There was this time I got a strange request from an inmate. He slipped me a piece of paper on my way out of prison. He insisted I read it when I got home. I was unsure of taking it as I had been told it was an offence to take stuff from prisoners. I tucked the note into my jeans pocket and proceeded to the exit. I forgot about the note and only remembered it later in the night when I emptied my pockets. On the scrappy piece of paper, he had scribbled hurriedly in black pen with a single line in Kiswahili which translated to “I need underwear.” I was shocked and a little confused at the request, so I called my then boyfriend, now husband and shared the incident. He quickly jumped at the challenge and offered to get a pack of underwear for the lad. The following day I returned to prison, with a pack of underwear in tow and handed them over to a male officer and explained the situation. It was a little embarrassing to discuss male underwear with him and opted not to be in the room when he handed them to the lad who was one of my students. A few days later, I mustered the courage to ask the lad why he requested me for underwear and whether this was an issue other guys faced. He told me that he and many others lacked essential items such as soap, toothbrushes, and especially underwear. Family members usually provided these items during visits. However, many inmates did not get any family visitors who were perhaps too ashamed of them. He said he had to muster the courage to ask me because it was too uncomfortable sitting in my class without underwear and in tattered clothes. My heart sank.
He said he had to muster the courage to ask me because it was too uncomfortable sitting in my class without underwear and in tattered clothes.
This incident sparked my first ever public campaign dubbed “I need underwear.” I made a poster of a man in underpants and put it up on Facebook, Twitter and sent out emails. I thought that at best, I would raise a few packs of underwear to give to some of the men in the prison I was working in then. Then the unexpected happened. A few days later I got a call from the most prominent radio show host in the country, Caroline Mutoko. She hosted a wildly popular morning show called ‘the big breakfast’. I thought it was a prank call at first but soon got over my doubts. Her message was simple ‘show up at my show tomorrow at 6 am’. Caroline is a force of nature. She has a beautiful voice that she uses effectively to entertain and discuss issues with fiery panache. She commanded attention and was not afraid to wade into controversial topics. This made her one of the most influential and trusted voices in the country. I had no idea how she had known of the campaign and did not bother to ask questions. When Caroline says ‘turn up at 6 am’ you do precisely that. This was my chance, and I went for it.
Frightened and unsure of what was ahead of me, I walked into the Kiss 100 radio studios the next morning. I thought it would be a chilled-out coffee and chat kind of meeting, but to my surprise, the place was buzzing with activity. I walked into Caroline’s studio, and she was owning the day like it was midday! She was glammed up in a beautiful blue dress with black stunning high heels. I was intimidated and worried she would find me boring. I was ushered into a seat as she chatted away with her co-host- she looked so relaxed and in control. Feeling small, I sank into my chair. I wished to disappear; “I am in the wrong place” I thought to myself “What was I thinking getting into underwear”? After reading the news highlights, Caroline turned off her Mic and turned to me. She went straight to the topic of the campaign and started asking me questions. I was taken aback at first as I had hoped to exchange pleasantries first. Wow! Talk about the fast-paced world! But the conversation soon mellowed, and we had a few laughs before she went back on air and activated her superpower. While on-air she introduced the issue and asked a couple of questions about me, the prisons, and the campaign. In what felt like under five minutes, Caroline had people pledging to give money and underwear. Soon my phone was buzzing with notifications of mobile money transfers. There was a lady who called in and offered to provide two sack-loads of new underwear. She owned an underwear shop downtown. I was stunned at what had just happened. I left the studio feeling like I was in a dream.
The following morning, I woke up to a call from an unidentified prison officer who ordered me to shut down the campaign.
By midday, the post had gone viral and I was getting calls and cash donations from strangers. It was crazy and exciting. Now I would not only have enough underwear for one prison but several, including women prisons. But my excitement was short-lived. The following morning, I woke up to a call from an unidentified prison officer who ordered me to shut down the campaign. Bewildered, I tried to explain that it was impossible to shut it down as it had gone viral. He told me that this was an order from above, and I was in breach of ‘prison security’. I was afraid and I wondered what to do. Meanwhile, my phone kept beeping with notifications of mobile money transfers. Later in the day, I was notified by other prison officers that I had ruffled feathers of high office officials, and that orders had been given not to allow me into any prison premises. What unfolded next was a series of futile meetings and unsuccessful battles with prison officials. My friend and now Board of Adviser Ciku Chege came alongside me ready to fight for what we believed was right. We knocked on doors, had heated debates with officers and the deputy commissioner of prisons. We even tried to record his sexist remarks using our phones secretly. At the end we were out of steam, exhausted by the dumbness of these men. The system had won.
He told me that this was an order from above, and I was in breach of ‘prison security’. I was afraid and I wondered what to do.
What would I do with all the underwear and money donated? At the time, I had received over $700USD enough to buy thousands of underwear. We elected to proceed with courage. Ciku and I went to the wholesale market in Nairobi. We knew we would get a bargain for buying underwear at wholesale prices. In the Eastleigh market, we found shops with a lot of variety. I had never seen or bought so much underwear in my life! We returned with sacks of underwear and found several more bags had been dropped at our offices. We had over 7,000 underwear! There was the little matter of figuring out how to distribute them. We needed a change of tactics. It was now apparent that there would be no buy-in, at least not then, from the higher prison commanders. I turned to the lower-ranked officers for advice since I did not want my actions to jeopardise their work or mine. They counselled me to lie low for a couple of days until the issue blew over. Unbeknown to me at the time was that all prison officers on the ground were in support and favour of this campaign as they knew first-hand the lack of dignity that the inmates lived with. However, as a disciplined force institution, they cannot be seen to be going against their bosses’ orders. Eventually and in trickles, we were able to go to several prisons and distribute all the underwear plus other essentials donated. Women can be a bit ‘naughty’ when they get new underwear, striking poses, smiles and the like. I am not sure whether this happened among the men in prison. The underwear gave them a victory against indignity. Maybe those are Victor’s secrets.