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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II, in general, suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories
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Before 2:30 pm on 12th February 1944, everything on SS Khedive Ismail was as normal as things aboard a troopship could be. In the music room on the upper decks, someone was playing the Warsaw Concerto on the grand piano. In the lower decks and the cargo hold, which had been converted into barracks mainly for the black soldiers, it was hot and humid. Both spaces would become death traps within a matter of seconds, and the grand piano, a weapon.

A lookout, probably bored out of his mind, noticed a periscope peeking from the water. He raised the alarm, alerting the gunners to the position of the Japanese submarine deftly charging towards SS Khedive Ismail. The troopship was on a routine mission to deliver troops, mainly East Africans, from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before their onward journey to Burma (now Myanmar). It was part of a convoy codenamed KR8, which had begun its journey from Kilindini port in Mombasa a week earlier.

The alarm was a little too late. Just as the gunners opened fire, the submarine fired four torpedoes. Two missed, but the other two found their target. The first struck the engine room. The second hit the boiler room. The troopship listed, and in less than two minutes, disappeared under the water. The other troopships and the destroyers in the convoy, codenamed KR8, barely had time to react or help. They fled to safety before two destroyers doubled back to face the Japanese submarine and to rescue survivors.

As the troopship sank, survivors clutched onto whatever they could get their hands on. The Japanese submarine, I-27, hid beneath them as the destroyers in the convoy doubled back and tried to hit it with depth charges, killing even more of the survivors. The submarine was eventually forced to surface, and one of the destroyers, Palladin, rammed into it. The hit breached the destroyer’s hull, forcing it to retreat and leave the work to the other destroyer in the convoy, the HMS Petard. The Petard’s torpedoes hit the submarine at 5:30pm, three hours after SS Khedive Ismail had sunk. The sub broke into two and sank with everyone on board.

Aboard the SS Khedive Ismail before the sinking had been 1, 511 people, 996 of whom were members of the 301st Field Regiment, East African Artillery. Only 215 people would make it out alive. The survivors were rescued once the submarine had been sank and moved on to Ceylon, where they got survival leave for two weeks before rejoining the war effort.

Of the 1, 296 people who died that day, only four of them were given a proper sea burial. The rest were left in the shark-infested waters, far from home and virtually forgotten.

***

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail is the subject of Brian J. Crabb’s 1997 book Passage to Destiny. In an email conversation, Crabb says his interest stems from his father, Percival Crabb, who “…was a fortunate survivor of the sinking, escaping through an open porthole with his leg still in plaster!”

In the book, Crabb includes an extensive appendix with all the names and ranks/roles of everyone, black and white, on board the doomed ship. The list of East Africans, mainly from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, takes up several pages. The troops are ranked by names, rank, and number. That’s all we know about Warrant Officers Alfani Ndagile, Kathuka Ndajo, Mua Kilonzi, Muema Ileli, Selemani Mzee, Shabani Mbaraku and Siligwi Mwita. The seven of them were the highest ranking enlisted men among the hundreds of East African troops who died that day. Most of the East African casualties were gunners.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

When World War II began, there were only 2,900 men in the Kings African Rifles (KAR). The real threat of an Italian invasion from Ethiopia, and the entry of Japan into the war, drove the need for fast mobilisation.

Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) was a relatively prosperous time for Kenyan farmers, it gutted the settler economy and the colony’s budgets. Job opportunities in urban areas and farms dwindled, and crime levels in the former rose for a time. Combined with the crop failure of 1939, it meant that the best option for young men was to join the military. Any able-bodied man could enlist, although there had been restrictions as late as 1941 based on ethnicity. The Pioneer Corps, for example, were initially recruited from Western Kenya.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

In his memoirs, Fan to Flame, John G Gatu, the future Reverend and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, writes that he joined the armed forces because he was unemployed. Gatu joined the Signal Corps and served in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Like Gatu, Waruhiu Itote (General China) joined the military because he was unemployed and “to escape the boredom”.

For some, the economic benefits were a result, not a motivation, of being recruited. Kenya’s first four-star general, Jackson Mulinge, accidentally found himself in the military after he chose the wrong day to go to Machakos to sell a chicken. A recruitment officer grabbed the teenager and conscripted him, marking the beginning of a journey that would see him climb up the ranks over the next three decades.

The contracts the new recruits signed stated that they would be discharged “after the cessation of hostilities”. Most of them were in their early 20s, still single, and because of the education policies at the time, barely literate, if at all. By the end of the war, in 1945, there were nearly 100,000 Kenyans in the military either as members of the Kings African Rifles or the Pioneer Corps, a successor of the Carrier Corps.

Being a soldier meant a steady income and other benefits, such as being exempt from excruciating hut and poll taxes. It also gave the soldiers a common martial identity as well as exposed them to unprecedented trauma and horrors that would also go largely undocumented.

In the heat of war, despite concerns from the settler community about everything from labour supply to the economic and security risks, thousands of Kenyans were trained, armed, and deployed to fight in Northern Kenya, North Africa, and Asia. They were all enlisted men, meaning they could never rise beyond the rank of Warrant Officer. That would be one of the challenges in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of independence two decades later.

Discipline was still enforced mainly with corporal punishment. Major infractions were punished with a kiboko, while cowardice was punished with execution. There were at least three incidents of retaliation, once when a sergeant shot and killed three officers, and then when two enlisted men were executed for shooting officers and wounding others with a grenade.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had. They had not only seen the perils of war but they had also been exposed to a new lifestyle, and had had a steady income and developed new habits. Gatu, in his book, offers that the war was the beginning of unparalleled drug use among the troops. Every week, the soldiers would be issued with matches, soap, and cigarettes.

But they were also liquid and most of them were still young, single and raring to go. Studies of the post-war period mention a rising discomfort with the power held by chiefs and elders, as well as inflation in the social scene as bride price was hiked.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had.

The money they had made could not last forever. Many of them applied for trade, shop and transport licences, only to be met by a racist bureaucracy that expected them to fall back to wage labour, primarily in agriculture. Some re-enlisted into the Kings African Rifles, while others struck out in new businesses. Others, like my grandfather, used the training they had obtained during the war to eke out a living as health officers and drivers.

A number of the former soldiers were involved in the political upheaval of the late 1940s and the 1950s, but not to as significant a level as one would imagine. Dedan Kimathi, the de facto leader of the Mau Mau, was only a soldier for a month in 1940 before he was dishonourably discharged for violence and drunkenness.

Some rejoined the KAR and other disciplined units, but a large number disappeared into the normalcy of reserve life.

What’s less acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of them from scattered memoirs and academic studies. Several memorials and cemeteries in major towns celebrate their lives and sacrifice, but very few black soldiers are named.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail was also problematic because of its magnitude; it was the single largest loss of East African troops, and third worst Allied mercantile shipping disaster of World War II. Publicizing it in the immediate aftermath would have affected recruitment and morale as the sinking of SS Mendi during World War I had done with South African troops.

What’s lesser acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of their experiences from scattered memoirs and academic studies.

Despite Kenya’s central role as the home of the East African force, the Eastern Fleet, and also as a war front with Italy, the war itself is merely a footnote in the events that followed in the next decade. Thousands of enlisted men who died for a cause they didn’t necessarily believe in remain mainly nameless and unacknowledged. The unit that suffered the heaviest losses, the 301st Field Regiment, had been formed just two years before and had already served in Madagascar. The only thing that remains in their memory is a plaque at the Nairobi War Cemetery. Few of the thousands of Kenyans who died on different fronts and missions are named, and their stories have all but disappeared. Even the wounds of war, such as the bombing of Malindi and the Italian excursion 100km into Kenya, are now mere footnotes in history.

It is a significant gap in our military history, and if the lacklustre coverage of our eight-year war in Somalia is anything to go by, a part of our national ethos.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice

As Kenya’s forgotten mothers get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers.

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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice
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It was around 2 pm, 9th August, a day after the 2017 general election. Bernard, 25, and Victor, 22, alighted from different matatus in Nairobi’s Mathare neighbourhood. Bernard got off at stage number 10, while Victor, who was technically his younger brother, was dropped off hapo kwa vitanda (at the roadside kiosks)according to their mother’s account. Born to sisters, Bernard’s mother passed away when he was barely in his teens. He then moved in with his aunt, Mama Victor, who raised him alongside her three sons and daughter.

‘‘They grew up together,’’ Mama Victor told me when I met her in Mathare. ‘‘They were both my sons.’’

Bernard was back from Gikomba, where he worked as a tailor. Victor, a casual labourer, had come from his place of work in Westlands. They had voted in Mathare the previous morning, before reporting to work a little late than usual. On reporting to work on the 9th, they were both granted a day off, seeing that the country was on edge awaiting results of the hotly contested presidential election. Upon arriving in Mathare, the brothers found the roads blocked by protestors coming from as far as Dandora and Kayole, held back by a police cordon. That is why both Bernard and Victor disembarked from their matatus before arriving at their designated stage.

‘‘When they got off the matatus,’’ Mama Victor narrates, ‘‘they found huge crowds gathered in front of them.’’

After quickly reconnecting, Bernard and Victor looked around, recognizing familiar faces. Curious to know what the hullabaloo was all about, they walked over to their friends, asking what the matter was.

‘‘They liked asking each other Rada?Rada?’’ Mama Victor tells me, Sheng for, what’s the plan?

‘‘They didn’t even get too far into the crowd,’’ Mama Victor recollects being told by witnesses what happened.

‘‘Bernard was suddenly shot in the head, his brains blown out. Victor was shot in the stomach. I believe Victor was shot twice, though the medical report says he was shot once. His intestines spilled out. He had to hold them back using both his hands.’’

‘‘When Victor’s intestines fell out,’’ Mama Victor says and pauses, drifting away in thought…‘‘You know there are those things which if they happen to you, your body suffers a huge shock. I think when both Victor and the policemen saw his intestines hanging, they were all terrified. So Victor tried holding his intestines back, as the policemen rushed to where he was, as if they had just realized whatever damage they had done.’’

‘‘He succumbed before getting to the local hospital,’’ she says, ‘‘where the police were rushing him to.’’

Bernard, who Mama Victor says died instantly from the shot in the head, was left lying at the scene. There was nothing to salvage, with his skull shattered. A third young man, who Mama Victor says was called Paul Omena from Huruma area, and whose parents she hasn’t been able to locate to date, was also shot dead. A fourth, the luckier one of the lot, survived with a bullet wound.

Mathare had swallowed her sons alive

News reached Mama Victor at her Mathare Area 4A home that kuna vijana wameangushwa ( Some young men have been shot dead). What no one told her was that two of those vijanas were her sons. At about 3 pm, a sympathetic eyewitness knocked on her door and broke the news. Her two sons were dead.

‘‘I didn’t understand what they meant when they said my sons had been killed by the police,’’ Mama Victor remembers, ‘‘They had never had any run-ins with law enforcement. I even wondered why they had to kill them both. It didn’t make sense. Families in Mathare lost sons, but losing two sons at one go was strange.’’

By the time she got to the scene, Bernard’s body had been taken away. There was heavy police presence at the scene, Mama Victor recollects. Mathare was uninhabitable and inconsolable.

Permission to Mourn

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘I was lucky because at least the police allowed us to mourn my sons,’’ she says. ‘‘Others are not so lucky.’’

One may wonder why anyone would need permission from the police to mourn their loved ones, usually shot dead by the police. But in Mathare’s stark reality, when young men are shot dead by the police, families have to negotiate with law enforcement for them to be allowed to either hold vigils, publicly fundraise or even erect a tent where mourners gather to condole with the family.

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘Here in Mathare,’’ Mama Victor explains, ‘‘if your son is killed and the police label him a criminal, they won’t allow you to mourn him. You can’t have any gatherings. They won’t allow it to happen and if you insist on going ahead with one anyway, they will walk in and arrest you. Everyone here knows that much”.

Besides the ‘privilege’ of mourning Victor and Bernard, neighbours warned Mama Victor that she had to transport the bodies of her sons out of Nairobi before the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of the August 8 presidential election. By this time, the opposition coalition was in the final stages of arguing its petition against what it considered an irregular presidential vote. Kenya continued to be on tenterhooks.

‘‘There were fears in Mathare that whichever way the Supreme Court ruled,’’ Mama Victor remembers,‘‘a fresh wave of protests and police killings would break out, meaning no one would risk coming out to help me with either fundraising or funeral arrangements. I had to move fast. I was mourning and simultaneously thinking on my feet. You carry the pain of unfair deaths in your heart, but still keep your head functioning.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

‘‘It was a quick burial,’’ Mama Victor narrates. ‘‘By the time we got to Western Kenya, we found the graves had already been dug and went right ahead with the internment. My sons had overstayed at the morgue.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

The Pursuit of Justice

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in Mathare that Victor and Bernard were killed by the police. Hundreds of protestors witnessed their shooting.The police themselves went as far as attempting to save Victor’s life, seeing that he hadn’t died instantly. In an ideal scenario, the case should have been an open and shut matter, with the National Police Service owning up to its officer’s excesses. Even more encouraging was the fact that there now existed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian agency created by an Act of Parliament (2011), which is mandated with ensuring civilian oversight on police action.

However, to the surprise of Mathare residents who have been following the case, justice remains elusive.

‘‘There are people here in Mathare who have video recordings of the police either summarily executing or beating someone to death,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘If you asked people to bring those video clips today,they’ll come forward. But what we have learnt is that no matter what amount of evidence you have, there are no guarantees that justice will be done. I have waited since 2017 for something to be done to get justice for my sons. To date, nothing has been done by either IPOA or the numerous human rights organizations.’’

After the shooting of her sons, the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC), one of the pioneer grassroots documenters of extrajudicial killings, reached out to Mama Victor. In a sense, MSJC has become the last line of defense for Mathare residents, where beyond just securing and preserving evidence in the form of detailed statements, young men have literally sought refuge at the center while being pursued by killer cops. However, for a community-based organization, MSJC, like other social justice centers across Nairobi’s informal settlements, has huge limitations, starting with budgetary and capacity constraints. MSJC therefore acts as a conveyor belt for IPOA and more established human rights organizations, to whom they hand over statements and evidence, with the expectation of an escalation of matters; prosecution and compensation.

MSJC was therefore Mama Victor’s first port of call, from where she was assisted to lodge her case with IPOA and a number of human rights organizations, whose mandate includes seeking legal redress in cases such as hers. Mama Victor must have been mistaken to imagine that her case would be given first priority, because of the available evidence and the enormity of her loss. The death of her two sons. To date, IPOA is yet to present her case to court over a year and a half later.

‘‘A lot of times these women don’t even have bus fare,’’ Wangui Kimari of MSJC, tells me. ‘‘Yet we try to convince them to miss a day’s work for them to record statements with IPOA or attend follow up meetings. Sometimes we take their cases to human rights organizations with capacity to prosecute, but after going through the motions, they send us back to IPOA, citing one technicality or another. It gets extremely tiring and frustrating for these women. It starts to feel like justice is a mirage.’’

‘‘Being a witness in a case against the police can be difficult,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘You can be killed either before or after you testify. Yet if you go to IPOA, it doesn’t matter if you have video clips. They want witnesses, yet everyone is afraid. Why don’t they use other methods like examining bullets found in the bodies of victims and determining whose gun they originated from? People are totally afraid of testifying.’’

If you asked anyone in Mathare to testify in a courtroom against a policeman, they will most likely remind you of the case of Christopher Maina, where the lead witness was assassinated. Maina, a twenty-something year old who was picked up from Pirates base in Mathare just before the 2017 general election and shot dead by a plain clothes policeman. The summarily execution was witnessed by one of Maina’s friends. In the course of justice for Maina, the friend became a voluntary witness, going as far as recording a statement with IPOA. It was not long before Maina’s friend was murdered, a murder that Mathare residents attribute to a notorious killer cop.

‘‘If they can kill an IPOA witness,’’ a Mathare resident posed, ‘‘then who is safe to ever testify?’’

Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) have taken up some cases involving police shootings, which complaints were originally with IPOA. However, there is discontentment in the manner the cases are selected. Mathare residents wonder, why some cases are seemingly more equal than others.

‘‘We want the police prosecuted and our families compensated,’’ Mama Victor offers. ‘‘That’s all we want.’’

In the process of speaking to residents of Mathare, I learn that there are more families whose loved ones were shot during the 2017 general election. However, due to the amount of fear the police have instilled in Mathare, these aggrieved families have opted to suffer in silence than dare step up and speak up against police brutality. They won’t even record statements, suffering from a mind numbing mix of fear and trauma.

‘‘The other reason why some mothers and wives choose to live quietly with the pain is because they feel that even if they speak up, justice can never be done,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘They can see the trouble some of us have gone through, yet to date, nothing has happened. Not even a mere court case has been opened.’’

‘‘Some of those who are suffering the most are survivors of police shootings during the elections, from the campaign period,’’ a resident who sought anonymity tells me. ‘‘We have some who can’t even afford healthcare. They are rotting in their houses, straining their financially incapacitated families as they await death. Majority have become disabled. In fact there’s one who is still living with a bullet. Doctors said if they remove it, he would die. He is traumatized because he knows death is only a matter of time. Another one was shot on the shoulder. He was released from a moving police vehicle, and as he was running into his home when he got shot. We have all these cases in Mathare. But IPOA doesn’t want to come and setbase here.’’

Mothers and Widows

United in grief, Mama Victor joined a number of women and widows whose sons and husbands were either killed or injured by police bullets during the 2017 general election. They formed an association, the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors, borrowing a leaf from the hundreds of mothers and widows across Nairobi’s informal settlements, who have lost loved ones to extrajudicial killings over time.

‘‘Currently, my network has mothers and widows of 35 survivors, 12 victims and 12 orphans,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘The victims are the dead, survivors are those who were shot but didn’t die. Some are disabled.’’

Mama Victor, who is the group’s coordinator, tells me that after she met the mothers and widows inside the network she realized how dire things were for these women, not only for her who had lost two sons.

‘‘The youngest widow in my group is an 18 year old,’’ she says, ‘‘who lost her first husband to police bullets before she was 16. On turning 16, her second husband was shot during the 2017 general election. She’s now raising a three year old without a job or anyone to fend for her. Her own mother is bed ridden. Imagine that.’’

Aside from Mama Victor, the group, which has representation from various informal settlements in Nairobi including Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru, Kiambio, Kibera, among others, has a 27 year old who is raising two sons, a 12 and 7 year old, as the oldest member. The median age of group members is below 25, with majority of their children aged under 5. This terrifying reality is a function of a poverty stricken environment, where early marriage becomes a way out of destitution for most young girls.

On the passing of Victor and Bernard, Mama Victor was left with two young widows to cater for.

‘‘Both Bernard and Victor left a wife and a child’’ she says, ‘‘and so for the months following their killing, I had to support the young wives as much as I could. But in the end, I couldn’t manage to keep them afloat. Bernard’s wife, who was an orphan, remarried. She now has a two month old baby from her new marriage. Victor’s wife, who lost her mother, retreated to her village. They’re both just trying to move on with life.’’

From time to time, women in Mama Victor’s network have to make tough choices. One of the more common ones is the decision whether to work or pursue justice for their husbands and sons. But seeing that most women from Mathare work as domestic workers, it becomes difficult for their employers to allow them consecutive off days, especially when they need to interact with either human rights organizations or IPOA, in pursuit of their cases. Therefore a good number of the women end up either losing their jobs, or not earning enough to support their young families.

‘‘I had to quit my job because I had to seek justice for my sons,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘My employer couldn’t allow me to keep missing work. It became difficult chasing two birds at one go. I had to let go of one.’’

Even for those willing to work, Mama Victor tells me of kukaa kwa mawe (Sitting on stone blocks), where women go looking for work, but because the economy is doing badly, they end up sitting on the roadside the whole day, waiting for families to call them in for menial work. When the jobs aren’t forthcoming, it means families sleep hungry.

‘‘I visit them and feel their pain,’’ she says, ‘‘just to make them know we’re in this together. Someone should come to the rescue of these women, even if they’ll just take care of the kids. We’re already well organized.’’

‘‘I am sorry to say this,’’ Mama Victor opens up, ‘‘but the most heartbreaking thing I have had to live with has been knowing that some young widows have had to turn to prostitution. As a mother, nothing hurts me more than seeing young women resort to selling their bodies for survival. It tells you they have reached the end of the road and given up. They come to me hoping I can offer them something, anything. But when they get to my house, they realize that I am also literally living hand to mouth. We are really suffering.’’

‘‘My heart hurts deeply,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘It’s just that I can’t always display my heartbreak.’’

Being Mama Victor

After telling and retelling her story, either to human rights organizations documenting extrajudicial killings or to investigators at IPOA, Mama Victor has gotten to a point where all she can afford in terms of emotional giveaways is to strike a forlorn look. She tells me she has run out of tears, to a point where she now speaks about her sons’ deaths as if it were a distant occurrence from a faraway dream. She is a lonely spectator, burdened with nightmarish enduring memories.

Three weeks after burying her sons, Mama Victor was back in Mathare. She would have wanted to stay in the village longer, but things were a little complicated. Following Baba Victor’s death in 2010, she had run into problems with her husband’s family over her children’s inheritance, land. A helpless widow, she lacked financial or other muscle to push back against errant family members. She surrendered to her fate.

‘‘The entire village was on my side,’’ Mama Victor tells me, ‘‘but at the end of the day, there’s nothing they could do. The immediate family had the final say on the matter, and no one could overrule them. I lost out.’’

Mama Victor first came to Nairobi with the sole intention of pursuing her husband’s pension. He worked as a civil servant, but on investigating what had happened to Baba Victor’s retirement benefits, she was informed that the money had been disbursed to his bank account by the government, but that someone had mysteriously withdrawn the entire amount. There was no way she could be assisted, unless she pursued the matter with the police. Broke and dejected, Mama Victor retreated to a church in Eastleigh, where she was urged by a group of women congregants to start afresh, lest the weight of her tribulations overwhelmed and killed her.

‘‘I started doing domestic work for families in Eastleigh,’’ Mama Victor recalls, ‘‘earning 2,300 shillings per month. At the time, my children had moved in with my parents at their rural home in Busia.The money was so little. I felt stuck, unable to provide for my children in any meaningful way.’’

With the help of women from the church, who donated household items; a blanket here, a mattress there and a few sufurias, Mama Victor managed to start all over again. Her plan was to stabilize before bringing the children over, to join her in Nairobi. With a meagre salary and chattel from the women, she rented a place.

‘‘Rent was 1,300,’’ she says. ‘‘The deposit for the house was another 1,300. That means on the first month when I rented the place, I was left without a coin. In fact, I had to look for an extra 300 to clear the payment.’’

In her little house in Mathare, Mama Victor lived with her daughter and four sons, among them Victor and Bernard. They were joined by two sons born to Mama Victor’s brother in-law. It was a full house in the literal sense, but Mama Victor had no complaints. They were all happy together. With time, the boys started getting work, marrying and moving out. Other than her youngest son, who is now 12, Victor was the youngest of the lot, much as he seemed older than everyone else due to his impressive height.

‘‘He was handsome and tidy,’’ she says of Victor. ‘‘Everyone wanted to be like him, to imitate him. He loved cleanliness from the time he was a little boy. He always stood out. He was such a lovely boy.’’

Mama Victor runs out of adjectives describing her son. There is no doubt that Victor was his mother’s pride.

‘‘Bernard and Victor loved to fool around,’’ she says, ‘‘you can’t say they were violent. Bernard was talkative whenever he was with Victor, but wouldn’t talk much ordinarily. He used to stutter. They loved each other, but beyond that, they had so much love and respect for me. I wish you saw how they behaved around me. If they had passed here and seen me, they’d have come running, saying mathe, mathe, we hadn’t seen you. ’’

Listening to Mama Victor talk, there is no doubt that something truly precious was brutally taken away from her. She speaks fondly, especially of Victor, as if he left with some unfulfilled promises, possibly to work hard and lift his mother out of the precarious existence of his birth. Despite her stoicism, one cannot miss the moments of frailty in Mama Victor’s voice. No one can bring Victor and Bernard back to life but they should at least be consensus that their deaths were unfair and unjustified.

‘‘Vitu zilienda mrama,’’ she says, things went south.

‘‘Sijui nitafanyaaje.’’ I don’t know what to do now.

Tell Uhuru and Raila

On the day I am meeting Mama Victor, she has just come back from her last born son’s school, where the 12 year old is facing a disciplinary case. The teachers have refused to allow him back in class, demanding a considerable sum of money as compensation for whatever damage the boy caused at school. Mama Victor doesn’t have that kind of money, and therefore the headteacher turned her away, refusing to give her back her son’s school bag or allow him anywhere near the school.

With her is Terry, Victor’s three year old daughter, who keeps pulling at her dress, calling her shosho. After Victor’s wife retreated to live with her father in the village, Mama Victor was left with the responsibility of raising her grandchild, who was pretty unwell at the time of our meeting. Looking at Mama Victor nursing Terry – holding her in her lap, giving her water as if breastfeeding and offering her a sole ten shillings coin to buy candy at a nearby kiosk when the little one got restless, one is extremely moved by the plight of a woman, who has had to bury her sons and now single handedly raise their little children.

‘‘Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent.’’

After our long chat, Mama Victor tells me she has a message for two individuals; former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to her, Victor and Bernard, among tens of others – over 100 individuals according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), including a six-month infant and a 9 year old – all died because the two men were fighting for Kenya’s presidency. But after the dust settled, Uhuru and Raila made peace, and are now bosom buddies. Mama Victor’s question is, were Victor and Bernard, and the many others, mere collateral damage in a game of political chess? She wonders how the country can ever heal yet the bearers of the nation’s collective terminal pain and wounds have never spoken to it. Are they a sore reminder, to be erased and forgotten?

Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent

‘‘I want them to come here,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘We want nothing from them. We want to see them with our eyes, for them to see us and know that we exist. They need to know curses come in different forms. Our pain alone is a curse to them. We want absolutely nothing from them. But they must come here and see us.’’

Are Mama Victor’s words a warning shot, a threat, a plea, or all of them rolled into one? Will the big men and their peace-architects listen, or will Mama Victor’s cries and those of others go unheeded? As Kenya’s Mama Victors get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers. That day, the chain holding Kenya together shall surely break.

 

Postscript: The network of mothers and widows of victims and survivors invited the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC) on 04 July, to ‘‘reflect on case management, witness protection, advocacy and psychosocial support.’’ IPOA didn’t show up. 

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Borders versus People – Part II: Congo – A Classic African Tragedy

The spat between the Rwandan and Ugandan leaders may have more to do with their interests in their neighbour Congo than with any ideological or political split, argues KALUNDI SERUMAGA in this second of a three-part series. How long will the DRC remain the hunting ground for foreign predatory forces? And what does this spat say about the future of Pan-Africanism and regional integration?

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The borders between Uganda, Congo and Rwanda were drawn in the early 1900s. This was not an African decision. A joint team made up of officials representing the German, Belgium and British empires surveyed the hills of the region and made a decision. It was not a simple matter. At one point, they were attacked by a party of rebels led in 1911 by the anti-colonial Nyabinghi warrior Muhumuza, who ambushed a joint Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. It was to be her last operation. She was injured, captured and imprisoned by the British in Buganda for the rest of her life. Forty of her fighters were killed.

But that is the story for Part III of this series.

For now, the story is this: Those white man’s borders still eat African lives. On 27th March this year, a Rwandan national named Elizabeth Mukagarukwiza collapsed and died on the Ugandan side of the closed border while running from Rwanda security officials trying to take her back to Rwanda. She was reportedly in search of medication related to her pregnancy.

On May 24th, two men, one Ugandan, one Rwandan, were shot dead after being intercepted on a goods run into Rwanda. Like many others, they were not carrying anything ordinarily illegal.

First, as usual, it will be the peasants. The rest of us, all things remaining constant, will be caught up with later.

Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Read Also: Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Both incidents were immediate victims of the increasingly absurd bouts of megaphone diplomacy between the two countries. At one point, in a bid to deny their border incursion, some Rwandan officials even found themselves claiming that the smugglers – one Ugandan and one Rwandan – had been shot dead inside Rwanda, despite their bodies being found on the Ugandan side.

Overall, the crisis has enabled us to more clearly discern two things previously held tight by the now unsettled inner circles.

First, the people of Rwanda, for all their country’s reported developmental progress, remain seriously poor. Many will continue living outside their country, or seek to do so, for economic reasons, rather than political ones.

Second, President Yoweri Museveni’s support to the 1993 Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel invasion of Rwanda, and the eventual overthrow of the regime in Rwanda was much more extensive and explicit than many thought at the time.

Third, that the enmity between these two hitherto sister regimes is rooted in their joint sojourn in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

Let me put it this way: Who holds the legitimate voice of the various peoples of East Africa? That question is critical to the future of the idea of a regional integration.

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

First, who exactly is in conflict with whom, in this instance? Clearly, it would not be correct to call this a conflict between Uganda and Rwanda for the simple reason that despite grand claims to the contrary, neither government can prove they actually represent the will and aspirations of their citizens. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda came to power through armed might, relying on narrow ethnic-favouring armies, and have been energetically stage-managing presidential elections – not to mention constitutional controls on their tenures – ever since.

On the other hand, neither can we call this a conflict between two men. Clearly there are interests broader than the personal views of the two principals involved, not to mention the hundreds of minions that have been scurrying about in their name, arresting, deporting, vilifying, abducting, counter-deporting and spaying on each other.

This is a clash of regimes, and the corpus of the respective crony interests that have built up around them over the decades.

Ironically, it is also unavoidable, given that both leaders chaperone exactly the same competing global ambitions and interests in the Great Lakes region, which is exactly what led to the great falling out between their respective armies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until then, it did not seem possible to imagine any kind of disagreement ever-emerging between them or their leaders, certainly not in the Pan-African mind.

Congo: Heart of dark foreign forces

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

In that sense, Congo is the heart of light, in that it illuminates all the dark places of a person’s soul, and lays bare their true character, as Joseph Conrad’s Congo did with Kurtz. Ugandan and Rwandan armies entered the DRC as liberating heroes. Today, they are rightly seen as the villains who brought the place to final ruin.

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

It is this centrality to the continent, bordering nine other countries that led Frantz Fanon to call Congo the “trigger” for the coming African revolution. The whole bounty of Africa’s riches seems to lie within her reach.

Along with its current membership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Congo, if it so wished, could be a member state of the East African Community (EAC) and technically even of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Its size seems to match only its sheer known mineral wealth, upon which this historical procession of predators feast.

If there is one population on the entire continent least deserving of further depredations, robberies and violence, it is the people of the DRC.

Before even Leopold, so much of its population was fed into the ships of the transatlantic slave trade for centuries that there is even a location called “Congo Square” in what is now the American city of New Orleans, in which the building blocks of American jazz were shaped by enslaved Africans on their occasional days off.

There followed a slavery-in-place, as Belgium’s Leopold organised the extraction of rubber and cocoa through forced labour camps.

William Lever, the British industrialist, was so impressed by the economic efficiencies of the slave labour system that he went into partnership with Leopold for the steady supply of the palm oil he needed to massively expand his soap manufacturing business.

This classic African tragedy, however, did not stop the two great Pan-African armies from clashing there three times, and in the process, basically laying waste the eastern city of Kisangani. Some truly epic levels of energy were expended in the stealing of minerals, lumber and other valuables from the DRC. This progressed from the mere looting of mining company stores to the taking over or establishment of artisanal mines, and even the importation of slave labour made up of “idle” ghetto youth swept off the ghetto streets from as far away as Kampala.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

It would be a mistake to see any of these crimes as events that happened a long time ago, and far away. Lever’s company lives on today as Unilever. Find a moment to go and check how many of the manufactured items on your kitchen and bathroom shelves are made by this company. Congo’s long misery put Unilever in a position to be able to put them there.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

And by taking the role of Mobutu, these two friends’ occupying armies and proxy militias have enabled other Western corporations to hold Congo in that position ever since. The quarrel is about which of these twins will be the principal instrument in the facilitation of this plunder, with more than a little benefit to itself.

Either this Pan-African idea does not really exist, or these leaders have never believed in it.

This is simply the story. Now we need the story behind the story, which I will explore in Part III of this series.

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Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”. In this first of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines tribal or ethnic identity in the context of shifting political alliances and loyalties.

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Africa’s borders are one of Pan-Africanism’s foundational obsessions. Are they ours, or Europe’s? Do we keep them, or erase them? Did we ever have our own?

Since just before the February decision by the Rwandan government to prevent access to its side of the border with Uganda, we have witnessed a shadowy quarrel between the presidencies of the two countries conducted in shorthand. The border closure was the first openly physical expression of this private argument. Since then, the language has become more robust, and the actions more direct, and even deadly.

With that act, Pan-Africanism came up against the realities of the European-designed political power upon which its member states rest. Perhaps, it will finally now look for an answer to its foundational riddle.

Some background may help here.

Yoweri Museveni, first as anti-Amin rebel activist, and later President of Uganda due to the bush exertions of his National Resistance Army (NRA), was seen –and saw himself – as the embodiment of the Pan-African ideal. Among his victorious soldiers were not insignificant numbers of refugees from Rwanda, some of whom had joined his crusade as far back as the days of General Idi Amin (1971-1979).

Museveni’s embrace, and even promotion to high office, of these excluded Africans was seen as real pan-Africanism in action. Paul Kagame was Uganda’s Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, and Major Fred Rwigyema (who died and was replaced by Kagame as the head of the Rwanda Patriotic Front [RPF]) was the Deputy Minister for Defence.

All this was celebrated, not least by the then luminaires of the attempted revival of the global Pan-Africanist movement led by the magnificently deluded Nigerian activist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who went on to hold what was to be a major re-organisational 1994 conference in Kampala, which was gifted with a permanent secretariat afterwards.

Finally, the notion was cemented by the generous assistance Museveni’s NRA lent to the RPF invasion of Rwanda. In fact, the array of names of the Rwandan personalities (some now deceased) now quarreling among themselves contained a few alumni of Uganda’s Makerere University, as well as former employees of the Ugandan government. During broadcasts, if it were not for the bloodletting, it would be almost amusing watching them dispute in their Ugandan-accented English.

The genesis of the current stand-off

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

The current stand-off is, therefore, a culminated development in a political history reaching back over four decades, which has come to define how a generation or two understand politics, war and regional diplomacy. The details of all the attendant schemes, betrayals and illegitimate victories, are theirs. The implications, however, belong to all of us. If these two peas-in-a-pod cannot get on, then who in the region will?

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

But perhaps the problem is precisely that many were seeing something that was not really there?

For its part, Kigali eventually made it known that it believes Kampala had already been offering support to a nascent armed rebellion being assembled, it claims, in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and led by Kayumba Nyamaswa, a former RPF general. This was flatly denied by Uganda’s long-standing Minister of Foreign Affairs (and even longer-standing in-law to the president), Hon. Sam Kuteesa, who said: “Uganda cannot allow its territory to be used to threaten the security of a neighbouring country.”

Given the military role of the government in which Kuteesa serves in changing the governments of the DRC twice, South Sudan (through helping the secession), and of course Rwanda (by which means Paul Kagame became president in the first place), this must be the ultimate demonstration of diplomat-speak.

And given the fact the President Paul Kagame willingly accepted assistance offered by the Ugandan government (in which he was serving at the time) in that interference that led to the collapse of the regime of then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, perhaps this alleged assistance to his erstwhile General Nyamwasa should not be a cause for surprise, let alone outrage. He will certainly know what may follow.

The rebellion against the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote basically involved arming refugees and exiles, among others, to help wage a war of the government of the country that was hosting them. This was followed by the arming of refugees to invade a neighbouring country, and then arming refugees and ethnic minorities to march against two DRC governments in Kinshasa, where the armies of Uganda, and Kagame’s Rwanda were to work together in driving the armed movement that removed the regime of Marshal Mobutu from the DRC, and backstopped events around the death of Mobutu’s first replacement.

After a lifetime of breaking rules and flouting the procedures and principles of International relations, President Kagame can hardly suddenly expect them to be upheld in respect to his own regime. And especially not by his former accomplice in such conduct.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda. He has also crossed it in illegal fashion, first as a child in a family seeking refuge, and lastly as a Ugandan-based armed rebel. And now he has shut it down.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country. This came about for two main reasons: first, there are significant communities of Ugandan citizens in the far southwest of the country that are of the same ethnicities as those found throughout neighbouring Rwanda. This is a common African situation.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda.

The other reason is that the NRA’s struggle for power did – as the case of President Paul Kagame shows – take on board very many Rwandan refugees (largely of Tutsi origin). These refugees’ initial attempts to obtain Ugandan citizenship after the 1979 fall of General Amin’s government were opposed by many indigenous Ugandan politicians. Despite that (or perhaps as a result of it), they had gone on to swell the ranks of the NRA as it battled the regime of the then President Milton Obote following the stolen 1980 elections. The NRA’s control of full state power on its own standing ushered in the change in their status.

Much as it has enabled Ugandans of Rwandan ethnicity from the Uganda side of the border to stop having to be named after the nearby mountains or to have other labels (sometimes epithets) foisted upon them by their neighbours, this situation only creates further complications for Pan-Africanism, which as yet remain unacknowledged conundrums, but that will be significant in the future.

To complicate matters further, Uganda also has many people of Burundian origin who migrated to the country in the decades following the establishment of the colonial state. How come they have not been recognised as a separate “ethnicity”? More closely, there has been the argument, in the case of the Rwandan “ethnicity”, that perhaps Uganda should have recognised Rwandan Hutus and Rwandan Tutsi as separate groups, as had historically been the case back in Rwanda.

A similar question has been raised about the Asians settled in the country for nearly a century who have made sporadic requests for “tribal” recognition. In their case, will it go back to the Hutu and Tutsi question: will they be labelled the “Asian tribe”, or will they get registered as the various ethnic or caste groups that they identify with in India or Pakistan?

Tribe or nation?

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”, the raw material out of which the new nation would be built. This an extremely deeply entrenched mindset among almost the entire African political class, irrespective of country, and whether in government or in the opposition.

But here’s the thing: In the case of the members of the relatively newly-established Rwandan tribe of Uganda, one only has to cross the border (once re-opened) to morph into a member of a nationality, without a change in ethnicity.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country.

The question arises as to how a European-drawn border developed the magical power to transform the same African ethnicity into either a “tribe” or a “nation”, depending on which side of that border it stood.

Other “tribes” in Uganda, such as (famously, or perhaps infamously) the Baganda, remain trapped. Their pre-colonial status as a nation cannot be as easily re-actualised, as they have no such border they can cross. These designated “tribes” have a dubious status within the given polity. Their rights are ephemeral at best. Their continued existence is viewed with official suspicion, a sort of pre-colonial hangover that must be progressively extinguished, through political means if possible, but by naked force, if necessary. They present in public life often as an abused bargaining tool by members of the petit bourgeois class found among them, as they blackmail those holding state power. “Tribalism” is the destructive political habit that results, and is then used to further stigmatise native identity.

Perhaps Kampala’s problem – evidenced historically by the belittling and patronising attitude towards Kigali since the RPF took power there – is that it cannot shake the thinking that the Kigali regime is little more than a Ugandan “tribe” that happens to control another country. In short, an extension of the attitude it holds towards all the ethnicities within the ambit of its own borders.

All these realities and events strongly suggest that the border is the least of our worries; it is what lies beneath, and before. This is what we shall examine in Parts II and III of this series.

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