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I found freedom in prison behind decks

John Mutembei aka DJ Oxygen is an inmate serving a life sentence at Kamiti Maximum Prison. However, the self-trained deejay breathes an air of freedom into his fellow prisoners through his music mix

Njange Maina @NjangeWaEunice On April 12, 2012, a Nanyuki court magistrate slammed the gavel to give John Mutembei Muthama a death sentence. Inside the courtroom, John shied away from his family members; he felt he had betrayed them.

After the judgment was read, he was whipped away and taken to Kamiti Maximum Prison where he was to be confined until his hanging. He was only 22. So, where did all this start? Growing up, the last born of the Muthamas dreamt of working hard and ellevate his family from poverty.

So, when he got a job as a cab driver in Nanyuki town, he gave it his all. And his life went on well until February 25, 2010. That fateful night, John claims that two men entered his cab and requested to be driven to a nearby bank. It was around 11pm.

When they reached their destination, the men alighted and headed for the ATM section. They were to pay John from the cash they would withdraw, so he waited for them. Hardly had the men left the car than heavily armed police surrounded them. It turned out that the police had been trailing them.

On seeing the police, the two fled. John was arrested and his attempts to convince the police that he was only a driver and the men had hired him were futile. “It happened so fast. I was confused.

One moment I was driving my clients, the other minute I was being arrested for a crime I was not even aware of,” he recalls. On March 8, 2010, John appeared before a Nanyuki court and his charge sheet read robbery with violence. It was such a heinous crime.

But after two years of a strenuous court process, John was unable to prove to the court that he indeed wasn’t a criminal and hence the judge sealed his fate. “It was in the courtroom where I first saw my mum sob. After the death sentence, she thought it was the last time she was seeing her son.

A son she had raised in Christian ways and whom she always prayed for,” John narrates. But former President Mwai Kibaki in 2009 and President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016 ordered that the sentence of everyone sentenced to death be changed to one of life imprisonment.

This was also upheld by Supreme Court in December last year. In Kenya, no one has actually been killed by the state in fulfilment of a sentence of death since 1987.

Those executions were of people convicted of treason — in connection with the coup attempt of 1982. Privilege Fast forward, it is now seven years since Kamiti, the country’s most secured prison, became John’s home. Life and circumstances have changed John’s perception about freedom.

And he decided to become a born-again Christian, which he says, helped him to see the beautiful side of life. At Kamiti, the once known as John is now DJ Oxygen; he breathes an air of freedom into his fellow inmates. He is the first DJ in the prison.

When visitors go to Kamiti, John at times gets an opportunity to entertain them. In the prison, owning a laptop is a great privilege. A privilege accorded to few who show change of behaviour. John says that for him, it was a ‘favour from God’. John had joined a Christian fellowship at the prison.

From the entertainment sessions, he developed passion for Djeeing. John later expressed his interest to the prison authorities, who contacted his family to buy him the deejaying equipment.

Apart from entertaining fellow inmates, John wishes that one day, he would get an opportunity to inspire the public outside prison and also educate young people not to engage in crime.

“I use the privileges I have here to mix peace themed songs,” says John, “Our current situation should not limit our dreams, and freedom is in the air,” he adds.

As we end the interview, John says that though he hasn’t fulfilled his dream, he cannot regret serving a sentence in prison as he is still making an impact behind bars.

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