip, TWR Kenya staff members took turns sharing their reactions to the experience.
“Some are even asking that instead of retreats for staff we do more such visits,” Gatere said.