As a teenager, Joyce Kekimuri** felt on top of the world. She and friends so guzzled beer and waragi that the village called them drunkards. To buy the alcohol, Kekimuri, then 14, stole her mother’s money.
But in 2015, the teenager’s world crumbled. The mother, convinced she had lost control, reported her daughter to the police. Kekimuri is hazy about the procedures, but says she ended up being sentenced to a year in detention at Kampiringisa.
“It happened so fast,” Kekimuri says seriously in Luganda, and then looks down, as if ashamed of herself. “First was drinking and escaping from school, then I started stealing and finally stopped going to school.”
A dark-skinned girl from Entebbe, Kekimuri repeatedly strokes her black dress, staring through the window meditatively, pained by the memory of her actions.
According to Kampiringisa principal Irene Nsangi, Kekimuri was jailed for assault. After being expelled from school, she beat up a girl she suspected of having reported her, ending up in the dock.
“I can imagine the problems I brought to my mother,” she says. “Just as she had finished paying all my school fees, I was expelled from school and yet she is not a woman who has a lot of money.
“I now cleary see how silly I was.”
Kekimuri does not want to talk about her father, who reportedly died while she was a child. We are seated in an empty office in the newly-renovated Kampiringisa Rehabilitation Centre, Uganda’s only juvenile-detention facility located in Mpigi district. Unlike remand homes which house minors awaiting court dates, Kampiringisa is a prison where convicted children serve sentences ranging from one month to three years.
The centre is run by the ministry of gender, labour and social development and is mandated to detain both young males and females in conflict with the law aged 12 to 18. It now has 342 children, including 27 girls.
When I arrive, many of the children are busy in their various sections of learning, especially vocational training. About 10 girls are knitting in the tailoring room; other children are in the metal fabrication unit, while others are in the carpentry section. For many children here, Kampiringisa has turned out to be their ‘other home’ which they credit for restoring a ray of hope into their lives.
“I am now a totally-different person from the one that came here and I am sure my mother will be really happy about it when I get back home,” Kekimuri says.
With the recent renovation of the centre, the authorities, staff and children say that the living and working standards have greatly improved. Children are given more attention and they have more tools to use in the vocational training that is part of the rehabilitation process.
“The renovation was good and urgently needed. Currently the children enjoy the place and anyone who comes here can see that it is now a worthy place for them to live in,” says acting deputy principal Paul Namonye. “We have better offices, a boardroom, the dining and the dormitories are all looking good.”
The renovation also furnished the institution with various tools in different departments for example; the carpentry department that has been not working for five years is now operational. More tools were also brought into the metal fabrication section.
It is lunch time and a small Christmas party has been organised for the children. A group of both white and black men are standing at the corner of the dining hall roasting meat balls. Soft music is playing from the single speaker in the hall and excitement is on everyone’s face. Today’s meal includes a soda and, for easy identification, new entrants are putting on orange T-shirts and old ones are wearing green shirts.
Later, we are all gathered watching a group of child-inmates dancing in the middle of the hall as their colleagues cheer.
“They [social workers] treat us as their own children when many of us were looked at by society as bad,” says Juliet Sanyu**, 16. “Here, we are tolerated and no one will blame you for your past. All they tell us is there is a future to look up to and because of how they treat us, we believe them. When you do something bad, they will scold you and when you do something good, they will praise you.”
Sanyu, from Mukono, was part of a gang code-named “Swagg Attack”. They ravaged neighbourhoods, stealing, robbing and eventually murdering someone.
“She was the youngest member of the group and court sent her here for one year of rehabilitation,” principal Nsangi said of Sanyu. “But the other members of the gang – about 16 of them – were prosecuted for murder.”
Baby-faced Sanyu believes the institution is helping turn her life around, and that by the end of her sentence, she will be a totally-different person.
“It’s all about good behaviour. Now I can willingly do a lot of chores that I didn’t know. I know what is good and bad and even if you ask my friends, I am open with them. When they are wrong, I tell them and counsel them,” she says, smiling with pride.
With many of these children having dropped out of school and not willing to continue with formal education for different reasons, the vocational training department comes in handy for those above the age of 15.
The vocational section comprises five units: mechanics, carpentry, metal fabrication, building and tailoring, but only three are operational because of inadequate equipment and instructors. John Mubiru 18 has spent three years here and he believes that the facility has transformed him.
“The place has helped me discover my talents. There is a lot I have learnt obviously because I came here as a child, knowing nothing but now I think with maturity. My brain is now sharp and I can handle all situations,” says Mubiru, who sat his primary leaving examinations here.
Among other things, Mubiru has learnt to play in the brass band and has mastered tailoring, and playing volleyball and football.
“I am now doing a certificate in fashion and design outside here with the basic knowledge I got from the tailoring class that you just entered,” he says.
Mackay Jagenda, the head of the vocational department, says despite the renovation that came with new equipment for different sections, there is still a gap in manpower.
“The equipment is there as you can see,” he says, pointing to clearly-new machines in the metal fabrication room, “but we still lack instructors. Many of them come around part-time and have to leave because they are not fully staff here. This leaves me with most of the work and I cannot attend to all of the sections at the same time.”
However, Namonye says besides vocational training that is given to children above 15 years, younger children are sent to school in their respective classes. Those who are above 15 years and want to continue with the studies are also considered.
“I am happy that even while am here, I will be going back to school next year, meaning that even when my sentence is over, I will not have missed a lot. I appreciate the fact that we are taken to school,” Kekimuri says.
The secondary school children attend is about 3km away from the facility and the primary school, government-aided, is a stone’s throw away. Some of the necessities of the children are bought by Children Justice Initiative, one of the non-government organisations offering supplementary support here.
CJI executive director John Houchens says that for the past six years since they started operating in Uganda, they have helped various juvenile justice facilities countrywide.
“We basically come to fill the gaps and we work closely with the ministry of gender,” Houchens says. “We provide medicare, education, sponsorships, tracing and resettlement [of the children].”
Out of the 66 children at the facility currently going through formal education, 51 are in primary school and 15 are in secondary. Of these, 10 are sponsored by their parents, 32 by Footstep, another NGO working at the facility, and 24 by Child Justice Initiative.
After a child has served his or her sentence, there is a stage of preparing them to reunite with their families. Most of those who come here may have a bad attitude towards their parents; but with time, they realise they were brought here for their own mistakes.
Before a group is resettled, they go through a one-month resettlement class. In the class, social workers prepare the children mentally for the reunion with parents and families and resettling in the community.
“We tell them the advantages and disadvantages of this place. We let them know that they have to move on from here and become better people elsewhere,” Namonye says.
Children who become adults before completing their sentences at Kampiringisa are sometimes retained here instead of being sent to an adult prison. But the institution has to get a licence from the ministry – to keep the child until the sentence is served.
“This only happens if the child is well-behaved; but if he has been causing problems here, we simply forward him to Luzira or any other place,” Namonye says.
Many children come here hopeless thinking maybe their parents have forsaken them. Although Kampiringisa is far from perfect, many inmates leave when they have been improved. An example is Kekimuri, who can’t wait to show her mother her new self – a former drunken teenager now sobered up and looking to get her life back on track.
** The names of the children have been altered to protect their identity.
Research for this Observer feature was supported by Panos Eastern Africa, under the Strengthening Media Networking for Child Protection project.