Like other little girls, Cyprine Omollo grew up hearing that it was important for a woman to remain strong at all times and that it was a woman’s duty to hold everything together when things were falling apart. So when her things started going wrong in her life, she sought to fix them all by herself, like a real woman.
“Things started going wrong in 2009, when my husband was diagnosed with a heart condition. We had only been married for a few months,” she starts.
When her daughter was born the following year, Cyprine took it in her stride. She had no idea that her life was about to turn up-side down. As an animal technician working at a regional livestock research institute, she earned a decent salary and was able to take on the bills without a problem. However, in a few months, her husband’s health deteriorated, leading to two heart surgeries which drained Cyprine’s accounts.
“I started borrowing money to foot the bills, and with just one source of income, the debts started piling up. By mid-2011, I was knee-deep in debt,” she recalls.
At this point, she was looking for any way to make money.
Her desperation made her an easy target for a grifter (con artist). The grifter, a middle-aged woman, came into her life under the guise of friendship.
“I liked her. I loved the fact that unlike me, she seemed to have her act together. Since I had a background in animal production, she proposed a business deal to buy and resell beef cattle. The deal was good that I looked for a third party, a man who like me, invested Sh300, 000 in the business.”
As soon as she got the money, Cyprine’s ‘friend’ changed her number and moved houses. Reality hit Cyprine hard. In addition to the household bills and her husband’s medical expenses, Cyprine had lost Sh300, 000 and now owed a similar amount on top of the previous pile of debt. All this time, neither her husband nor the rest of the family knew that she was in trouble.
“I didn’t want to look like a failure, so I kept it to myself. I kept thinking that if I looked hard enough, I would find a way out.”
After a lot of back and forth with the man she owed and threats from police officers, Cyprine was arrested in September 2012. This was when her husband and the rest of her family discovered that she was in trouble. The gravity of her problems unnerved them.
“I was remanded for 21 days. By the time my bail was paid, I had lost my job,” she says.
BACK BEHIND BARS
Now she had a sick husband to look after, a child and no job. Then, as fate would have it, just four months after her arrest, her husband passed on and she lost all her furniture and household items and even some of her clothes to her in-laws.
“It was devastating. With the court case still ongoing, I was too unsettled to even look for a job,” she recalls.
She was thrown back in remand at the Langata Women’s Prison in 2014 when the relative who had placed a bond for her withdrew it. This time, she was in for six long months, filled with empty days and lonely nights which she spent perched atop a bucket reading anything that she could find.
“While in remand, I noticed something very disturbing: over half the women were in for crimes of survival – petty theft, brewing illicit liquor … their quest for survival got them on the wrong side of the law,” she says.
The other thing that stayed with her was how easy it was even for those without criminal minds to get converted. One either left remand reformed or as a worse criminal.
Other than journaling and composing songs, there was nothing much she could do to change things from in there.
When she eventually got out, having lost all the comforts of her earlier life, Cyprine came out of prison determined to make a clean start for herself and other women like her, but this proved much harder than she had imagined. The agricultural projects she hoped to implement were too costly and no organisation wanted to help.
FINDING A PARTNER
“That was until I met Theresa Njoroge, who heads Support Me in My Shoes, a foundation for ex-convicts and those in prison. I loved her idea to start an organisation that would impart women in prison with useful skills and help those coming out of prison to re-integrate back to society,” she says.
For a year now Cyprine has been the agricultural programmes officer at Clean Start Solutions. While her family has been very supportive, she still knows that life after prison is the hardest period for people who have been behind bars.
“There is still a lot of stigma. It is near impossible to find a job and for some people, going back to prison is the easier option so they commit other crimes. Fifty-two per cent of women in remand are often in and out of jail while trying to survive,” she says.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
To break this cycle, Cyprine and her team take women who have been to prison through reproductive health, entrepreneurship, agricultural and ICT programmes and also help them deal with trauma and work on healing past wounds.
“It is about giving them second chances,” she says.
“The remand section of prison is often ignored because people imagine that it is temporary, yet some women spend years in remand. To keep women out of remand, we need to break the cycle of poverty and crime by equipping them with useful skills and keeping the brilliant minds behind bars engaged in useful pursuits,” she says.