Mr Joel Kabari Kimani's dream of becoming a successful beautician was cut short after working as a hairdresser at Shabab estate on the outskirts of Nakuru Town for two years.
He was arrested and charged with robbery with violence.
“The memories of the doors locking behind me as I was escorted by prison wardens to my new home are still fresh in my mind. This marked the end of my dream of establishing the best beauty parlour in Nakuru Town,” recalls Mr Kabari.
He was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to hang until former President Mwai Kibaki commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
He says his moments in prison were some of the worst days of his life. He felt depressed while serving in Nakuru, Naivasha and Kamiti Maximum prisons.
“Many inmates committed suicide; we were often forced to cut ropes used by inmates to hang themselves in their cells. The level of stress is high in prison,” he said.
However, he lauded the current reforms in the correctional facilities. He says inmates can now listen to the radio and engage in activities to improve their life skills.
While in prison, he used his long incarceration to study to become a catechist. This transformation touched many who received him at Ndege Ndimu Farm in Lanet, Nakuru east on Saturday.
He said riots which saw warders clash with inmates was the worst moment in his 21 years in jail.
“I thank God I survived one of the riots. I have a scar on my right hand which I suffered during the clash between inmates and warders,” he said.
The homecoming party was a double celebration as the occasion marked his mother’s 69th birthday.
“It is my happiest moment in life. My dad and elder sister died while I was in prison. I celebrate my release and crown it with my mum’s birth day,” said Mr Kabari.
He added: “I was jailed at the age of 25 and so many things have changed. My family has grown. I am seeing 24 new members and 10 of them call me grandfather,” said Mr Kabari who is the fourth born in a family of seven (six girls and a boy).
“It never crossed my mind that one day I would ever walk free and reunite with my lovely family,” said Kabari, 46.
The former hair stylist found a new meaning in life spending 21 years behind bars.
He was released on December 19, 2019 after he successfully filed a petition to be set free, thanks to alternative dispute resolution, which saw the complainant forgive him.
His wishes were granted by Nakuru High Court Judge Justice Joel Ngugi.
“I would like to sincerely thank the complainant whom I robbed for pardoning me. I regret my act and I would like to advise young people not to indulge in crime,” he said.
But how did Mr Kabari land in jail?
Mr Kabari was arrested for robbery with violence after joining a gang that raided a beer depot in Nakuru town.
“We were a gang of three and one of our accomplices was released,” says Mr Kabari.
After a two-year trial, he was sentenced to death and subsequent appeals were rejected. Mr Kabari said the magistrate delivered a fair verdict.
“It’s true I committed the crime together with my two colleagues. I thank God that I survived 21 years in prison. I am now free and ready to serve the society as I have acquired skills in upholstery,” he told Nation.
However, he has appealed to well-wishers to help him acquire tools to enable him make good use of skills which he acquired while in prison.
“What I need is not sympathy but financial support to enable me buy tools to begin a new life,” he said.
Mr Kabari said he was lured into the world of crime by peer pressure and greed.
“Young people are under intense pressure to maintain flashy lifestyles which they cannot sustain with meagre income,” he said.
Mr Kabari says when he turned to armed robbery, all that mattered was how to get rich quickly, brag to his friends and go on drinking sprees.
At the age of 25, the law finally caught up with him.
“I left prison at 46 and my biggest regret is that I wasted my youthful years and lost an opportunity to establish my business as a hairdresser,” he said.
“While in prison, my dream was to come home and see my elder sister and dad alive and start a family,” he said.
Mr Kabari says he is not in a hurry to marry.
“Marriage is not on the top of my wish list at the moment,” he said.
He admitted that the love and forgiveness he received from his relatives, the community at Ndege Ndimu, Father Paul Miring’uh, Father John Joe Garvey and sister Cecilia Wangare moments after his release from prison has baffled him.
His sister Ruth Kabura said: “Everybody makes mistakes, we forgive him. He will remain our only loving brother and we shall give him maximum support to help him start life afresh. We thank God he has left prison in good health.”
“His mother Hannah Njeri Kimani said: “I have cried for 21 years but today the tears have been wiped as my only son is back home. I thank God for his mercy.”
Sister Wangare said: “I urged the community at Ndege Ndimu to accept Mr Kabari and be patient with him.”
Father Miring’uh said: “I urge the Ndege Ndimu community to accept Mr Kabari and help him become a resourceful member of the society.”
Kenya Prisons Superintendent George Odera described Mr Kabari as a reformed person.
Looking back, Mr Kabari says prison was a turning point in his life.
“Life in prison is not for the fainthearted, I saw many inmates commit suicide, kill each other for simple items like soap and tissue papers that many people take for granted,” he said.
“Prison is not the best place to stay in, but it has taught me and brought me closer to God. It is one of the most powerful training grounds for success you could imagine.”
He said the most rewarding change was embracing Christianity. He took catechism lessons for one year and he is now a qualified catechist.
“I want to help people overcome challenges in their lives. If I was able to overcome all the challenges while behind bars for 21 years, I can show people how to overcome theirs through preaching the word of God,” said Mr Kabari, a staunch Catholic.