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Swiss priest’s unique passion for in-prison ministry

Sunday December 1 2019

prison ministry

In this undated photo, Fr Peter Meienberg conducts a service at Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison at Industrial Area, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

ELVIS ONDIEKI
By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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One of the photos in Fr Peter Meienberg’s album shows a broken prison wall.

A mason stands below the gape, staring at it as police officers surround him.

Without a description, the photo hints at a jaw-dropping story. With the right context, it captures the story of how the Swiss-born priest began the transformation of Lang’ata Women’s Prison.

On the day the photo was taken, the cleric had been allowed to construct windows on the women’s cell, to let in more light and ensure more comfort for the inmates at the facility that was built during the colonial era. The mason and police officers were there to ensure all went to plan.

The renovated windows are just one of the many charitable things the priest has done for prisoners in Kenya since he first arrived in the country in 1972.

Through an organisation he started 20 years ago, Meienberg has distributed mattresses and beds to various prisons in Kenya, supplied sewing machines and other items for inmates to perfect various crafts, introduced modelling competitions and talent shows in prisons, constructed a day care at the Lang’ata prison, offered scholarships and capital to ex-prisoners, among other acts of benevolence.

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"A prison is not a hotel," I was told at that time. "But neither is it an inferno," I said to myself, writes Meienbeig in his 378-page book Africa — My Destiny: 50 Years of Service in East Africa. He turned 90 last Wednesday

In this undated photo, officials in charge of
In this undated photo, officials in charge of Lang’ata Women’s Prison thank Fr Peter Meienberg for helping to improve the welfare of the prisoners by donating beds and mattresses. PHOTO | COURTESY

REDEEMED STUDENT

Besides prisoners, Catholic faithful across Kenya have a reason to cheer the priest as he celebrates nine decades on earth.

It is because of the popular hymn book Tumshangilie Bwana, first published in 1977, that is his brainchild.

“For years, we had been trying to promote African compositions in Kenya. As an official adviser to the Bishop [of Eldoret], I soon made the proposal to draft a new, contemporary prayer book,” Meienberg once wrote in a letter reproduced in his book.

“This idea was immediately accepted and I was appointed chairman of a committee of four … The result was a 600-page national prayer and hymn book in Swahili issued by the Kenya Episcopal Conference.”

Others who will be happy for Meienberg are ex-prisoners Bernard Ouma Omondi and Eliza Beatrice Wairimu.

Ouma made headlines in 2003 as a University of Nairobi (UoN) student when he was arrested for helping robbers hide as many as eight guns in his room at Mamlaka hostel.

He had been collaborating with a group of gangsters that reigned terror in Nairobi.

The gang had two rifles and six pistols in its UoN-based arsenal before it split up and soon registered on police radar.

ANTI-CRIME CRUSADER

When Ouma left Kamiti Maximum Prison in 2009, he pleaded with UoN to readmit him, saying he was reformed.

His request was granted by the university’s disciplinary committee on condition that he never lives in the campus hostels.

“That was still fine because my aim was to be done with campus and at least get my certificate,” Ouma, 41, told Lifestyle.

Meienberg’s organisation helped Ouma pay rent and also gave him a computer to facilitate his studies.

That saw him continue with his undergraduate studies in biosystems engineering, which he finished in 2014.

He now works at an engineering firm and is a crusader against crime. “Prison life is pathetic. I wouldn’t want to imagine any young man following my footsteps then finding himself in prison,” said Ouma.

Wairimu killed a man with whom she was cohabiting in Nairobi’s Umoja Estate.

Before the tragic 2008 incident, she had been expelled from Karima Girls High School in Form Two, and out of her adolescence-powered rebellion, she thought running away from home in Nyandarua County and into the arms of that man was the best move.

In this undated photo, prisoners at Lang’ata
In this undated photo, prisoners at Lang’ata Women’s Prison take part in a modelling competition initiated by Fr Peter Meienberg. PHOTO | COURTESY

MURDER CHARGE

She was barely 17 when she started cohabiting with the man, an actuarial science graduate who was then living in Embu and working as a banker.

They later moved to Umoja as she drew closer to her first delivery.

One day, a quarrel arose after the man demanded food on returning from a night out. He had left her feeling unwell and they argued over that.

In the ensuing fight, she fatally stabbed him and he died in hospital while she was under arrest.

She was charged with murder in May 2009 and remanded at Lang’ata Women’s Prison. She gave birth to her son three weeks into her stay in remand.

As per the prison’s traditions, she was placed at a secluded place until the baby was three months old, after which she joined the other detainees.

At the end of the trial, she was let go on grounds that there was no malice in the killing. With that, she returned home.

By then, her son had been taken back to her parents in Nyandarua. The parents had taken him when he was 13 months old after a change in prison regulations barred mothers from buying supplementary meals from the canteen.

Back home, Wairimu was keen on continuing with her education and her parents secured her a place at Nyakiambi Girls’ Secondary after a long search.

SCHOOL FEES PAID

There was an uphill task with the payment of her fees because her elderly parents had spent a large sum of money hiring a lawyer to defend her in court.

She then recalled the organisation that had been offering them assistance at various levels while in remand — Meieberg’s Faraja Foundation.

She approached them and they agreed to fund her school fees. At the school, she faced a great deal of stigma because one teacher had told students her story before she joined.

“I could find water poured on my bed,” she said. “Then at one time, all my books were torn. There were times I could get stinging nettles in my clothes. It was a hard time.”

Given all those challenges, Wairimu, who had scored 406 marks out of 500 in KCPE of 2005, managed a B (plain) in the KCSE of 2013.

She is currently enrolled as an education student at Kenyatta University under distance learning.

She is balancing her studies and wifely duties as she has been married since 2015.

“I always look at my son who is just a replica of him (ex-husband) and he reminds me of the dad, which is so sad because he is nowhere,” she said.

“Sometimes it is so painful. He had been so good to me: accommodating me, and just being there for me. I at times feel like that he did not have to die this prematurely.”

In this undated photo, prisoners at Lang’ata
In this undated photo, prisoners at Lang’ata Women’s Prison learn sewing using machines donated by Fr Peter Meienberg. PHOTO | COURTESY

Stories like Wairimu’s and Ouma’s are among the narratives Meienberg has been hearing since he started interacting with prisoners.

THE GENESIS

His initial contact with prisons was out of his desire to reach out to refugees from the volatile central African countries, who had been arrested when they landed in Kenya in search of safe havens.

He wanted to help secure their freedom and then resettle them.

“Since the ’90s, I heard time and again that refugees from Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo (DRC) were caught by police and thrown into prison,” Meienberg writes in his book.

“In 1999, during visits to the women’s prison and the remand prison for men, I realised for the first time how miserably these prisoners were treated, religiously neglected and lacking spiritual nourishment for long periods.”

That saw him apply to the Commissioner of Prisons be a chaplain, a request that was granted.

His maiden chaplain duties were at the Lang’ata Women’s Prison, where he celebrated Mass with inmates.

The following year, he was asked to extend his services to the Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison at Industrial Area, a facility for male detainees.

That was the beginning of his journey of seeking to improve Kenya's prisons and to offer moral and material support to those who had left jail, as well as offer legal support to those fighting their cases.

REAL ESTATE

In a May 19, 2006 letter from then-Vice-President Moody Awori, he was granted permission to offer legal advice to inmates at Langa’ata Women’s Prison.

He wound up his letter by appreciating Meienberg: “I thank you for the humanitarian services you are rendering to the inmates. May you be blessed.”

For services that needed cash commitments, the priest drew a substantial portion of his finances from real estate.

It began with a house he had built on Zanzibar Road in Nairobi’s South B in 2000, after demolishing the first one owned by an Indian family.

The initial intention of the building was to give shelter to young refugee women. “After three years in this home, they were able to find their own way. Most of them are now scattered all over the world in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand,” he writes.

The three-storey house in South B today houses the offices of the foundation and the rest of the rooms are rented out, with the rental income being used to fund the organisation’s activities.

Meienberg would later get the assistance of his brother to buy land in Isinya and 24 luxury apartments in Nairobi’s Westlands.

Earnings from the properties alongside donor contributions have been helping run the foundation.

SANITATION IMPROVED

As per the organisation’s latest strategic plan, Faraja has improved more than 10 correctional centres in such ways as renovating kitchens, constructing counselling rooms and erecting rehabilitation centres.

The report says Faraja has helped more than 250 inmates reintegrate with their societies.

In a phone interview from Switzerland, where he had gone for treatment after fracturing his hip joint in August, Meienberg said he was “very humbled” to have stayed in Africa for 58 years.

He has been to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo, among other countries, serving as a Benedictine missionary under a monastery that is headquartered in Switzerland.

“Kenyans are very welcoming. They usually cooperate with people from Switzerland so long as we respect their culture and their way of life,” he said.

He flashed back to the moment he decided to work with prisoners. “When I came to the remand prison in Lang’ata, all I was allowed to do is celebrate Mass, to preach and to go back home without any way of talking and getting to know the women who were in there,” he said.

“It was a terrible environment and nobody cared about their health, education, about anything. The women spent most of their time on their dirty mattresses in the remand prison. That, we changed totally. We gave out some beds, benches, education, TVs and newspapers,” added the priest.

FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

David Bett, the chairman of the foundation, described Meienberg as a man with a big heart.

“He has quite some huge empathy on those in correctional institutions in Kenya and also persons who are going through difficult circumstances..,” he said.

“I would say that it’s in him as a person, not necessarily because he is a priest. I think he would still do the same thing even if he was not a priest,” added Bett.

At the moment, the leadership of the organisation, steered by CEO Jane Kuria, seeks to wean it off dependence on foreign donors and missionaries.

“What we have realised now is that we need to get support from our own, because depending on donor funds is not very sustainable,” she said, adding that the organisation is planning a fundraiser with a Sh50 million target.

“We have so many youth and children that need to be helped to go back to school, to do businesses in Kenya legally. And we want Kenyans to come out and support their own,” she said.

Kuria also asked the government to rethink its issuance of the certificate of good conduct to reformed prisoners because they are left in a situation where they cannot be cleared to get some jobs, which might see them relapse into crime in the long run.

As for Meienberg, who was struggling with lack of sleep and a deteriorating sense of hearing when we interviewed him, it is all contentment — 20 years since he started the foundation. “I feel very grateful to the Lord,” he said. “All in all, I am happy.”

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