The Right/Write to Heal Initiative is a joint project of the Columbia Center for Justice and V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project. Through Right/Write to Heal, women share how they cope with the consequences of incarceration on themselves, their families and communities, with the goal of changing how people understand the impact of criminalization on women. Writing and storytelling are therapeutic interventions for people who have experienced loss and trauma, and can lead to healing, redemption, and intimacy when shared collectively and with others who have been impacted. The goal is to humanize the unique individual and collective experiences of women, particularly women of color, who from early in their lives face racism, violence, and structural barriers that lead to punishment and imprisonment.

By Roz Smith

In the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, from November 30th to December 1st, 2023, the Beyond the Bars conference became pivotal for advocates, changemakers, and organizations committed to justice reform across Africa. Right/Write to Heal, our group of eight women dedicated to empowering incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women through creative writing, had the privilege of attending this groundbreaking event. The conference provided a platform for collaboration and shone a spotlight on extraordinary individuals like Teresa Njoroge, the CEO and founder of Clean Start Africa, the first formerly incarcerated woman-led organization in Kenya; her remarkable journey of empowerment has ignited positive change advocating for the rights of children of imprisoned parents, youth, and women impacted by the criminal justice system, primarily due to the criminalization of poverty.

As we stepped off the plane into a new time zone, Teresa greeted us with a contagious joy that mirrored the anticipation we felt for the days ahead. The entourage of people surrounding us, collecting our luggage with precision, and ushering us into waiting cars added an unexpected grandeur to our arrival. We couldn’t help but feel honored and special as if we were stepping into a world where every detail had been meticulously arranged for our comfort. The journey from the airport to our hotel was scenic, offering glimpses of the unfamiliar landscape that would become the backdrop for our adventure. We all had our cameras out taking photos.

We had this first day to settle into our new surroundings. The anticipation was indescribable as we arrived at the beautiful safari hotel, nestled in the heart of Kenya, which welcomed us with open arms. The air was filled with exhaustion and exhilaration as we entered the lobby. The travel fatigue was evident on our faces, but the vibrant energy of being in such a unique and culturally rich environment overshadowed any weariness. The lobby, where we gathered, served as the gateway to our temporary home, where the spirit of adventure and the allure of the wild converged.

The safari hotel in Kenya marks the beginning of a day etched into our memories as a day of settling into the heart of Africa. The grandeur of the hotel’s architecture and the lush surroundings set the stage for an adventure that promised to be educational and explorative. We were a group of eager travelers, tired yet excited, ready to embark on a journey connecting us to the essence of the motherland and our sisters in Africa. The promise of comfort and luxury awaited us in our rooms, a welcome prospect after a long journey. As we made our way to our respective rooms, travel fatigue was momentarily forgotten in the face of the thrill of being in Kenya. The exhaustion gave way to a shared sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural beauty surrounding us. The tiredness was a small price for experiencing Africa’s beauty with this sisterhood.

The conference unfolded with energy and enthusiasm, setting the stage for an unforgettable experience. The event space, adorned with a kaleidoscope of beautiful clothing and accessories showcased by diverse women vendors, became the lively backdrop for a day filled with cultural richness, communal spirit, and a celebration of women’s accomplishments.

As we entered the event space, our senses were immediately captivated by the vibrant display of clothing and accessories presented by the various women vendors. The colors, textures, and craftsmanship on exhibit reflected the diversity of cultures and artistic expressions. It was a feast for the eyes, and the opportunity to engage with these talented entrepreneurs added a unique dimension to the conference experience.

The buzz of excitement intensified as participants hustled towards the registration table. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation, and once again, we were met with special treatment. The organizers’ attention to detail and the warm welcome created an immediate sense of belonging, fostering a community spirit that would define the days to come.

As we settled into our seats, women of all ages drifted into the space, creating a mosaic of diversity. The air was filled with a palpable sense of camaraderie, amplified by the rhythmic beats of music emanating from the speakers. The ambiance was electric, and a shared anticipation of the events ahead created a unifying thread among the attendees.

The conference officially commenced with an energetic burst of song and dance led by two dynamic emcees. The room came alive as participants, overcome by the infectious energy, joined the celebration. While jet lag may have had a hold on some, including myself, the joyous atmosphere made it impossible not to partake in the festivities. Clapping and dancing became a collective expression of joy and unity, bridging cultural and geographical boundaries.
A particularly poignant moment unfolded as each tribe was called to the front and acknowledged. The diversity of the gathering was highlighted as representatives from different tribes stepped forward, creating a tapestry of cultural heritage. The acknowledgment of each tribe served as a beautiful testament to the conference’s commitment to inclusivity and the recognition of the unique contributions of every woman present.

The opening ceremony, characterized by vibrant marketplaces, a lively atmosphere, and dynamic cultural acknowledgments, set an inspiring tone for the conference. The convergence of women from various backgrounds, all united by a common purpose, was a powerful testament to the strength of unity and the celebration of diversity. The dance, song, and acknowledgment of tribes created a beautiful tapestry of shared experiences, promising an enriching journey in the days ahead.

At the heart of the Beyond the Bars conference was Teresa Njoroge, a beacon of resilience and hope. She founded Clean Start Africa seven years ago after her own exoneration by the government. Njoroge’s unwavering commitment to transforming the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women is awe-inspiring. Clean Start Africa, through its multifaceted approach, provides not only practical skills but also emotional and psychological support to women seeking to reintegrate into society after their release.

Teresa Njoroge’s story is one of triumph over adversity. Falsely accused and imprisoned, she emerged from the ordeal with a newfound purpose. Clean Start Africa, her brainchild, seeks to break the cycle of incarceration by empowering women with skills, confidence, and a support network. Njoroge’s journey from victim to advocate serves as a powerful testament to the transformative potential of justice and compassion.

A significant highlight of the Beyond the Bars conference was the launch of Sisters on the Outside (SOTO), an initiative spearheaded by Clean Start Africa. SOTO aims to create a community of support for formerly incarcerated women, providing them a platform to share their experiences, challenges, and successes. The launch ceremony was a momentous occasion, symbolizing a united front in the fight against stigmatization and discrimination faced by women transitioning back into society.

Our meeting with Professor Amos Njuguna, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Transformative Teaching, Learning, and Research at the United States International University Africa (USIU Africa), was inspiring. As one of the oldest universities, USIU fosters an environment that encourages students and faculty to express themselves freely. Professor Njuguna shared compelling stories of students who, thanks to their time at the university, have found their voices and actively addressed challenges. He emphasized the importance of making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, prompting us to reflect on the question, “Whom have you made a difference for, and whose lives have you touched?” Professor Njuguna highlighted the university’s commitment to research beyond numbers, emphasizing the need to understand the profound stories and differences that lead to meaningful research outcomes. He took us back two decades, recounting how a reform prosecutor played a pivotal role in championing a cause that ultimately led to positive change. The presence of 64 nationalist representatives at the university adds a multicultural perspective, further enriching the academic environment. Our interaction with Professor Njuguna and the students at USIU left us with a deep appreciation for the university’s dedication to transformative education and research that seeks to address the root causes of societal issues.

Right/Write to Heal, recognizing the synergy in their mission with Clean Start Africa, and SOTO actively participated in a press conference, discussions, and panels during the three-day conference. Cheryl was invited to a local radio session to talk about the work, and the initiative’s focus on using creative writing as a therapeutic tool for incarcerated individuals complements Clean Start Africa’s holistic approach. Through shared experiences and collaborative efforts, the conference provided a fertile ground for building alliances and fostering a network of support that transcends borders.

The Beyond the Bars conference 2023 in Nairobi symbolizes a significant stride in the journey toward a more just Africa. The gathering of advocates, organizations, and influential figures, such as Teresa Njoroge, showcased a collective commitment to reforming the justice system. Clean Start Africa’s dedication to empowering incarcerated women, exemplified through the launch of Sisters on the Outside (SOTO), emerges as a beacon of hope for those overcoming significant challenges. Right/Write to Heal proudly aligns with the vision of a compassionate and inclusive justice system, standing in solidarity with these transformative initiatives. The collaborative spirit among these organizations ensures a ripple effect of positive change, promising to impact countless lives and contribute to the realization of a more just and equitable society. As we reflect on the conference’s outcomes, it becomes clear that the path toward healing and transformation is illuminated by the tireless efforts of those advocating for justice and empowerment.

You can watch more of the conference and live streams at these links.