What comes to your mind when you see people running in the morning or evening? Fitness probably, weight loss most likely, you almost feel the struggle they go through. You even pity them sometimes, especially the ones who don’t seem to keep up. It’s like they are struggling to reach somewhere we are all convinced they will not reach.
One such runner is James Ouma aka Jim Buttons, a quiet runner but otherwise quite a talkative gentleman. Nothing from his outside can prepare you for his story. He can pass for any other wannabe marathoner or someone running under a doctor’s prescription. But his is a run for the boys, the ones in the streets, the ones in approved schools and in prisons; the ones we are coming to realize we have left behind while empowering the girl.
I had talked to James a few times before, but his story is not one that can be written after just one meeting and so I decided to run with him. As we ran he pointed to a house. ‘One of the boys I mentored in prison lived there, he was a thief, and he had made a master key for all the houses in the block where he stayed with his family. I could not be able to help him because he refused to follow the steps I had set out for his reformation.’
We chatted as we ran, my curiosity rising as James told me how he came to work with boys and about Lifesong Kenya, an organization he started.
James used to work as a children’s TV producer at KBC, which meant going to schools to record the shows. The teachers in the schools would ask him to speak more to boys and get their stories. He would end up spending more time talking about life issues with them more than he did preparing for the weekly shoots.
‘I began posting on Facebook that I am so concerned about boys,’ he says. This caught the attention of one lady at KBC and one time as they picked her at Industrial Area Prison, she asked James ‘Do you know that there are boys in prison and they would benefit from your passion for boys?’ James was unaware of this. These are boys under 18 years who have committed crime and sentenced to juvenile prison there. She told him that he should go there and was kind enough to give him the prison commandant’s contact.
‘I called the commandant, she gave me her email and I wrote her. She realized it was something I wanted to do, talk to boys’, James adds.
So one Friday morning in July 2012, James and his friend took a taxi from Nairobi CBD to Industrial Area Prison, his maiden visit and a birth of something that would change his life. The prison commandant expected excuses; that James needed money, resources or more time to prepare. As a producer, James knew that this was not going to be a TV program because he could not show the faces of those boys and was keen on not rendering them as another statistic on TV.
They agreed he would start the following Friday. James was introduced to the lady officer in charge who asked about his background and experience with handling juvenile prison. ‘Academically I have no background, even as a TV producer, but for boys……..I was once a boy and I identify with most of their challenges,’ James answered.
‘You….you won’t last long,’ the lady announced.
‘I am depending on God to help me because I have seen Him help me before,’ James boldly declared to the officer.
The following Friday, on his off day, James went to the prison to meet the boys. He took with him an orange, a tomato, a boiled egg, an apple and a banana. James did not prepare as such for the boys; he did not even know where to start. He was just going to spend time with them. James had one volunteer, a young lady who accompanied him on his first visit. When they arrived, James asked the officer for pens and pencils, which he had failed to buy due to limited resources. The officer was shocked at his unpreparedness and told him again that he will not last.
How do you begin a conversation with boys in prison? How do you know what they will respond to? How do you reach out to them and make them open up? For James, the answer was music.
Yes, music. James simply asked the boys what music they listened to and that set the ball rolling. ‘Nothing To Smile About’ by Morgan Heritage was a dominant answer he got from them.
Imagine waking up to that song, having no breakfast with that song in mind, going to school and being sent back home for school fees and having that same song continuously play in your mind.
‘Start changing the songs you listen to because life is a song, when you wake up in the morning you decide which songs you want to sing today. You can sing a sad song, regretting about yesterday and you will not go anywhere, because you will just be remembering your problems. In fact you will discover more regrets!’ James reasoned with them.
He showed them the fruits, telling them the difference is that they are alive and can make decisions unlike a banana or an orange that has no ability to change itself.
‘You can use your time here within these prison walls to become a better person; you have silence here to help you think of the right things and the right attitude to start developing while here. Whatever labels each one of you came with here is not who you really are. You were created by a God who has placed precious gifts inside you. Use them to find your own life song.’
From then on James had different sessions with the boys every Friday for about 2 years, inspiring them to be their better selves, tracing their families and preparing them for life after prison.
Most of us have donated something for girls; sanitary pads, panties and more but we rarely hear of donation appeals for boys. James started one, he asked for boxers, underwear, soap, shaving machines and other stuff and he couldn’t get any. This was not his only challenge; it was becoming difficult raising bus fare to prison since he had left his job as a TV producer.
Before you judge James for leaving a stable job to pursue his passion, listen to his words ‘My supervisor knew that I was working with boys on Fridays, she was ok with me doing that on my off day but she was clear that she didn’t think I was the answer to problems caused by men.’
It was typical raw discouragement which you might be familiar with and James did not understand where it came from; he had no answer for her. You know when you are doing something you know you should do but you cannot explain why you do it; that was James in front of his supervisor. She thought James was being paid for the prison work and she gave him a choice between prison and TV.
James chose freedom in prison rather than bondage in a stable career that did not fulfil his purpose.
To earn a living, James had hoped that a reading club he had proposed at a church in the then NPC Buruburu Academy would take off. Parents were to pay for their children, the reading club would expand and he would balance that with prison work and life would be great.
Great it was, in terms of impacting boys but the reading club failed. At this point James could not raise bus fare to prison, was living with one friend then another and it made him wonder whether it was worth the struggle. The true test had just begun.
At the height of all this drama, James had begun going to Dagoretti Girls Rehabilitation Centre after visiting there once with a church group. He was soon spearheading the group and then he began requesting for donations for girls stuff. You guessed right, people gave, without a reminder or coercion, a testimony of how our society expects boys to just man up and move on.
Things got tougher, going to prison now meant walking and James faced other challenges which made him decide to take a break. He continued doing programs at Dagoretti Girls Rehab and Five Star Academy in Kangemi since they were nearer.
A partnership sounded really good for James and Lifesong Kenya at this point when they were at their lowest of lows. He met someone who liked what Lifesong was doing, had the right connections and knew how to get funding. He even funded a pilot bakery project at Dagoretti Girls Rehab but what James was unaware of was that his ultimate intention was to buy Lifesong; taking advantage of James’ then crippled organization.
But how do you price your passion? How do you put a price on something you are willing do to for free? How do you put a price on your purpose? For James the answer was keeping Lifesong.
‘I had to take a break in August 2015 to prepare for marriage,’ James continues. Getting married was a blessing to James, especially to a partner who understands his work and keeps encouraging him. He would need his wife’s encouragement for the next lows he was to face.
Dagoretti Girls Rehab didn’t want him back; they thought he ‘ate’ the money for the bakery project from the sponsors. He explained to the girls that the guy who funded the project quit but he could not get audience with the rehab’s director to plan future programs.
‘Why are things not working? I have had a plan of earning from my gifts and talents so that I can give back and now things are not working?’ James questioned with frustration. He wanted to give up everything and focus on writing, a new thing he had taken up to earn some money.
Around this time, he met a street boy, helped the boy by tracing his family and got him back to school but the frustration still loomed.
‘I have realized that I need to take a break, think about what I want to do with Lifesong, I also want to run to raise funds towards going back to prison next year,’ James told his wife after helping the boy.
That is how he started running. So far he has done Shompole Wildlife Marathon, Lukenya Trails Marathon, Wild Run by China House, Parklands Baptist Run and Kericho Triathlon and Duathlon Series.
He practises often, 3 times a week doing a total of 50-60km. On that Jamhuri Day morning before I met him for the run, he had already done 10km. James is a moderate steady runner, not too fast and not too slow, he maintains a tempo that is characteristic of long distance runners, his resilience and endurance a testimony of his character. I was comfortable with his pace at first but after a while we had to walk.
‘The biggest thing that is working for me now is my wife’s support. She tells me that she knows I cannot survive without working with boys, and she met me while I was working with boys. She is really enthusiastic about me resuming my work with boys in juvenile prison,’ James tells me as we run back.
I have heard James being called ‘Jim Buttons’ and I was curious to know how that name came about.
‘I once appealed for clothes and got some’ he tells me. ‘But most of the shirts were for adults and were in bad condition, so instead of throwing them away, I decided to remove the buttons and keep them.’
In December 2014 James joined a group for a mission to Baragoi. James took his sewing thread, needles and buttons with him and sewed them on the local kids’ shirts. After the mission as they came back to Nairobi, one of the ladies christened him ‘Jim Buttons’. He has been sewing ever since.
‘These buttons are the ones that have sustained Lifesong and the vision behind my work,’ he adds. ‘Buttons are my resources, and I still get buttons from the US up to now.’
So how does he start? How does he get kids to sew buttons on? ‘What normally happens is that I go to a school and simply tell them what I do. I would talk to class 8 pupils and later am given a group of students to sew buttons on their shirts. I do that on my birthdays too and whenever my wife and I embark on a short holiday. So far I have done this to hundreds of children in schools.’
Does James want to go back to TV producing? Yes, but only if he can still run Lifesong on his off days or as an independent producer.
A few days after our run I saw this quote by Greg Anderson in a matatu ‘Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.’ This is especially true of passion; focusing on the journey and not the destination.
This is why we need to take James back to prison. He still needs to serve his time there, with the boys.
He needs our encouragement, with our words and prayers mostly but also with our finances. He needs resources to facilitate his sessions with the boys, he needs to trace the families of these boys, he needs to train them to fit back into society, he needs underwear for boys, shoes, soap and fruits to give the boys, he needs those of us who can’t go to send him, he needs us.
James has a dream, to have a centre that boys can go to after their time in prison or approved school to be mentored further, given skills, reconciled with their families and the people they have wronged through crime before being released back to society.
It is about boys having a life song that is positive, that sets a good example, that can be admired and that can be sung by others.
Please find out more information about Lifesong on there website http://www.lifesongkenya.org/. James plans to do full time juvenile prison work in 2017 and hopes to restore 100 boys back to society. He also plans to run more, take part in a major world marathon event e.g. Chicago or New York, learn open water swimming and compete in a full triathlon. James records his experiences on his blog https://jamesoumawrites.wordpress.com/.