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What freedom looks like after spending 19 years behind bars

Sunday September 8 2019

PRISON LIFE

Prisons Welfare Officer Kiarie Mwangi (centre) and former convicts Tedium Rodgers (left) and Swaib Swaleh take a photo together after an interview at Nation Centre in Nairobi on August 29, 2019. The two said they are rehabilitated. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

CELLESTINE OLILO
By CELLESTINE OLILO
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At the age of 24, Tedium Rodgers was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He was arrested on July 4, 2000 after a break-in at a residential apartment on Thika Road

Now 43 years old, Rodgers is coming home after spending 19 years — nearly his entire adult life — behind bars.

While in prison, Teddy lost his budding football career, his wife, father and two sisters — he was not allowed to attend their burials.

His co-accused was released at the second appeal after spending seven years behind bars, but the judge hearing the appeal confirmed Tedium’s life sentence. His third appeal was also dismissed.

Tedium’s ‘rebirth’ came on August 16 when a Kiambu judge ordered that he be released on grounds that having been a first offender, he was remorseful, had publicly accepted his charge as illustrated in a story that ran in Daily Nation on June 4 last year; and more importantly, the 19 years he had served were commensurate to the crime he had committed.

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MOTHER'S LOVE

Tedium was incarcerated at Kamiti Maximum Prison for the better part of his sentence, but he had two short stints at Naivasha Maximum Prison, a facility he hated deeply for its unfamiliar location and tight security.

At Kamiti, his mother could visit whenever she wanted, and this she did religiously despite the long sentence.

“My mother never stopped coming to see me. From the day I was arrested, she came to the police station and confirmed that I was still alive because she had been told I had been attacked by a mob.”

“During the trial period between 2000 and 2003, she visited me in remand every week, sometimes twice a week to bring me food and other essentials. Even when I was sentenced to life imprisonment and some of my friends and family members forgot about me, she never stopped visiting.”

“It was good to have someone who cared about me during that period, but it pained me to see her suffer when I could do nothing about it.

"Sometimes when she came to Kamiti, I could see in her eyes that she was troubled even though she kept saying she was fine; only for me to find out that my father, wife and two sisters died one after the other almost immediately after I was sentenced,” he said.

BURGLARY

Tedium is among the pioneers of Mathare United Football Club as we know it today.

He was Victor Wanyama’s teammate at JMJ academy before he switched to Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), a sports-development aid organisation in Mathare slums.

Tedium’s talent saw him rise through the ranks at MYSA, and in 2000 his team won the Moi Golden Cup and earned automatic promotion to the Kenyan Premier League.

A few months later, a string of bad decisions derailed his promising career, cost him millions of shillings in potential earnings, and eventually landed him in prison.

He never got to feature for Mathare United in the Kenya Premier League.

Court records indicate that on July 4, 2000, at Kiambu township, while armed with crude weapons - knives and machetes - Teddy and his co-accused jointly robbed their accuser of his Panasonic TV valued at Sh27,000 and one blanket valued at Sh500; and that they threatened to use actual violence on the complainant.

Tedium, popularly known as Teddy, and his accomplice apparently had a spare key to the house.

DREAM DASHED

They broke in not knowing that the owner was asleep in the bedroom. “On July 4, 2000, Mburu was locked by his wife in the bedroom. At around 9am, he heard a commotion in the sitting-room. He went there and found two men in the sitting room removing the TV set, which had been tied in a blanket and put inside a Manilla bag.

"When the accuser raised alarm, Teddy’s accomplice attacked him with a machete on the head and inflicted a deep and long cut-wound on his head. Mburu however shouted the two men out of his house and started to chase them while shouting 'thief, thief!'

"He however could not continue with the chase because he was bleeding profusely. An angry mob finished the job for him.

Mburu survived to tell the story and after a straightforward trial that lasted one and a half years, Teddy and his accomplice were found guilty of robbery with violence and condemned to death.

This ended Teddy’s hope of ever playing professional football.

REHABILITATED

Were it not for former President Mwai Kibaki’s decree on August 2009 that commuted the death sentences of more than 4,000 prisoners, Teddy would have been hanged that year.

“I had an injury at that time, so I wasn’t playing football. But with a new wife and a young child, life was tough. My mother was also depending on me as I was recovering from the knee injury,” Teddy said.

The child that Teddy talks about is Paul Leneni, now a 24-year-old who is himself a father of one.

Like Teddy’s mother, Paul has made countless trips to Kamiti to see and bond with his father.

He was among the 12 people who were present in the courtroom when Teddy was set free, and later drove his father out of the gates of prison, something he had prayed for all his life.

Tedium told Sunday Nation that prison made him a different person. After a few years behind bars, he converted to Islam and acquired the name “Jamal”.

During the hearing ahead of the resentencing, Tedium told the judge that he deeply regretted the crimes he committed about two decades ago, and, if released, he hoped to work as a car interior decorator or as a carpenter while living with his mother or his girlfriend, whom he had met and fell in love with while still in prison.

RRI OPERATION

Teddy’s story is almost similar to that of Swaib Swaleh, who also confessed to robbery with violence while under the influence. He was only 17 at the time of the crime.

He was released alongside his co-accused on June 7 after 17 years behind bars, although the two are still on probation and have to report regularly to Thika police station.

On the day of his “rebirth”, Swaib’s mother was the first to jump on her feet after the judge pronounced his son a free man.

Being a Friday, Swaib was unable to get all the paperwork done to have him leave Kamiti that day, and he was forced to wait until Monday.

“Those were the longest two days of my life in prison, but I was allowed to wear civilian clothes during that weekend. After I left court with the release order from the judge, I couldn’t put on that uniform and be reminded of the things I’ve been through while inside. Prison is not a good place,” he said.

“My worst memory was in 2010 during an operation known as RRI. A group of about 2,000 prison warders stormed our sleeping quarters and started going through our belongings forcefully. It was terrifying. I had been in prison for eight years but on that day I was convinced that I would not make it out alive. Yet here I am. I serve a powerful God,” he said.

STIGMA

Outside the courtroom, on the days the duo was released, friends and family wept with joy, embracing each other and offering prayers of thanksgiving.

They are now middle-aged men re-entering a world that has changed dramatically since they were aged 17 and 24, respectively.

Swaib and Teddy are ready to re-join the community, but they face excruciating challenges in their quest to turn over a new leaf.

Swaib is yet to get a national identification card almost two months since he applied for one as authorities keep telling him that he must be vetted by the Antiterrorism Police Unit “because of his names”.

And like Teddy, getting a Certificate of Good Conduct, which is necessary when looking for employment, has proven difficult.

“Since I came out, I have met many ex-convicts who were released before me, and all of them do not have the required documents, especially the certificate of good conduct, meaning that they don’t have steady jobs. I think the government should look into that so as to make the transition smoother for us,” Swaib said.

HOPE

Of all the things he regretted while in prison, Swaib hated to see his mother suffer, and to have thrown away his youth.

“Before I was arrested, I never thought of working hard and earning a living the right way. But when you (NMG crew) visited us in prison, I started thinking: These people are here on assignment, and will earn a salary at the end of the month. What about me? My whole life is ruined because I tried to steal a phone worth Sh2,000?

“I hated that my mother had to consider me in her budget. She had to bring me essentials like soap and toothpaste while I was in prison. You can lose everything, but not hope. There is always a reason for everything that happens. That is what I have come to learn,” says Swaib.

“I was really, really tired of life as a prisoner, yet my chances of coming out were very slim. I had had three appeals dismissed, and had lost all hope even as I made this latest appeal for resentencing.

"I just let my lawyer do all the work. Now that I am here, I want to give meaning to the time I lost. I want to help footballers avoid crime and reach their full potential. I don’t know how to go about it, but I am determined to do that, and to give my grandson the parental love that my son never got to have. And if I am blessed with one more child, I will be happy,” Teddy said.

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