The Story of Philemon's Founder, Kelvin Mwikya
My mother died when I was young. My father was very poor and blind. We lived in the countryside. There was no electricity or water and no hospital. We used donkeys to get water and it would take all day.
I wanted to take A levels because I had achieved good O level grades. But I could not afford to stay in school. Instead, my uncle offered me a place to stay. He said he would find work for me so I could earn money for myself and my father. But instead he exploited me – I worked night and day as his “houseboy”, either in his house in a middle class estate in Nairobi, or at his place in the country. I was not paid for my work and my father also did not receive a penny. I worked like this for over two years.
I was at my uncle’s on the day I was arrested. My aunt and uncle were brokers. Some of the goods they acquired were stolen, as all manner of people brought them items to sell. In October 1992 some people brought some radios. Two men sold them for my uncle’s wife but did not give her the money. She was very upset as they were family friends.
My uncle’s wife went to report the men to the police and falsely claimed that they had robbed her. She was well connected. The police instructed her to find two people to testify and she said that I would be one of them. She asked me to go to the police to give the evidence but I refused. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t want to become involved, especially not with people who had so much money whilst my father was ill.
On 20th October (Kenyatta Day) the police came and asked me to accompany them to the station. I could not refuse, although I had no idea of why they wanted me. They took me to Buruburu. The police put me in a cell.
Hardly anybody spoke to me for a fortnight. When I asked the officer in charge why I had been put there, he said that my case was “special” and that I should wait. In the morning at 10am I would be given a cup of tea and at 7pm some ugali(maize porridge) and a bit of cabbage. I slept on the floor with no blanket. The policeman sometimes poured water on the floor so that it was wet and as a result I developed a serious cough during this time.
My details were not put in the log book which is meant to record details of each person detained at the police station..
After two weeks they put me in car and I was taken to Machakos police station. My uncle and his wife knew what was happening all along, but my father had no idea. In the police station an officer, Mohammed, told me that because I had refused to do what I was asked I would spend the rest of my life in prison and go to “where the poor belong”. I was bleeding as I had been beaten repeatedly with a baton. I was beaten every evening for two weeks and three days and nearly died. One night I collapsed after being beaten and was left for dead. My fellow inmates in the cell were the only ones who helped me.
The police also took me to the forest, tied my hands to a tree and left me hanging there naked. They would leave me and return 4-5 hours later in the early morning. During this time I had still not been recorded in the log book.
After about four months, in February 1993, I was taken to court. Here I realised that my cell mates had been my co-accused. They asked me what I had done. I replied that I didn’t know as no one had told me what I was accused of. At court I was informed that I was accused of robbery with violence. Sitting in the court I was in a lot of pain. When I would put up my hand, the judge did not acknowledge me and I was not allowed to speak. I did not have an advocate or anyone to help me. Even if I had had a lawyer, the police were on the side of my uncle’s wife. The police said they would let me go for 50,000 shillings. But this was more money than I had ever seen in my life.
My co-accused managed to find the money from their families to give to the prosecutor and the police. The case continued until the last day when the other men were released. I think the money went to the magistrate, prosecutor and the police to receive a non guilty verdict. I was left alone. Mohammed said that I would go to prison for the rest of my life. In court the only people I knew were the police who came to testify against me. My uncle didn’t even turn up.
I was held on remand for a further year before they finally charged me again. Again I had no legal representation and my uncle did not turn up when I was taken to court for a ‘mention’, to extend the time I could be held in jail on remand. Eventually I was charged with staying in Nairobi with no work. In court it was very intimidating. I couldn’t hear what was being said and I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions. My trial lasted for one morning. Then I was taken back to a cell feeling totally abused by the legal system. I looked up and said “God, what is happening”. I went back to court to receive my sentence and was given 13 years, 2 strokes of the cane and 5 years on probation after sentence. The policeman asked me if I knew that I would never come out of prison. I had been spared the death penalty but my uncle had told the police not to let me come back home. He had to pay them a lot of money for this.
I cried for 3 months and refused to eat. I could not understand how my own family, the police, the prosecutors and everyone else could put a poor boy like me in prison. No one would tell me why. It was 10th August 1993 when I started my sentence.
In prison I met Mark Konya, a prison officer. I told him my story and he said he wanted to help me get an appeal. The next morning he called me from the cells. I had been given 14 days to appeal. I thought of him as a god. He was a very good friend. I know that this man was a Christian. He told me that he wanted to help me in this unjust situation. This is the first time a Christian showed me such love. He drafted an appeal for me and took it to the high court. He also instructed some officers to send me to the carpentry section of the prison so I could learn to be a carpenter. He prayed with me although at this time I did not believe in God because of everything that had happened to me. At this point I just wanted to die.
On the 26th February 1997 some visitors came to prison. The conditions there were awful. There was very little food and water. There were lots of people in a small space sleeping together. We were given porridge for breakfast, and lunch and supper. It was a scramble for food and because I was small I would go without food, sometimes for up to three days at a time. There was no medical care; people kept dying.
On my first day in prison I was made to take my clothes off and given a tunic to wear. I had no possessions with me. By now my father had learned of my arrest. The first time he came to visit me, he fell down and had to be taken out. As I was his eldest son, I was supposed to be his future and me being in prison was like a death sentence for him. I only saw him for two minutes and he kept on crying.
The prison officers treated me very badly. They often canned me severely, even when we were doing hard labour. Caning could be inflicted on any part of the body. Many of the inmates had problems with other inmates. The Christian senior officer ensured that they stayed away from me as I was so young and so small.
In my time in prison, everything was inhumane. We couldn’t wash our hands before eating, we couldn’t sit down whilst eating. We had neither privileges nor any freedom.
Some people from Gideons International came to preach in the prison in February 1994. They spoke about freedom for 45 minutes. They talked about sin and I knew I needed to repent as I was a part of the house (my uncle’s house where wrong things had taken place). I wanted to be forgiven and to surrender to God. I was one of four prisoners who put up our hands to say we wanted to accept Jesus. I knew I had made a choice and was not concerned about what people thought or what might happen to me at the hands of the guards.
At first I prayed that I would get an appeal. I was still very bitter with my uncle. I wanted to kill him even if it meant going back into prison.
But on 26th February 1994, I had an experience like never before. I felt that I had hope, a new beginning and inner strength. I knew I had a future and I felt so much joy. The bitterness and resentment towards my uncle started to fade. I began to read the bible. Every Sunday I learned new things about God. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. In April 1994 the Gideons gave me a New Testament. I began reading it from the beginning. It was my only possession and it was so very dear to me. I read the Bible daily. It became everything to me and I carried it everywhere. It was the best gift I had ever received. The words in it were so meaningful.
In August I went to see the officer in charge to see if I could preach in every ward of the prison. He said ‘no’ and sent me to an isolation cell for two days. I was tortured and denied all food except for porridge in the morning. The cell was not even big enough to sit in. It was made up of three walls and bars. It was very dark and cold. The time in the isolation cell was the hardest time in prison. I felt like the apostle Paul. I prayed all the time and sang.
Then the officer called me in. God had answered my prayers. I was given Swahili Bibles and told to get out and get preaching.
The officer has been a good friend of mine since and we have often joked about it since. I knew that God was working for good. If I had been out in the world I would have died. The officer had said to me ‘pick up your Bibles and go’. He was not a Christian. I thanked him. That night I distributed Bibles and began preaching in each of the eight wards.
When I was given the Bibles, I felt that Jesus said “I have done it for you.” It was a calling, a privilege to hold a Bible and to be given permission to preach. That was the first favour from the prison authorities which God gave me. He surrounded me with his glory and his power.
I began on Ward 1 in the second compound. There were about 130 inmates. I hadn’t been to Bible school but the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the Bible.
There were a lot of officers who were not Christians. Sometimes they would come and knock on the door and tell me to stop. I was told to wait until I was released as they did not believe that prisoners could be saved. Sometimes I had to pray hiding underneath the blankets or there would be problems the next morning. But things were better with the Christian officers.
I prayed for the Lord to give me more favour with these officers. After three months I was asked to lead a service on Christmas Day 1994. I began to see that the officers started to like me, some would chat with me and they would ask me to pray for them if they were cold in the watch towers. Others would come to the door and listen to me praying.
In February 1995, after one year of being with the Lord, I had a vision. One Friday night about midnight I was flicking through the Bible when I found the book of Philemon and I read it three times. I didn’t understand what it meant. On the Saturday morning there were many of us, about 1,000, going to work. I went to the toilet and I found a lot of Bibles being used as toilet paper because there was no toilet paper.
I despaired, “God forgive us as prisoners”. I went to where I had been sleeping and returned to Philemon and read. The message became very clear. God was speaking to me about the paper. I made a pledge there and then to preserve his word for the rest of my life by providing toilet paper.
I spoke to some re-offenders. I asked them why they were there. They answered that outside they were surrounded by suspicion. This concerned me so much. I didn’t do anything at this point as I was preoccupied with my plan to provide toilet paper. I was told “God can raise people from this prison to preach and to do anything”. Nevertheless, I could do nothing. The prison was full of bed bugs and lice; there weren’t enough clothes, water or food to go round and people were dying. I started praying for those needs. I would pray for the officers, even those who were cruel. A group of us started to fast. We saw that it was up to us to change conditions in the prisons. Human rights groups were talking a lot but did not do anything. Officers asked to join in with our movement and asked us to pray for them. Even the officer in charge came to pray with us.
Every time a prisoner was transferred a new movement would start off in that prison and so it began to spread and spread. I began to see the government responding. Blankets were being delivered and the food was sometimes hot. The Commissioner resigned and a new one arrived, bringing new incentives and new ideas for reform. I became part of the prison movement. The senior officers were thanking us for what was happening there. All the officers gave me favour. When anything went wrong in the prison I was sent for as a very senior inmate.
In May 1995 a good friend of mine died in the prison. We had no medical care or food and there was nothing I could do to help him. The prison department was not concerned at all. He died right next to me but before he died he told me that when his family come to visit to tell them that he had been sick. The authorities usually record the death as “defeated by sentence”, but he wanted them to know the truth.
That night he asked me to pray for him. I watched him take his last breath. Everyone knew that would be his final night on Earth. Then the guards came in, picked up his body and took it away.
On 1st June 1996 I was praying for my appeal and it arrived that day. My original sentence was reduced to three years and the probation and strokes of the cane were quashed. I had only 2 months to serve.
On Friday 9th August 1996 I was released. Inmates were crying and officers did not want me to leave. They escorted me to the bus park. It was a ceremony, not just another release. The chaplain prayed with the officers and the inmates. I felt I was surrounded by joy. My heart was full of thanks and praise. I was full of tears of joy and remembering the words that I had been told about meeting my death in prison. I was very optimistic and felt that nothing could stop me now. I didn’t know what my future held.
I came to Nairobi and went to see my family. But they rejected me and told me that they did not have a place for me. That Friday as I walked the streets, very late at night, I had nowhere else to go and so it was not long until the police found me. All I asked of them was that they helped me. They said that they would not arrest me as I had with me a letter of commendation.
Instead I found a night prayer session in a church. I found a corner and I prayed. “Why am I here? Why not keep me in prison?” No one would give me a second chance, life was actually better inside. The bright future I expected had been destroyed because my family rejected me. But as I was in the corner I remembered a verse from Hebrews “I will never forsake you, call me in times of trouble and I will help you”. I thought to myself, “Kelvin you are more than a convict.” For two weeks I had no home and no one gave me any food. No one paid me any attention. But the Lord was so merciful. On the last Friday in August I was told to go to the prison department. I had no strength as I had no eaten for almost a week. I began to walk the walk of surrender. I surrendered to God’s hands. “Whatever you do with me I am yours” I prayed. It took me many hours to reach the prison headquarters.
I arrived at the prison chaplain’s office. I told her I was hungry and thirsty. “Can some one give me something, I asked”. The chaplain, Elizabeth Mwalngingi, went out and brought me some tea and snacks. I could hardly talk for being so tired. She then took me for lunch. After that we returned to the office and then she finally asked, “Who are you and what is your story?” Only later did Elizabeth tell me that the Lord had spoken to her and told her to help me. I told her my whole story, my two weeks living in a church, my rejection by my family.
I stayed in Elizabeth’s home for a month. She took a huge risk in having me. I lived with her husband and two children. Her husband accepted me and she even managed to find the money for my fare for me to see my father. In fact she invested a 10% tithe in my life. She prayed that the money would not be wasted but now she even jokes with me that she has bought me. She paid for new clothes and shoes for me and this is how my new life began.
I went to see my father but Elizabeth told me to come back and see her when I returned. My father told me that God had given me another chance to live. He also referred me to proverbs four verse 20. It was not for my sake but for the sake of others. My father assured me God would give me friends. All his life, my father told me that God gave me a second chance.
On my return Elizabeth rented a home for me while I was looking for work. One day I saw a man doing some carpentry work. I began talking with him and he instructed me to go and sand some wood for him. He gave me 20 Kenyan shillings that evening. I returned the next day and he left me use the jack plane. He noticed that I was a good carpenter but I would never reveal where I had learnt the trade because I was so scared of rejection. On the third day he asked me to make a stool. He was impressed with it and said he wanted to sell it. I told him that before we did this I wanted to pray for it.
That evening we returned with 37,000 Kenyan shillings. This was by far the biggest amount of money I had ever seen in my life and God had answered all of my prayers. I told him that I wanted 10% of the money to honour the promise that I had made and told him the whole story about my experiences in prison. The man was not a Christian, but that Sunday he came to church with me. Today he is a leader of a church in Nairobi.
So now I had money. From 1997-98 a few released prisoners stayed at my home and I began to work with them doing more carpentry. From 1999 I attended the services in Nairobi chapel.
On 31st December 2001 I was at home alone. As I prayed whilst people went to New Year services, God reminded again of the book of Philemon. A vision of a harvest in a garden returned to me and so I said “Lord I will go there”. On New Year’s Day there was a presidential amnesty. Nine prisoners who were released as part of the amnesty came to stay with me. When they knocked on my door I decided to open up my house to them. Only three were Christians. This was not an easy thing to do as I was concerned what the police would do if they knew.
That day we all went to a chapel. The bulletin had an advert for counselling skills and so I thought I would apply as I didn’t know how to support the former prisoners. In February I asked if I could have some training. The church didn’t understand why I was seeking these skills as I would not explain my background because I feared rejection so much.
Some Christian lawyers helped me to set up Philemon and drafted the trust deed for me. I still felt thought that I needed counselling skills to help former prisoners. The church didn’t understand and thought I wanted money. They sent me to the head of their benevolence department. I told him my background but did not want him to pass on anything to the pastor. But he told the pastor anyway. When I returned he told me that they had been really impressed with my story. I went home and prayed, still frightened of being rejected. After a week, I finally summoned the courage to meet them. This was the first church to accept me as an ex convict.
The following Sunday they spoke about me in the service. The congregation was amazed. It was mission month in July and I was asked to speak. Although we had been a registered charity from 16th April 2002, this was the real birth of Philemon and the church gave me a flat to live in.
I found a lot help and resources in the church and Philemon slowly grew. The doors of prisons were opening wider and wider every day. Philemon was given an open licence to walk into prisons. No other Christian mission has access to the prisons like Philemon.
In 2003 we appointed our board of trustees and expanded our compassionate visits into more prisons. Howard Satterthwaite came to Nairobi from the UK to work as an intern with CLEAR (Christian Legal Education, Aid and Research). Philemon helped CLEAR to get access to work with prisoners. We also set up the halfway home. Now we have helped hundreds and perhaps thousands of prisoners. Every one of them has their own story.