My name is Hawi James Ouma. I am a Teens and Youth Life Coach who gives back to the community through Lifesong Kenya. Lifesong Kenya is a community-based organization that provides a second chance to male youth and families who are in conflict with the law through restorative justice, education and transitional housing.
We empower male youth who are in prison through skills training, positive masculinity, personal branding, healing and reconciliation with their families, the police and people who’ve been wronged and hurt. Those who exit prison and have no place to go or are yet to complete their reconciliation process come to stay at our halfway house.
Before Lifesong Kenya, I used to work as a children’s TV Producer. Since my work involved going to schools to prepare children for shoots and recording our program, I would spend a lot of time with children. I discovered that girls were more progressive and knew what they wanted while boys were more reserved and seldom wanted to engage beyond what they had been asked to do.
In 2012, I accompanied a driver from work to Nairobi Remand Prison where we picked a producer who had gone to a shoot at the prison. Since I had been very vocal about matters to do with the boy-child, she informed me about the boys she had seen at the prison and asked if she could share my contact with Wanini Kireri, the officer in charge at the time.
After meeting Madam Kireri I ended up going to prison every Friday – which was my off day – to meet and talk to male youth who were at the facility. I immediately saw a reflection of myself in each of the 100 boys at the facility and recognized that they were looking for a father figure and an adult male role model. Having grown up needing the same things, I identified with their need and started involving their families and the police in the work I had started doing with male youth in prison.
A few months into my volunteer work in prison, which was during my off day, one of my supervisors at work heard what I was doing in prison and called me for a meeting. She gave me a choice to choose between my work and the work I was doing with boys. I chose my work with boys in prison and quit my job in 2013 to focus on developing a restorative justice program for boys.
I am passionate about restorative justice, using buttons and teaching boys and young men to treat women and girls with honour, dignity and respect.
- Are you driven by passion or purpose or both?
I am driven by purpose and passion because I think both go hand in hand and it isn’t easy to pull off because it is something that most people flirt with, and desire to attain but seldom do.
I am driven by the belief that each one of us has treasures that we can use to grow, develop and thrive in life. All we need to do is focus on discovering and using the treasure that we have as opposed to focusing on what you lack. This has been fueled by purpose and passion that has seen me sink my teeth into working with boys who are in prison despite the many hurdles and odds that I keep facing in this line of work.
- What did you want to be when you grew up? Tell us about your background and how it shaped you into the person you are now.
When I was growing up, I wanted to become a writer and a journalist who could write stories and books that inspire people – especially – boys and young men. After my dad died when I was 13 years old, I needed a male adult who could provide guidance and be a father figure to me.
Since I could not find the right man, I ended up growing the lowest of all self-esteem. Luckily, my dad had left a stack of books that I started reading. One of my favourite books was an edited version of Shakespeare’s stories. Having read The Merchant of Venice which explored justice. From that day, I started thinking about using writing to empower male teens and share issues that revolved around widows, orphans and those who needed justice in the community.
- If you had a chance for a do-over, what would you do differently in your life or career?
If I had a chance for a do-over, which I keep doing every day – I would go about my business knowing that I am adequately educated and have enough of what I have and possess. When I first met boys and began meeting them, I felt inadequate and wanted to stop going to prison. This was after I discovered that the boys and I needed, a father figure!
- What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
The top three skills needed to succeed are creativity, life coaching and intuition.
- What motivates you to keep going?
Seeing the life of one boy turn around motivates and inspires me to keep going. The joy and fulfilment that I get when a young man is fully reconciled by his family, the police and the person he has wronged and hurt is immeasurable!
- How do you define success?
I define success as helping one boy exit prison with tools, skills and mindset that will enable him to thrive in the community.
- What makes you happy and gives you the energy to face the day?
Knowing I have an opportunity to make the world a better place where boys and men can be considered valuable, worthy and deserving makes me happy, and gives me joy and energy to face the day. Also, knowing that my wife – Cynthia Wendo, who teaches Chinese and is a recording Gospel artist – supports me, my work with boys and vision is way beyond any treasure that I can ever ask for. My wife believes in the things that I do in a way that drives me to achieve more. Through her support, I have learned how to be a better man.
- Advice for newbies in your line of work?
My advice to newbies in my line of work is don’t chase after money, flashy cars or luxurious living. I know that money is what enables people to make ends meet. But, I have come to learn that loving what you do and not placing money ahead of everything is pivotal for one’s growth and development.
Even though I quit my job to work without pay in prison, I have been rewarded in ways that money wouldn’t have brought into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have been broke and struggle most of the time to make ends meet. My personal growth has stagnated and I am not at the level where my peers are at. However, there are things that money would have never bought for me. Since I am living and fulfilling my purpose, I am living my life to the fullest. Also, I was able to get a full scholarship to learn life coaching and leadership through the Co-Active Training Institute. Training as a coach is one of the dreams that I had set for myself in 2013 and achieving it is a miracle from God.
Last advice, your purpose lies within the things that you struggle with, the things where you are lacking and inadequate the most. When I began working with boys in prison, I thought I had lost my mind and that I didn’t have what it takes to help them. However, through my work with them, I have also grown my capacity and last year received a full scholarship to study Life Coaching.
- What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be remembered as an individual who transformed Kenya’s criminal justice system and the way those who are in conflict and in contact with the law are treated. I also want to be remembered as an individual who made it possible for boys who are treated as misfits and perpetrators in society as valuable, worthy and as important as girls and women.
- Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
In 10 years, I see myself having helped change policies and laws governing the Kenyan criminal justice system. I see Lifesong Kenya running restorative justice programs in at least 10 prisons in Kenya and having 5 halfway houses in 5 different counties. I also see our program birthing business ventures that will help provide jobs to young men in and outside prison. I also see myself as an established author, life coach and fulfilled human being.
You can find James Ouma on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also check out his work on these sites https://jamesouma.com/ and Lifesong Kenya.
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