In Summary
  • His initial contact with prisons was out of his desire to reach out to refugees from the volatile central African countries.
  • Faraja Foundation has improved more than 10 correctional centres in such ways as renovating kitchens, constructing counselling rooms and erecting rehabilitation centres.

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.

"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

prison ministry

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.

prison ministry

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.”

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