Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe that you were supposed to do a particular thing in life and without it your life won’t be complete? That’s a question that always leaves us pondering whether we are on the right track in life. You haven’t really lived if you haven’t questioned your purpose on God’s blue circle we call home.
But earth is hard, Kenya is harder and Nairobi is said to be hardest, especially when you don’t get a sound foundation and support system as a child. Your dreams and what you call purpose can be derailed to a desolate destination. You get lost in a multitude of people, your screams for help deafened by the collective despair of society.
That was life for Blackman growing up in different parts of Kibera. First Bombolulu, then 42, then Katwekera. His dad passed away when they were living at 42. He was about five years old and his brother was two. He remembers his dad vaguely, as a plumber and a polygamous man who didn’t spend much time with them. His mother remarried after sometime but the man was a villain straight out of a horror movie. He would beat the boys for any reason, if he was rained on or he didn’t like the smell of food or the cat passed in front of him, he would take it out on the boys. Whenever he came home drunk at night, he would wake the boys up and force them to take a cold bath. His mother would also be beaten but the worst was always reserved for Blackman and his brother.
When he was 8 years old, Blackman and his brother had had enough. They decided to cut loose and try their luck in the streets. They ate from dumpsites and leftovers in hotel dustbins, did odd jobs for food, begged outside supermarkets and malls, slept outside in vibandas and in gunias. They would occasionally venture out of Kibra, the furthest being Yaya.
After about 8 months in the streets, they heard about a lady who had a safehouse for street children at Makina. Some street boys had been there and they looked clean and well fed, that attracted Blackman and his brother. They went there and presented their case, together with other boys. They had to spice up their story and make it sound worse than it was. The streets had done them bad and they had to get out by all means. They were taken in. It was 2003.
Blackman was telling me his story at Lifesong Kenya’s Halfway House which he manages. He’s in charge of making the house conducive to host boys who’ll be exiting juvenile prison. Here they will be mentored, taught life skills, reconciled with their families and those they wronged and then released to rejoin society. Blackman is dark, clean shaven and looks like he’s about to break into a smile anytime. He questions things he doesn’t understand and isn’t afraid to let his opinion known.
The house is located about a kilometer from Ngong Town. It’s coming to life slowly. The grass has been cut, the weed in the garden has been flattened and drying up, chicken can be heard clucking from their mabati house and a mango tree looks like it got a new lease of life. The house itself is clean to a man’s standard, an old 3-seater sofa fills one side of the room while a full bookshelf and a bicycle placed upside-down fill the other. The empty space in between an affirmation of the house’s potential.
On that Tuesday, Blackman made us pan fried silver cyprinid with kale greens on the side served with cornmeal mush for lunch. We enjoyed the omena and ugali together with James, the charismatic founder of Lifesong.
When they moved to the children home in Makina, Blackman, his brother and the other boys were enrolled back in school. He started in class one. The school was part of the home. There was also a church in the same compound.
“How was life in the home?” I ask.
“At first it was good but when they introduced the girls, we were forgotten. We were just living and going to school. The girls took over.”
“What do you mean the girls took over?”
“They were given special treatment. Now I can see why but at that time I didn’t understand. I see how life was harder on their side and they needed special care but at that time I was a boy who thought we should be treated equally. Furthermore, we had come there earlier than them.”
When it was time for KCPE, they were taken to sit for it in another school since theirs wasn’t a registered exam center.
“I failed. Na vile kwetu nilikuwa index 1,” Blackman blurts out.
“What did you get?”
“I had expectations for myself to get above 400 but I got 367”
“That’s not failing”
“I failed according to my expectations and also the expectations people had on me.”
I had expected Blackman to say he got 200 marks when he said he failed but failure is relative to expectation. Kenya failing to qualify for Afcon cup is not failure but if a country like Germany failed to qualify to the World Cup, heads will roll, coaches and everyone in their FKF will resign and flee the country, change nationality, ashamed to ever be seen again. But in Kenya, we can be beaten 5 goals and someone in charge of football will come and tell us we don’t have talent. And life will just move on. Expectations. Ours are down there.
Another good example is a team like Arsenal, if they lose…. Okay let me not got there.
Blackman’s mother got wind of where they were and came to visit them, 5 years later. It was like a stranger who had come to say hi. There was no special attachment. She didn’t make much effort to reconnect with his sons and their young hearts didn’t know what to feel about that. The wheels of life had been turning too first for them. She was also relocating to the village around that time which further savored any hopes of restoring their relationship.
At class 5, Blackman’s brother together with other boys decided to go back to the streets.
Blackman couldn’t follow them. He wanted to learn and succeed at something. There was a push he can’t explain that kept him going despite the challenges in the home. He had also started playing drums in the church and learning to play the piano. He wanted to be a musician and also a lawyer and the latter required a lot of learning. Those two goals kept him in the home.
After primary school he didn’t receive a letter to any high school. He ended up at Mumbuni boys in Machakos. Through the support of well-wishers and other organizations Blackman was able to finish high school. The promise was that if he passed his exams well, he would be taken to any university he wanted. That motivated him to work hard.
He bursts out a sarcastic laughing after telling me that.
“Why do I sense a disappointed,” I interrupt his laugh.
“Because there is,” he replies.
He got a B- and that should have taken him to a good university. But then things started taking a turn. There was no finances nor commitment to take him to university. He was asked to find a TVET (technical college) that he could join but that felt like a downgrade and he deserved a chance to study law as he always desired.
He moved to another church, joined the ex-candidates program there, joined the youth worship team as a drummer. The home was not happy with him. He had left not only defied their plans for him but also left their church.
A friend he met in the new church was a student at Strathmore University and she encouraged Blackman to try out the scholarship opportunities there. He went to Strathmore, did the intake exam for the Law program and passed, went to the financial aid office, told them his story, which they listened keenly but he was late. They had already given out law scholarships for that year.
“What else can I do here, what else is available?” he asked the man in a coat, sitting on an important chair.
“You can do a Diploma in Business Information Technology?” he answered.
He took the scholarship which was funded 90%. In his mind he was convinced that he will do DBIT, finish it in 1 year or so and come back to register for his first love, Law.
At Strathmore, for the first two semesters, he was supported well by the home. They gave him some money for daily commute and lunch but it wasn’t enough so he had to be walking from Kibra to Madaraka. He passed his exams for the two semesters. In the third semester the fee (10%) wasn’t paid and he wasn’t able to sit for his exams. He fundraised from friends and was able to do a few exams but two remained.
Around the same time, they were informed that the home won’t be paying for the house that Blackman and other older boys who had grown up in the home were living in. They had 1 month to find new places to live. A friend offered Blackman to live with him in Satellite for the period he was still a student but then a few months later he moved out and left the house to Blackman. He came back from church on a Sunday and found only his things in the house.
With all the transitions and challenges in that season, it was difficult for Blackman to finish his diploma.
Blackman needs about 40k to go back to class for the 2 units, do the exams and graduate but he hasn’t done that for two reasons. One, he hasn’t been able to get a hold of that money and two, the course was not his first love, he wasn’t as passionate about it. He did it for the sake of being in school and being close so that he could chase that scholarship for law the following year. But now that has been overtaken by events.
“If I were to go back to school, I would probably do law,” he says emphatically.
“Why law?” I ask.
“Well, we used to watch a soap opera called Storm over Paradise when I was young. There was a character called Nicholas who was a lawyer. He used to represent the less fortunate in society. People whose land has been grabbed, gender-based violence and such. He would represent them for free and win cases. And also, from my background; being beaten by my stepfather, I think it kind of intertwined and gave me that passion.”
In the living room of the halfway house where we met is a Book shelf the size of a reading table in height. It has different titles; fictional novels, thrillers, autobiographies, self-help and others. On top of the shelf lays other books but the there are two small books with the front pages facing the room. Two versions of the constitution of Kenya.
Blackman constantly refers to them especially Chapter on the Bill of Rights which he uses to educate the boys they mentor in juvenile prison to understand their rights and responsibilities. This is part of the work he does with Lifesong Kenya.
He came to know of Lifesong Kenya in 2018 when he met James Ouma, the founder. He joined the halfway cycle to Kisumu to raise awareness and funds for the halfway house.
In 2019, Blackman was doing odd jobs to earn a living as well as playing music in different events for which he was measly appreciated. James called him, they had a talk and he joined Lifesong officially. They started going to prison for their programs and it became apparent to him that he could have ended up in juvenile had he not left the streets.
“What’s your most memorable experience in Lifesong?”
“I have two. The first is having the case of one of our boys being withdrawn. We looked for the person he had wronged and also the police officer that had arrested him. We talked with them and they agreed to come to prison and we reconciled them. The offended person agreed to drop the case and the boy went home.”
“What had the boy done?”
“He was found with a stolen phone. His case was handling stolen goods. The boy had been in remand for 4 months. The case was being handled in Kibera Law courts and the complainant stays in Baba Dogo. He wasn’t showing up for court dates. That’s what most of the boys go through in juvenile prison. They are suspects (some innocent) but they are being held for too long. The longer they are there in there the more they are exposed to actual offenders (those who were in gangs) and they become hardened and eventually they turn to criminal activity once released.”
The juvenile judicial system is a jungle of legal conundrum. Most of the boys who end up there are either in the streets or have run away from home and so family support is non existent for most of them. They rarely have lawyers and so they end up spending a long time in juvenile remand because their cases keep being postponed. For a good number of them, it was a case of petty crime, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or hanging out with the wrong people and being arrested together with them. With no legal representation they end up in juvenile prison where unfortunately most of the leave worse that they went in.
For Blackman, another significant thing that has happened to him in Lifesong Kenya is the mentorship he has received from James. He’s watched how James does things and serves others and that has shaped Blackman to want to be a better human being, person, and father when the time comes.
The halfway house that Blackman manages is step of faith for Lifesong Kenya. After doing the Halfway Cycle for the past 3 years from Nairobi to Kisumu, then Nairobi to Malindi and not raising enough for the house, they decided to rent the space they are in now. The location is just what they wanted. Not too far from a town but on a farm with enough space for keeping chicken and doing garden farming. The vision is to have the home sustainable.
For the boys, Blackman would love to see the place become a home to them not just a transitional house. During their stay, he wants them to experience love, meet God, see change in their lives that’s not forced.
“If you had 10 boys now, how would your day look like?” I ask.
“Farm work because they need to understand the value of hard work, reading because it’s a culture we want to encourage and also because in those books there’s a lot of information that can transform them; business ideas, life hacks and more. We will also have time to share about life and whatever they are going through.”
“Why do they call you blackman?”
“It’s from Isaac Blackman, the gospel reggae artist.”
In the next 10 years, Blackman sees himself having his own jazz band, performing countrywide and internationally. He sees Lifesong Kenya owning their own home for boys. He also hopes to have gone back to school for that law degree.
With legal training, helping boys with their cases, rehabilitating them at the halfway house, reconciling them to society looks like a full circle for Blackman. It looks like destiny, you can even call it God’s plan, written in the stars for a black man with a bright future.