, NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 18 – Having watched Prison Break, Orange is the New Black and Oz before that, the last thing I expected to find on a visit to the Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison in Industrial Area is a prisoner wielding a stick at an officer.
But given the white paint lining his eyebrows, moustache and jaw line, the faux paunch and the shorts, it’s difficult to tell that Johnstone Musyoka is a warder.
And if you haven’t put it together already, Musyoka aka Mr Fundi, is in the Zangalewa troupe get-up and if that weren’t strange enough, he’s comically shaking his enhanced bottom alongside and in front of men in whose hearts he should stereo typically inspire fear not laughter.
“I know quite a few people would find what I do demeaning, a few of my colleagues certainly do, but I’ve come to learn that the carrot and not the stick earns you respect,” he explains.
But as I sit watching Musyoka and his troupe of prisoners perform, a warder who’s taken the seat next to me goes, “wow.”
“They’re not all bad,” a Corporal Kipkorir had told me earlier as Musyoka and the five inmates who make up Kanga Africa gyrated to the tune of Tuache Uhalifu (let’s say no to crime) – one of the song’s they’ve recorded, produced and packaged into a DVD.
There used to be seven prisoners in Kanga Africa but two of them were convicted for murder and transferred to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison to serve out their life sentences.
“You see that Dedan Kimathi mural,” Kipkorir asks as he points to one of the blocks, “it was done by an inmate now serving a life sentence in Kamiti.”
This reverence for their captives’ talent, as I said before, is the last thing I expected when walked through the prison gates.
A warder bringing down a truncheon on an inmate’s head, after years of R-rated television, I would have found less strange.
Instead as Musyoka performs I see him stop dancing twice to shake the hands of his cheering fans – the group of about a thousand prisoners who’ve gathered in the yard to see him and Kanga Africa perform as part of a pre-Christmas treat.
“When we first started in April I told my boss I needed time to rehearse with the guys and he allowed it,” Musyoka says almost incredulously after.
“You see that hall,” Kipkorir had told me, “that’s theirs.”
Dancing and singing is not the kind of kind of activity you imagine prisoners and their wardens to be engaged in behind bars but the Senior Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Wanini Kireri can’t seem to get enough.
“I also want an encore performance,” she tells the prisoners who are now chanting Batata – the stage name of their fellow inmate.
“But let’s get on with the programme and after we cut the cake he can come up again,” she continues to say.
Later she leads members of the Ambassadors of Christ church and the inmates in the Mugithi (dancing train).
“Music and dancing are good for the soul. It keeps our inmates from wallowing in self-pity. It’s not enough to just train them in carpentry either; the world is changing and our youth population growing,” she explains.
And it turns out that it’s not just in Industrial Area where inmate and guard share cordial relations as it was a Pastor Gitonga, a prisons’ officer, and group of Kamiti Maximum Security Prisoners sing the Mugithi.
Throughout the procession Ronald Wateba wears a grin on his face as he clowns around with Musyoka in his Zangalewa costume.
He’s part of Kanga Africa and if you consider his circumstances you might find his grin as inexplicable as the arm Musyoka allows him to drape over him.
“I’ve been in remand for three years but I’m hopeful I’ll get a hearing in February. I was framed for killing my ex-girlfriend after she attacked my pregnant wife,” he says all the while grinning.
The death penalty hanging over his head, Wateba says music and dance are what keep his wits about him.
“It’s not easy being confined as a grown man,” the 26-year old admits.
“But it’s not hell,” Musyoka is quick to add, “you can get through it and emerge better. I’m better for working here.”
The latter part of the statement saves the Political Science graduate from sounding trite.
“I hate it when people say I started singing at four years old, who wasn’t?” he poses, “It wasn’t until I got here that I got to explore this side of me.”
And while it doesn’t change the reality of what his facing, Wateba testifies that his time behind bars is better for the music and dance.
“I was a performer before I got locked up and I’ve gotten better while in here but I’ll be the first to admit it’s not the picture I had in mind when I thought of prison.”
“Sisi ni ma celeb (we’re celebrities),” Corporal Bob Tete had told me before we were behind the prison walls.
“I can’t walk down the street in town and not have a matatu driver honk at me. Even Raila and Mutunga were in here. Mandela’s the only one who’s never been.”
And while at the time I found Tete’s humour hard to swallow, watching the inmates move to Musyoka’s tunes, I have to admit, it’s plausible.