Borstal Boys: Poi and Life Skills Behind Bars

Martin Kimani and boys from the Borstal.

The MotoMoto Program is helping make a difference at the Shimo La Tewa Borstal Institution which houses 313 boys from all over Kenya. It’s one of only two such institutions in all of Kenya, with teenagers serving sentences for everything from petty theft (of even just a few dollars) to murder. For many, they came to the Borstal following conflicts with family, who then reported them to the police for petty theft or drug use. They would much rather be in the “Approved Schools,” which are also institutions for violent or unmanageable youth, but which offer secondary school services by government teachers. Instead, these boys stay in the Borstal, which does not offer secondary school and where the few years of primary school which are offered are taught by guards rather than teachers. The boys can, however, pursue one vocational skill; tailoring, farming, wiring, carpentry, or masonry, which they chose following their first 2 months in the institution.

The Borstal boys wake up around 5am every day. They cook their own breakfast (as they do with all other meals), clean the kitchen afterward, clean their rooms, sweep the common areas, and do whatever yard work is necessary for the compound. In the hours when they are not doing chores, they attend their vocational skills classes. At 4pm, they have diner and then return to their rooms, shared among 4 or more boys, for the rest of the evening.

However, Koru recently introduced a new element to the routine for 20 Borstal Boys, poi performing art and life skills. Since February, our poi and life skills coaches have gone to the Borstal on Fridays for a 1 hour poi lesson and a 1 hour life skills session. They work with boys ages 13-17 in the prison yard, surrounded by fences, barbed wire, and guards at all times. Unsurprisingly, the boys love this distraction, begging both coaches to stay even after the allotted time is finished.

Antone Karuki practicing poi.

Antone Karuki is one of our most promising new poi students. Like most of the Borstal residents (less than 5% of whom come from Mombasa), Antone was arrested for smoking marihuana far from Shimo La Tewa, in his home region of Kiambu, north of Nairobi. He was sentenced to 3 years in November, 2013, but will be released on probation after 1 year. After the first poi lesson, Antone made his own poi from grass and flexible sticks, preferring to practice with a highly imperfect instrument, rather than wait for the next lesson. He’s now perfected forward weaves and actively teaches others, who listen because of this natural leadership skills. Antone also actively engages in life skills discussions. He’s learned how to identify and cope with challenges as they arise, as well as learning how to nurture high self-esteem despite these challenges. He’s working on his masonry certification and hopes to go back to secondary school in November, even though his classmates would be years younger than himself.

Most of the Borstal boys made one or two really bad decisions, which have long term, negative consequences for their lives, interrupting their education, separating them from their families, exposing them to all the indignities and dehumanization which comes from living in a total institution like a prison. Although the prison offers vocations skills, many of these boys will struggle to return to school, which limits their employment opportunities into the future. We hope to fight against the loss of self-esteem and despair which might accompany these setbacks by giving the boys something to be proud of, their poi skills, and providing them with life skills to cope with the heavier challenges of their lives now and in the future.