Irene Auma, of the Peace Within Prisons yoga project, leading a class with inmates at Nairobi’s Langata women’s prison.
It is in her programme that Dorotia finds escape from the shocking, never-ending repetition of chores and routines behind the high walls of Nairobi’s Langata women’s prison. Twice a week, the inmates wait with childlike eagerness for Irene and her team of instructors to walk through the iron gates and into a room measuring some 12ft by 12ft for a yoga session.
On a cold Nairobi afternoon, Dorotia Bester is a long way from home. For close to a year, she has been serving time in a Kenyan prison on drug trafficking charges, which she continues to fight. Once in a while, she drifts off into her own world and thinks of life in her native South Africa.
“The first few months were tough. First I couldn’t understand the local language and this created some tension between me and my fellow inmates,” Dorotia says. “Here we have nothing but time. If you do not fill it up with something constructive, the hours become your worst enemy.”
The Kenyan prison system was built as a disciplinary institution. It traces its origins to the royal programmes that were designed to soothe the obstinate natives opposed to colonization and, later on, protestors for independence.
“This is our version of freedom. We stretch, pose, dance and try to find a balance to our lives,” Ruth Kamande says. She is one of the most eager of Irene’s students: she hasn’t missed a class since January this year when the project started.
“What else would I be doing? I want to be so good that eventually, when I leave the prison gates, I will have a new and exciting skill to share with my family and friends,” she says.
According to prison authorities, inmates often face stigma when released and seldom reintegrate into society. “The perception out there is that those who come through our gates will never have anything useful to offer the community,” says Susan Marita, who is in charge of the yoga project at the prison. “They are looked at as criminals and individuals of little value. We hope that with the extra skills they learn, they can show people that they can contribute to the greater good.
“Yoga will help them deal with the extra pressure they will get from society once they are released. It will help them focus and deal with the negative energy that will come their way. But before that, it also helps then become model inmates.”
The class begins with a brief reading from Irene. “What do you understand by these words?” she asks, now transformed from a bubbly friend to a serious instructor. A group of 25 students sit crosslegged in a circle on the cold tiled floors. All are barefoot and in tights and T-shirts, their dull, unflattering, grey- and white-striped prison gowns and bright plastic sandals discarded in one corner
Irene hopes that in a year’s time, she will have trained enough inmates and prison sentences. Why not equip them with lifelong skills?” she says warders to take over the programme. “Some of the people here are serving life.
To date, 60 women have participated in the sessions and Irene and her team teach in three other prisons. Irene says, the Peace within Prison project continues to help prisoners accept their situation and find inner peace.