BY SIGANGA MAKWATO
Life has never been a linear affair. But for others, the twists and turns it throws their way seem too much to bear. Susan Muthoni first got married when she was sixteen years.
By the time she celebrated her 20th birthday, she had already been widowed. Twice. Both men, one of whom fathered a child with her, were killed by the bullets from a gun belonging to the same man. And now, she fears she might be next. Her life hasn’t always been on the edge. The downward spiral started a few weeks into 2017.
Existence in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley is a combination of dreams and nightmares. As a young girl, she had believed in the infinite possibilities of the world. She believed everything that her youth spoke to. That she could be anything she set out to be. Unknown to her, the system had been rigged against her from the moment her mother gave birth to her.
A reality that dawned on her in bits and pieces that eventually fit into a near-perfect puzzle of struggle.
“I met Joseph Kahara while I was still in school,” Susan says. “He showed me what the world looked like outside the valley.”
Before Joseph, life had a familiar pattern to it. Conversations in her house were about dead beat fathers. About mothers holding fort for the family. About unpaid hospital bills and homes that depended on the local government for survival.
First you see him…then you don’t.
Mathare Valley is made up of five villages. If you walk into any of them, you will meet some of the friendliest people you’ll ever encounter. Here, although life has its ups, some certain joie-de-vivre exists among the residents.
And within this thirst for life also exists beliefs and urban legends that have been passed on from generation to generation since the settlement sprung into existence.
“The worst mistake you can make as a young man involved in anything illegal is get your girlfriend pregnant,” Alphonse Were, a community leader in Mathare says. “You never see your child.”
He, like many of his peers believe in a certain karmic relationship between good and evil. That for a young, probably wanted man’s unborn child to get space, his father must exit the stage in a most violent way.
“Young men have been gunned down while taking their wives to hospitals. Others on their way to see their new-born sons and daughters,” Alphonse says.
But for the year and a half that Susan and Joseph shared their lives, this accepted give-and-take never crossed their mind. Together they would conquer the world. But a bullet straight through his chest ended all this.
Susan never saw him alive again. Data from justice group Missing Voices puts those who have disappeared of killed by law enforcement at more than 100 people since the beginning of the year. Anecdotal data from community leaders puts the number at close to 150 young men.
For the young women of Mathare, these numbers are not just digits on an excel sheets bandied around by grass roots justice organisations. They represent something much bigger.
Some of the names represent a happier past. Some of them represent a future lost. All of them represent pain to those who lost their young ones.
“I remember that day very well. He was at a self- help group called Pirates helping set up a water tank stand,” Wambui says of his then husband Christopher Maina.
As the work was going on, a lady known to them ran towards them and told them that she had seen two policemen walking towards Pirates. In Mathare, policemen are feared and loathed in equal measure.
Their visits to the valley are never fully understood. Sometimes they come for good. Other times they come for the bad.
On that day, they went into Mathare for the worst. Knowing that he had done nothing wrong, Christopher held his own. He continued putting up the tank stand.
Those who were with him say he was bare chested, his shirt and phone down on the ground next to him. By the time the two officers got to Pirates, Christopher had climbed the stand.
Trying to hoist one piece of wood that would serve as the horizontal support to the tank that would sit on it. “They found him on the tank and told him to get down and wear his shirt,” a woman who was selling mandazi near Pirates on that day told Distory.
“We asked them where they were taking him but they told us not to worry. That he would soon be back to finish what he was doing.” The three men then cut through the humanity that dots the valley floor on every day and walked towards a popular place called Wanjas, located between Mlango Kubwa and Pangani.
At 25, Christopher was old enough to know that there is nothing like taking a stroll with policemen around the neighbourhood. Chances were that he would not be back.
“So he started pleading with them to let him go,” the woman who saw him being taken away said. “He was begging them not to harm him. He told them that he was expecting a child soon and that they shouldn’t do anything to him.”
But the men continued to march. The two policemen were well known in the neighbourhood. The first was called Mkisii. The second was called Rashid.
This time, perhaps all that went through Christopher’s mind was his pregnant wife and the two weeks that remained before she gave birth. “He again begged them not to harm him.
He told them if they wanted to kill him, they could take him to the cell for two weeks and shoot him after he saw his child,” the woman says. Christopher’s please fell on deaf ears.
Before the trio got to Mlango Kubwa stage, just a kilometre and a half from where he was picked up, Christopher was put on the ground belly-up, and shot. In the face. In the chest. And on the arms.
Before news of his death had reached Wambui, the streets had erupted. Spontaneous riots broke out throughout Mathare.
The residents were up in arms over the manner in which he had been executed. As teargas canisters flew towards the houses and stones were hurled towards the police, Christopher’s body lay on the tarmac between these two sides.
He lay there until 4PM, four hours from the time he had been shot. His body was taken to Pangani Police Station, from where the two policemen operated from.
“My son was born on the night his father was buried,” Wambui says. “A life for a life.”
The exit of her husband and the entry of her son disrupted her world.
“There are many of us who have been left to bring up our families alone,” she says. “Even if our men were thugs why not arrest them and take them to jail? Why kill them? Why kill even those who had chosen to reform.”
According to Kamukunji Human Rights Defenders Social Justice Centre, almost 15 young men are executed by police every year. “And these are the ones whose families are brave enough to come forward and complain,” Athman Saidi Kamau the organisations psychosocial counsellor says.
He says many of the widows have resorted to prostitution to make ends meet. “Others now have even gone back to the same lives of crime that took their husbands,” he says. His work, like many other social justice centres around the city is to document police brutality and excesses.
And this has come at a personal cost not just to him, but to others in this space.
“I had a case of an extrajudicial execution I was following in November of November. A man I believe to be a policeman came to my office and pointed a gun at me. He told me to keep off or else they will kill me. Since that day I have been living in fear,” Athman says.
Even those left behind are too living in fear.
About women who left for work at night and never returned. About fathers serving lifelong prison sentences and loyal-to-a-fault wives who were always shuttling between their homes with thermoses full of thin tea and bread in their handbags on a weekly basis to see their men behind bars.
“Joseph showed me possibilities. That there was a life outside Mathare,” she says. “He made me dream of a better life.”
For her, Joseph represented not just a way out, but a way in to a life she only dreamt of. Moving out of the ghetto. Starting a family that had both parents present.
The possibilities seemed endless. Like many other men his age, the 18-year-old Joseph used to leave the house and go ‘hustle.’ His education was limited.
But, friends say, his ambition pushed him to get involved in many things. Some legal. Others not. One day, you could spot him hanging out with known gang members.
The next, he would be helping out women at the market offload groceries for sale off motorbikes. For him, the line between right and wrong turned blurry when it came to providing for his wife and an unborn baby.
And on 11th February, Joseph’s world and the real one collided. The effects were devastating for Susan. They were worse for Joseph.
This collision had a fatal finality for him, crushing down all the dreams the two young lovebirds had. Tearing their family apart.
On June 30th Rashid walked into Mathare Social Justice Centre with two of his colleagues. After introducing themselves, they said they had gone to the centre to lodge a complaint against an individual called Ali who had been badmouthing Rashid on various social media platforms.
Two female employees were present at the time. According to a press release by the justice centre, the employees said they did not know the person Rashid was talking about. The policeman then insisted that he wanted to give his side of the story to the justice centre.
He then insisted that one of the employees, Lucy Wambui, serves him tea. “It is important to note that Lucy Wambui’s husband, Christopher Maina, was killed by Rashid in 2017. A witness to Maich’s killing was also killed by Rashid in 2018,” the statement from Mathare Social Justice Centre reads.
Two years after burying her husband, death is yet to leave Wambui’s heart. “Death is not a journey that someone will come back from,” she says. “But it is a journey that one never forgets.” Six months after burying her first husband, and aged only 17, Susan met someone else.
“I am only human,” she says. “When my first husband was shot dead, my mother had just had brain surgery. Life was tough. And I met a man, Cosmas, who loved me with all my baggage.”
Nine months of romance followed, but death was snapping at its heels. And on the evening of December 21st 2017, Cosmas, who had taken up to Susan’s son like his own, left the house in search of a Christmas present for his son.
“All I heard were gunshots. I tried to call him but his phone was off,” she says. Word around Mathare was that some boys had been executed the previous night.
“I decided to go to city mortuary and found two of his friends in the mortuary. His body was brought in on the 27th of December. We counted 21 bullet wounds in his body. You couldn’t even lift his arm without it falling apart. I had been widowed for the second time,” she says. “He put in me a wound that will never heal.”
Susan and Wambui may not know each other, but their lives are irredeemably intertwined by life’s cruel hand.
A hand that some of those with the responsibility of holding the state to account are attempting to stop.
“The number of young people being brutalized and executed by rogue officers is alarming,” Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja said in a Senate address on February 20th 2020.
“We must demand that all those responsible be reprimanded, dismissed and prosecuted in accordance with the law not transferred to other stations.”
In early July, Rashid was transferred from his posting at Pangani Police Station. He defended his stay at the post in an interview with Kenyan daily, People Daily.
“All the stories you hear being peddled about me are pure rumours being passed around by some of my colleagues envious of my effectiveness in executing my duties,” he told People Daily.
“If I have done any wrong, why have I not been arrested and charged in a court of law as required?” While speaking at the Senate, Sakaja said that in the last 15 months, 107 men and women have been killed by police officers.
“50% of these killings have taken part in Nairobi County. 69% of the dead were between 18-35 years and less than 10% of these cases have led to arrests or prosecution of these officers,” Sakaja said.
|The numbers||The Reality|
|50 percent of countrywide killings||Nairobi County|
|69 percent||Aged 18-35|
|Only 10 percent of killings||Led to arrests|
Over the past 15 months that Senator Sakaja addressed his peers at the national assembly, many of the 107 deaths he inferred to got a lonely exit from the stage of life.
Often, their families are not allowed to mourn them. Funeral meetings to condole the family are hushed up with members of law enforcement disrupting ongoing meetings to further intimidate the living.
For them, death is not enough of a warning. But in all this, one man braves it all and walks in front of the coffins of the young men and women whose lives have been cut short.
He says he has nothing to fear and that if a similar fate were to meet him years ago when he was a street smart thug, he would want someone to pray for his soul.
Man of God
Pastor Edwin Mungai hasn’t had it easy. “Today I pray that the policemen will get peace of mind. Some of them will have wayward children so I pray that they speak to the young men and women just as I was spoken to. Don’t kill these young men,” Pastor Mungai says in a sermon in his church in Nairobi’s Rongai area.
His church is a small unfinished structure. The stone walls are rough, yet to be plastered. The floor uneven and full of cement dust. The beige chairs are arranged in a neat row, all fifty of them. His pew is made of a blue top and a clear base. A tattered bible sits on it.
“This bible has seen many things,” he says. “And it has sent many people to the next world.” When mothers want their children buried by a man of God, they look to Mungai. “Some pastors have been intimidated to not bury these young men. I have attended ceremonies where the family is given just 15 minutes to inter their dead. You don’t even have time to preach to the family. And after the time is up, policemen start dispersing mourners.”
These are the lucky ones. Others are never even given the opportunity to bury their dead.
“Many do not agree to bury because they can’t be paid. I am called to preach…they know I have lived their lives. I too was lost so if I can save their souls even in death so be it,” he says.
Pastor Mungai has lived his life and says that his daily prayer is for the young men and women killed on Nairobi streets find their way out, and somehow escape the grip of a painful death.
“They can find themselves and move forward,” he says. Until they do, he remains willing to accompany the condemned dead in their final journeys.
“This is my calling. I am just answering it. Jesus came for the thieves, prostitutes and drunkards. That is why I bury them.”