It could be an empty bed or an untouched room. An automated horoscope on their Twitter account or a dormant Facebook profile. All that remains are memories. A family photo no one talks about anymore. Things left unsaid. Spaces left unfilled. Some choose to keep them that way in the hope that their loved one will walk back through the door.
But they don’t always do.
Mohammed Abdulkarim, popularly known as Czars, has been missing since October 2006. The teen heartthrob was barely a week away from his final high school exams and on the verge of what looked like it would be a wildly successful music career. The skinny, light-skinned 17-year-old was a national sensation for his song “Amka Ukatike.” Yet that day in 2006, he took a walk from their family home and never came back. Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade.
For Abdullahi Boru, those constant reminders are embedded in his career after his best friend and former housemate, Bogonko Bosire, went missing in September 2013. Bogonko was a pioneer blogger who ran a popular and controversial tabloid. He went missing at the height of the International Criminal Court cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, and from the little we know so far, probably because of them. “I’ve known Bogonko Bosire since 2000 when we joined journalism school. Then after we were done we shared a house as we fit into our first jobs” Boru says. For him, Bosire is still in the present tense, an unsolved disappearance that will one day have a solution. That same year, in December, a senior State House advisor called Albert Muriuki also disappeared. His case too, remains unsolved.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade
For the family of independence hero Kung’u Karumba, one of the Kapenguria Six, that has been a 43-year-long wait. The freedom fighter disappeared in 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda and was most likely caught up in political upheaval. But there has never been any proof of his death, so his family has kept hope alive. In 2004, 30 years after he went missing, his youngest wife Esther Wanjiru told The Standard “I am still waiting for him to show up in his pickup van, KPD 304.”
Without a Trace
“The reasons why people go missing are almost as varied as the people themselves,” a tracing investigator who requested anonymity tells me. Outside of extrajudicial killings and conflict, other reasons why people disappear include kidnappings, accidents and suicide. Someone can leave intentionally because they decided to, or drifted away. Someone can be forced to go missing because of disease or an accident. Mental health conditions rank highly here.
A close friend’s family once lost her 80-year-old grandmother, who suffered from dementia, for three weeks. She turned up in Dodoma, Tanzania with no memory of how she got there. In an email conversation, a lady called Sharon Johnston who lives in New Zealand told me about the fruitless search for her father, Dr. Tony Johnston who had lived and worked in Kenya for three decades. She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight knit circle.
In the course of a week, I counted at least nine missing persons’ posters placed in different digital spaces, including several news alerts. Eight were kids below twelve years of age, and the ninth involving a teen, was deemed resolved after she was found at a friend’s house. I also scoured through a Facebook page called Kenya Missing & Unidentified Persons, which was set up to help families find their loved ones. Although it has not been updated since 2015, the page gives a small sample size of the people who go missing in Kenya. Of about 30 cases posted in a period of six months, most of them were relatively young (17-30 years old) and from a cursory glance, from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Almost all the cases involving older people, above 60 years of age, mentioned some form of mental illness.
She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight-knit circle.
While Sharon was lucky in a way, most aren’t. Law enforcement agencies do not give priority to missing persons’ cases, and in some of them, are actually complicit. In one recent example, a human rights lawyer called Willie Kimani, his client, and a taxi driver were kidnapped and then killed by police officers. Such extrajudicial killings are at times followed by attempts to hide the bodies, or disfigure them beyond recognition.
Such police brutality and state violence have a long history in Kenya, even before the genocidal ‘50s. In precolonial Kenya, it was not unusual for people to leave and simply never come back. Some died in skirmishes, while others fell sick along the way. Others simply moved and made new homes elsewhere, sometimes leaving even their spouses behind. In the social dynamics of the time, this was not as serious as it is today, but the heartbreak was no less real.
But in that decade of the Mau Mau rebellion, disappearances especially of men from around Mount Kenya became commonplace. This would happen again, in the 2000s as Interior Security Minister John Michuki led a murderous effort to kill off the Mungiki, literally in this case. From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008. He was a young, skinny lad with shaggy hair, and most likely got caught up in the extrajudicial war on the Mungiki.
If someone you know goes missing today, the process goes something like this. You make a report to a police station where a bored police officer records your complaint. Then forwards it to a police station with an investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). If it’s a high profile case then it might get priority, and the digital and physical search will begin immediately. If you are absolutely lucky, and this is rare, then you will never get to hear those debilitating words “investigations are still ongoing” and “the file is still open.”
But more often than not, you will be unlucky. There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark. Access to a telecom company’s data may provide some answers as to the last place a phone was on, as well as the last people the person talked to. A find such as a car or clothes, as was the case with IEBC manager Chris Msando, may hint at a few things, but mostly say nothing. Add to this the fact that the investigation process is so opaque and complicated that it often feels like law enforcement agencies are not doing enough.
Most families supplement this with either searching for the person themselves or even hiring private investigators. A search of morgues is a common go-to solution, but it is often based on the hope that if the person is dead, they would be in the specific morgues the search party is looking into. The same goes for hospitals and hospices, and the search is grueling. At least one independent missing persons’ investigator was described to me as “…someone who walks into morgues the way he would a coffee shop.”
From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008.
There are other avenues. The Red Cross has a tracing department in its offices across the world, including Kenya. The project, called “Restoring Family Links” is designed to help people look for their family members or restore contact with them. Their focus though, is on people who’ve gone missing due to conflict, disaster or migration. Without enough resources to expand this to cover all missing persons cases, even their assistance is limited.
Public appeals for information sometimes work. They can yield information about a sighting or identification of places where the family can start looking. But more often than not, each appeal for information is followed by many false leads. In the search for the teenage heartthrob Czars, for example, one of the earliest seemingly credible leads came from an entertainment journalist. He had gotten it from a source he trusted, and it looked promising at the time. Czars, the intel suggested, was living in Eastleigh, likely in the company of an older fling. That singular statement led to a wild-goose chase with journalists and the musician’s father scouring Eastleigh in vain.
Another infamous false lead example is in the days after Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki was killed. After he disappeared in early March 1975, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi confidently said he had left the country for Zambia. It took a newspaper report to dispute this, and for five whole days, no one knew what had happened to the charismatic MP. His body was eventually found on March 12, 1975, mutilated.
Two decades before, another missing persons case had stood out in a decade of conflict. Mau Mau leader Stanley Mathenge disappeared one night in 1956, and for years the official story was that he had gone to Ethiopia to seek assistance for the cause. It stopped there, never explaining why the freedom army’s most formidable military mind chose to abandon the cause. Years later, in 2003, a stranger from Ethiopia was feted in his place, not only costing taxpayers’ money but also leaving the government embarrassed.
Like JM, its more likely Matheng’e never left Kenya. The most likely scenario was that his compatriot and power rival, Dedan Kimathi, had him killed and then weaved the Ethiopia story to avoid internal strife. Kimathi was himself shot and arrested later that year.
Some leads seem purely coincidental and others outright suspicious. In the case of Bogonko Bosire, that happened to be a terror attack. The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming. So they looked, through the rows upon rows of dead bodies from the mall, to no avail. A few times since, there has been some activity on his social media profiles. The last, at 5:30pm on August 10th 2016, was a new profile picture and name on his Facebook profile. “From time to time I check his Twitter handle to see if he’s back,” Boru tells me as we discuss his hope that his friend is still out there somewhere.
Where do We Go from Here?
Many cases remain unsolved because there is no coordinated effort to actually find them. Even well-meaning investigators are hampered by one thing, the lack of dependable data. While some patterns are easy to see, most of them aren’t. A child who disappears from home while in the care of her nanny has most likely been kidnapped, but not always. An aging man with a mental condition who goes missing on his way home probably got lost, but not always. A young man who disappears on his way home could have been shot by the police, but not always.
There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark.
What Kenya needs is an integrated system that not only improves information flow between agencies and families, but also provides a support network for both. Part of this could be a searchable DNA and personal profile database for missing persons and unidentified remains. In countries like Scotland, for example, the standard operating procedures of policing give priority and resources to missing persons’ investigations.
There is some hope though. Earlier this year, the National Crime Research Center released a report on kidnappings in Kenya. In it, researchers found that you are most likely to be kidnapped if you are female, under 35 (and especially below 18) by men of around the same age. The report also ranked Kenya number 17 out of 19 in prevalence of kidnappings. It also looked into interventions and found that at least 12 different bodies, most of them government units such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are involved in addressing kidnapping cases. Some private organisations include Missing Child Kenya, which provides free resources to search for and rescue missing kids.
Still, there is a long way to go in improving our interventions in finding missing people. In 2008, the US state of New Jersey passed “Patricia’s Law”, a landmark law that describes the investigative process when looking for missing persons. Named after Patricia Viola, a 42-year-old wife and mother who disappeared in February 2001 (her remains were identified via DNA a decade later), the 2008 law was part of a combined effort beginning in 2004 to facilitate communication between agencies to ease the process of finding missing persons. The law not only dictates who should (and must) accept missing persons reports, but also describes stages in the investigation. For example, after 30 days missing, the law enforcement agency is required to take a DNA reference sample from the family. The DNA is run through the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons.
Beyond such a legislative backbone, law enforcement agencies also need dedicated resources and personnel. These can form the core structure to coordinate the effort with other agencies as well as stakeholders such as telecom companies. It would also ease communication with the families and friends, and even ease the pressure on morgues, hospitals and hospices.
The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming.
Dependable data will also help researchers identify patterns, and give law enforcement agencies to investigate. As is, beyond their current training and help from telecom agencies and the public, there is little else to go on. No one knows for sure how many people are currently missing, and without that, it is impossible to actually to solve open cases, and even mitigate future ones. Such patterns can be age, gender, risk, and even location. Disappearances of young women in one specific location, or area, could point towards a serial killer, for example. A string of disappearances of kids could point to a human trafficking ring, or even something more sinister.
Anyone can disappear without a trace. Even people in the limelight like Czars, Bogonko Bosire, and Albert Muriuki. All these cases remain unsolved, but their families and friends maintain the hope that that won’t be the case forever. They are only three in an ever-growing list of people who have gone missing without a trace, leaving behind nothing but memories and a never ending worry. The worry that someone is in trouble, or is somewhere lost, is not easy on anyone. Some families simply seek closure, a body to bury even, or just answers. But they are few and far between, and mostly obtained through sheer luck and at times effective policing.
For some those answers never come. As days become months, and then years, and memories fade, the lingering need to find those we love doesn’t dissipate. The worst, Sharon wrote, is in the not knowing.