In the year 2003, when I was a second-year student at Kenyatta University, news of Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s assassination broke. It was a time in Kenya when political tensions around constitutional amendments were rising like dark ominous clouds, engulfing the national psyche.
Dr. Mbai was the opposition’s lead in the negotiations that were taking place around the new constitution. It was a quiet day at Kenyatta University before a loud war cry tore through the morning air. Someone must have heard from the news on the radio or watched breaking news on television in the common room that Dr. Mbai had been murdered.
Upon hearing the news, we ran out of our lecture halls onto Thika Road, blocked it, and exploded our anger on innocent unsuspecting motorists. Thika Road was our coliseum, a place where we found some relief from the bloody plays we had with Kenya’s riot police. We needed to be heard by our government, and we were following a script that the government had taught us. To survive, one needed to be faster, more ruthless and more efficient than a government that took pride in its monopoly of corruption and brutality.
In the next few days, Thika road would be full of all sorts of debris, blood and tear gas smoke. We wanted to know why Dr. Mbai was killed, and who was responsible. We would have not protested, but Kenya being a place where justice is as scarce as life-saving medicines in public hospitals, we needed to register our anger somehow.
Most of us did not care much about the details of the constitution. It sounded like a bulky document, too complex and beyond the comprehension of the common Kenyan. It was, like any political tussle, defining the fault lines along tribal affiliations. My major attraction to it was that Raila Odinga and many other progressives were behind it. And that Dr. Mbai had paid with his life for it. And that two of my comrades, one from the same hostel as me, had been shot during these riots. In the midst of all the tear gas and gunshots, I knew I was living some realities that I had only watched on television.
In the following weeks, we succeeded in forcing the university to provide us transport to Mbai’s funeral. At the funeral, we were met by multitudes of people mourning in confusion, anger and loss. Many had walked on foot from afar, in the hot tropical sun, to join in the mourning. I am not sure if these personal sacrifices were inspired by a strong sense of connectedness to the struggle or some form of communal kinship.
At the funeral, I ran into my younger brother, who had traveled from Moi University. There was something eerily familiar at this funeral. I felt like I was walking on a path I was aware of, one that my grandparents and parents had walked before. It was one darkened with an engulfing sense of loss and helplessness of an entire community.
I went home later that day and I sought out my grandfather. As an ardent supporter of multi-party democracy, and by extension Jaramogi Odinga and then Raila Odinga, I wanted to hear his thoughts. I was also seeking comfort in his eyes that had experienced similar pain. We would take turns swimming in the sea of communal grief. He counted on his fingers and toes the numbers of young, industrious and pioneering men from the Luo community who had been assassinated since the community migrated with Odinga into the opposition. This decision would start a quest for power and democracy, a quest that would turn the community into a hunting ground for a bloodthirsty government.
Prior to Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya. I was also aware that prominent members of the Luo community were under active persecution.
In this environment, it was a burdensome task reconciling my national identity with my ethnic identity. Tension was always in the air, in the daily news bulletins, in the local dailies. It was dangling precariously in our household too, ready to drop at the dinner table and explode into emotional political diatribe. I could feel the tension in my father’s vociferous lamentations about the systematic exclusion of Luos from the national government. The people in the government were eating and we were poor. Our time would come. Before that, we needed to consolidate all efforts behind Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Raila Odinga thereafter. The two were the only anointed vehicles for our economic and political emancipation.
I knew that efforts at consolidating an entire community were met by ambivalence in some sections. The debate about opposition politics being a Luo agenda or the Odinga family’s ambition was a topic that was approached with utmost care, lest one slide and fall into the unwanted pile of traitors. This was a no-go zone unless one wanted to pry open community scars, like Tom Mboya’s assassination. This debate also always ended with someone yelling the word traitor at another person. The same word, traitor, was yelled in our household whenever a Luo accepted a cabinet appointment from President Daniel arap Moi during the infamous one o’clock news bulletin on KBC.
I knew the region we occupied, the vast Luo Nyanza that straddles the shores of Lake Victoria to the sugarcane belt, was deliberately marginalised. The roads were broken, the hospitals bearing the greatest weight of malaria and HIV were subjects of justification by NGOs for grants to save the people. Kisumu residents, seated on the shores of an expansive lake, were thirsty for liberation and for clean water to drink.
One of these traitors was Ojwang’ Kombudo. When Kombudo expressed support for Moi – an action that required public prostration with effusive praises lathering on Moi – he became a traitor. His support for Moi introduced the community to the good life that came with support for Moi, KANU and the government – his constituents in Nyakach enjoyed a short period of piped water and electricity. Like a pimp, Moi had his hand firmly on the Kenyan cookie jar, opening it to dish goodies to his cronies, with the most subservient getting the most, including opportunities to loot public funds.
Kombudo did not last long. In 1992, a wave of opposition gripped Luoland to the last man. Denis Akumu from Ford-Kenya replaced him. President Moi got into a fit of rage, sent government people in uniform to remove water pipes, including the ones that were at my grandfather’s gate. Electricity poles were not spared either. Once again, like a political pimp, Moi and his government were reminding the Luo community of the costs of supporting opposition. The remnants of broken pipes and vandalised water points, including one just near my grandfather’s homestead, serve as a reminder of the costs of voting against the government of the day.
In addition to marginalisation, there were deaths too. The first one I learned of was that of Argwings Kodhek. (I had an uncle named after him though I did not know the weight of memory that the name carried.) I came to learn of its significance listening to the songs of Gabriel Omolo, a popular Luo musician. In a deep sonorous voice, with each beat punctuated with pain, Gabriel mourned Kodhek. As if his lyrics could bring Kodhek to life, Gabriel pleaded with Kodhek’s killers to let Kodhek enjoy the fruits of his toil. It did not help that my grandfather played this song every other weekend before gazing deeply into the landscape of Nyakach – a landscape at the mercy of soil erosion, its nutrients washing away helplessly, just like the Luo community that was getting wiped out by the ferocious forces of multiparty politics and repression.
This would all end. There was a religious conviction that all these sorrows would be magically washed away when one of our own got into power. It was, therefore, imperative that the community united to the last man in support of the Odingas.
The communal wound from Argwing Kodhek’s mysterious death had not yet healed when six months later, Thomas Joseph Mboya fell to an assassin’s bullet in Nairobi. Mboya’s star shone far beyond Kenya. His wide and deep influence was evident in his friendship with influential Americans, such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Kenyan to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1960. His assassination, therefore, not only sent shockwaves around the country, but internationally as well.
Within Kenya, Mboya’s assassination sent a chilling reminder to young ambitious people that no one would be spared when Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency was threatened. My grandfather bemoaned how Mboya’s rich connections, as well as his prominence in the government and abroad, could not save him. Mboya’s death continues to be one of the biggest “what if” moments for the Luo community. What if he had lived? What if he had never gone to that pharmacy on Government Road (now known as Moi Avenue)? What if he had joined the opposition with Odinga? The threat was real, whether in government or in opposition. It did not matter where one’s star shone. It only mattered that its shine did not threaten the status quo.
The Luo community persisted after these assassinations. There was a shared belief that Kenya needed change in leadership and assassinations would not break their zeal. The differences between Jaramogi and Jomo Kenyatta continued to fester like a cancerous wound. Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of the region, ostensibly to familiarise himself with development projects there. The Luo community, still mourning Mboya, rebelled. Kenyatta’s guards reacted violently, shooting dead 11 protestors.
The extent of communal loss between January 1969, when Argwings died, to Mboya’s assassination in July of the same year and the Kisumu massacre three months later pointed to a systematic attempt at violent subjugation of the Luo community. The occurrences of those days are passed from generation to generation as a slow and painful narration of how the government killed Mboya, then came to our town and killed more when all we needed was to be left alone.
This year marks fifty years since those fateful events. The people who lived through that period, like my grandfather, have very hardened souls and a very strong suspicion of the government. It does not help that during each election cycle, regions occupied by the Luo community become over-policed and over-militarised and young people of the community become fair game when elections results are disputed.
I was only six months old when the coup failed. A good number of the soldiers involved were from Nyakach, my maternal grandfather’s home. And their misguided ambition had thrown the community into the dark underbelly of Kenyan politics.
As expected, the failed August 1982 coup entrenched government paranoia of young Luos. President Moi’s government essentially implemented systematic exclusion of young people from Luoland and other communities perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition from recruitment into the police and armed forces. This was a big blow to the quotidian life of the community. In a struggling economy with a rapidly growing population, the armed forces and the police provided sources of income and employment to healthy young people. By blacklisting young men and women from the Luo community, the government imposed a form of official economic depression on this community as an additional tool aimed at forcing them into political subjugation.
There were other deaths of note at the time when Raila was placed in detention after the attempted coup. The most prominent of these in the mid-1980s was that of the Gem MP, Horace Ongili. The immediate former area MP, Otieno Ambala, one of the leading suspects, was arrested and charged with the murder along with six other suspects. However, after a few months in jail, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. There was a feeling within the community and across the country that he too was killed to shield the real killers.
Nonetheless, this tragedy robbed the Luo community of two prominent leaders within a span of six months. This was a scary déjà vu moment, since Kodhek and Mboya had been assassinated approximately six months apart. The community felt that the government was eliminating prominent Luo males or imprisoning them in order to subdue the community’s will to fight. The government seemed to be reading from the same script that the colonialists used against the Kikuyu and other communities fighting for independence in Kenya.
In the early 1990s, as the opposition was gaining a very strong foothold in western Kenya, Dr. Robert Ouko’s star started rising within President Moi’s government. Dr. Ouko’s presence in the government meant that Moi had started looking at Luos in a slightly better light. He began visiting schools and dishing money in big brown envelopes during harambees and to delegations that visited him at State House. The benefits of “having our own” closer to the presidency was becoming evident.
This did not last long. In February 1990, Dr. Ouko was abducted from his home and killed in one of the most gruesome cases Kenya has ever witnessed. The Luo community’s grief was palpable. I was only eight years old and I remember violent riots in the streets of Kisumu. I remember my dad pacing, gesturing and talking with my uncle, who was a university student then, late into the night, angry at something. All universities were closed as rioting students burned their grief and rage in bonfires of lament. When Moi decided that he would forcefully attend Ouko’s funeral accompanied by hundreds of armed riot police officers, university students chanted to Moi, “You killed him, you burnt him, now eat him!” Another prominent Luo, Hezekiah Oyugi, who was the Minister for Internal Security, died in mysterious circumstances two years later, in June 1992. Ouko and Oyugi, like Mboya, were not spared, despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of the government.
In 2007, I directly witnessed loss in the form of post-election violence resulting from disputed elections. My job as a public health researcher in Kisumu exposed me to untold community suffering. In the free medical camps that had been organised by local NGOs, men and women, thousands in numbers, would show up with bodies broken and maimed by bullets. It was like a scene from what I imagined a war-torn country to be. I did not talk about these horrors with my grandfather because they overwhelmed me. They were close, inescapable and frightening.
During the 2017 elections, not much had changed. The violence continued, with over 300 people, even young children, dying from police violence. Several hundreds were shot and maimed too.
A couple of weeks before the August 2017 elections, Chris Msando, an ICT Director at Kenya’s election commission, was abducted, tortured and killed before his body was dumped in a forest. Again, there was another chilling reminder that there was a price to pay by anyone who was perceived to be an impediment to the status quo. This was almost fifty years after Kodhek and Mboya’s assassinations, and targeted killings have not stopped.
One of my early childhood memories is when Raila Odinga was released from detention in 1988. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s surprise that Raila did not die in prison. Most people, having known how ruthless Moi’s regime was, had expected Raila not to survive jail. I could sense massive euphoric relief when Raila walked out of detention alive. My grandfather regaled me with tales of how Raila’s magical powers saved him. How he could turn into a fly on a wall in State House and listen to plans to assassinate him. They said he would then fly back to prison and surprise his killers with his knowledge of their plans beforehand, throwing them into total confusion.
Then there was the swearing-in ceremony of 2018, and the lack of charges against Raila when others like Miguna Miguna continue to be forcefully exiled. Was this also due to Raila’s magical powers? Or was it a result of a savvy politician levering fanatical support from the community as insurance and a bargaining chip for personal political ambitions? This is where the lines get blurred. When we cannot clearly delineate the boundaries of communal ambitions and individual ambitions, it is hard to tell what we are giving our lives for.
And at the end of the road, when we weigh all the losses – both physical and emotional – and place them on a scale, and then measure them against the recent handshake and the public display of brotherly love between Raila and Uhuru, do we see a perfect balance? No, there is no balance. And there will be no restitution. Not even an apology or acceptance of blame for all these deaths.
The weight of communal loss is always borne privately, silently and sometimes in shame by the poor. There are no monuments that can adequately capture all the losses the Luo community have experienced in the last fifty years.
And what if the community would have known that the path to this political and economic utopia could be forged by a handshake? Would the community have protected their youth better? Would they have stopped them from the suicidal choices of fighting with memory, anger and stones on sisal slings? Standing bare-chested before barrels of Kalashnikovs held by government-sponsored killers?
But then again, what options did we as a community have? At the end of the day, we are all Kenyans, burdened by our peculiarities, such as the ability to accept anything and move on to the next tragedy.
That is what happened after the handshake – everyone put a bandage on old and fresh wounds. The magical mantra “accept and move on” is being repeated again and again until everything looks like a distant memory.
But I can’t stop knowing what I know.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus
In this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals, the nights belong to the young and the restless.
“Big man, they killed our little brother.”
“Who is, Amanuel?”
“Your friend. They killed him.”
“Who, are you talking about?”
“You mean Little Man? The little light-skinned guy?” I asked now, linking the messenger to a fresh-faced kid I had met at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown some nine months ago in March 2020.
“Yes My brother! They killed our little brother. I knew I had to come by here and let you know. You know I always saw he liked to talk to you.”
All of a sudden I felt my heart drop, I didn’t want to accept that he was gone. I didn’t even know his name. All I knew was that he was a really nice guy.
So reading the news report literally broke my heart.
“Between late night Tuesday the 18th and the morning of Wednesday 19th November 2020, a 30-year-old man was severely wounded in a shooting incident on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside. The victim was rushed to hospital. His outlook is said to be ‘critical’. ‘He had to be resuscitated before they took him,’ said a witness at the scene.”
I called him “Little Man”.
It had been weeks since I had seen him. Our first meeting was purely by chance. I was doing a job providing security in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district when our paths crossed.
My task was to position myself in front of the establishment at around 1.40 a.m. and provide a physical deterrent for loiterers, vandals and robbers.
“It’s a breeze, all you got to do is stand here. Make sure no one messes up the place. You don’t have to fight with anyone. All you have to do is let them see you.”
Motivated by an immediate financial need, I agreed to give the job a shot.
To be honest, I just didn’t have the luxury of saying no; the offer was a godsend given we were entering a lockdown. Upon accepting the job, the most wonderful things began to unfold.
He was a “hustler”, a “kid from the streets”, but I didn’t know that at the time, or really what a hustler or kid from the streets really meant. All I knew was that he was a nice guy who confessed to me that his “gangster” persona was just an act.
I had spied him coming down the street. It was already well after 2 a.m. but the streets were still busy with the throngs from the pubs, bars, cafes that were now closing. I heard him shouting as he walked, parting the crowds.
It was during that random encounter that I realised the importance of not condemning the young.
“I’m famous in these streets, nobody messes with me around here, not even the cops. They all know me around here, Opa.”
I wanted to know what he was doing out in the streets knowing we were suffering a pandemic.
“You either play football or you hustle Opa. You know how it is!” he said with a big cheeky grin on his face. I could only manage a forced smile, understanding the struggle to survive.
Thirty-year-old Amanuel Nelson Cornelio was a cheerful young man who grew up in one of Amsterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods.
“Americans say soccer, right Opa? But we here in Dutch, say football. You know, I played in a league for ten years”, he said before adding earnestly, “I call you Opa from respect. You are my elder, I could be your son,” he said, and this unsolicited admission made me feel good.
“I used to be real good, I was fast,” he continued. “Look at my legs, they’re strong,” he said and I had to smile. This exchange between strangers under the lamps on the Plein in the wee hours of the night felt like it was the middle of the day.
“But I messed up Opa. See, I come from these streets, I was born here. These streets raised me”, he said, then he paused, causing me to wonder if his last statement was an excuse or an indictment on society. I suspect it was the latter.
When he first called me Opa I had to laugh not to feel insulted. I am only fifty-five years old. It seemed like only yesterday that I was out there running the streets carefree like he was, filled with fire and wonder for everything new.
I was 28 years old. Back then life was so different. For a while I thought the parties would never end. It was heaven on earth and I was as free as the breeze. Every day was an adventure. Everyone was an artist or a visionary and we all had big, big dreams for the future.
There was no European Union. The Dutch had their own currency. People were happy and connected in what was truly the most tolerant city in the world. It was truly unreal. A mother’s love reigned over the land, a stark contrast to the patriarchal system I had escaped from in America.
I remember when we danced all night in the streets. When peeing in the canals was a rite of passage. You hadn’t really lived until you sent one downstream. Today, it will cost you a 90-euro fine if you’re caught.
When the Dutch became a part of the union, switched to the single currency and opened their borders, life changed. A global economic crisis that left five of the 17 member-nations in need of financial aid and a mass influx of migrants to European shores in 2015 kept jobs and progress at a slow pace.
Coincidentally, that same year I hit two milestones in my personal life. I turned 50 and I was made redundant and seemingly unemployable, forcing me to face the fact that my time had come and gone.
Which is why I was standing out in the night air at 2 a.m., working as a night watchman surrounded by sex workers and the traffic that visits the infamous red light zone.
In this new, unique position as a casual observer I learned that no matter their position, everyone is only trying to be their full complete self. Straight across from the Royal Amsterdam Palace adjacent to the Bijenkhof building on the Damstraat is a quote placed on a street tile that marks the beginning of the red light district. The quote is from John Locke, and it states, “Inside every person, is a part of himself that is only his property and belongs only to him”.
“It’s an easy gig, all you got to do is stand there and watch the place. You don’t have to engage anyone. You are not there for that. if something happens call me. You have the police station right across the Plein but they usually ride by every 15 minutes to check.”
I had to admit I was a little nervous, performing a job that until then I thought was beneath my previous social status.
After leaving a military career spanning over a decade and relocating to Amsterdam in 1993 with a small severance package, I was able to carve out a pretty successful life for myself here in the Netherlands.
Things began to fall into place almost immediately upon my arrival. I had an advantage in the workforce; I was a native English speaker in a new Europe, a more united Europe that was beginning to raise its head. I was able to jump from one opportunity to the next until the economic crisis that swept across the globe in 2008 hit, changing everything as jobs became harder to find.
In the Netherlands, one is employed on a contractual basis that ensures that the rights of the worker are at all times respected. If an employer takes you on, they cannot break the agreement without respecting the law. Now, the downside to this system is that employers are less likely to take on new senior staff whose contracts are more expensive and harder to break than those of younger, inexperienced workers.
This dynamic has left many senior professionals marooned on the island of ageism, forcing them to find new avenues to earn a living.
“No sleeping, eating, drinking or gathering in front of the shop. Don’t engage with them. If they come under the awning just direct them to keep it moving. Don’t argue with them, if something happens, call me but you have the police station right in front of you. You can go just across the Plein.”
Those were the instructions.
“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said with only one thought in my mind: I needed the money.
My shift started at 2 a.m. Travelling across town was surreal. It was as if this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals belonged to only me. Until I learned who really owns the nights. The nights belong to the young and the restless.
It was just supposed to be me and my thoughts out in the open air when suddenly, from around every corner, every bend, as if an alarm had gone off forcing them from out of their holding places, young people emerged from everywhere I looked, at a time when we had been instructed to maintain social distance. I thought no one else would be out. It was the first weekend of the public restrictions to curb the pandemic.
I was supposed to be the only one on the streets, but when I arrived the scene was a circus. Bars and cafes with outside table service were jam-packed, my work station was right in the middle.
Everyone seemed to have ignored the warning to stay indoors; the young and the old, Black, White, Asians and Browns. Day-trippers, transients and party guests, hustlers and dealers all moving among streetwalkers and foolish hearts looking for a good time. It was a completely different eco-system.
Maantje means Little Moon, but the pronunciation is similar to Mannetje which literally means “Little man”. I gave him that name when we first spoke but what I learned after his death was that he was a street hero. I just hadn’t known it. All I knew was he was a really nice guy.
“Where are you from, I mean, your people?”
“I was born here but my family comes from Curaçao. But they are all here now. I stay not too far from here with my grandma. These are my streets, I’m telling you. You know what? My Uncle used to run these same streets back in the day. He was one of Amsterdam’s original gangsters. He died right there,” the young, talkative kid said, extending his arm out to show the spot where his uncle took his last breath, across the empty square close to Nam King, the iconic Chinese restaurant famous for its oysters.
“That’s sad,” I said. As I stood there searching for what to say next, a darker, older man came cycling around the corner, an apparent acquaintance of Little Man.
Little Man waved him over.
“Tell him who my uncle was. Tell him he was killed right over there,” Little Man said to his friend who I had determined had Afro-Surinamese roots. The darker guy looked closer to my age than to Little Man’s. He greeted me unceremoniously.
“Yes, my brother, he was a serious gangster,” he said, his voice thick.
“Really?” I said, which gave me away.
“Where are you from Big Man?” the darker man asked, but Little Man answered before I could.
“He’s American. Man, I would like to go there, not to live there but to see it, Opa. I listen to a lot of music from America, rappers out of Baltimore. You know Baltimore?”
It just so happened that I did. “I used to live not too far from Baltimore, before moving here,” I said before adding, “Maybe one day, after this coronavirus is over and travelling begins again, you’ll get the chance to go?”
To which he replied, “Nah, Opa, they are never going to let me in. I have a record. I just got out [of prison]. I tell you I’m known in these streets, but I’ve been trying to turn that around. Now this lockdown.”
Listening to him and his story I knew how it felt being stuck, being trapped, your ambitions fading from you and you being unable to do anything about it. But I was pressed to know his age.
“Little Man, how old are you?” I asked. To look at him you would have expected to find him kicking football around the Plein, or sitting under old trees with a pack of other kids, talking loudly at one another, just having fun.
I couldn’t see how a kid like him could have committed a crime that would warrant a prison sentence. Not here in the Netherlands. The Dutch have one of the most civilised judicial systems in the world. When I first got here, you could kill someone and the most you would get behind bars was four years, but even that had changed over the years.
“I want you to know, because I saw you looking at me, what you saw, what I do out here is just an act.”
The entire time we spoke, he wanted me to know he respected me ticking the box in the code of a thinking man, and if “Opa” was another form of that code of brotherly love, I wanted to encourage that because in all aspects he could have been my son. I was his elder and could imagine that all he really wanted, like everyone else, was better.
“I’m thirty.” He said smiling while handling his phone which must have showed an incoming call.
“I got to go now Opa,” Little Man said, jumping on his bike and waving as he rode away into the night, to which I could only offer, “Be careful out there.”
I watched him riding away and I imagined he was off to be with friends. Little did I know.
“To say that he will be missed is an understatement,” began the follow-up headlines. “The 30-year-old victim of the shooting on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside has been identified as local street hero ‘Maantje’.”
The article went on to describe how much loved he was. “Maantje was known for his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was also loved on the sporting field having played ten years for an indoor club.” The article went on to say that Maantje had lived a street life which was first immortalised in 2011 when photographer Paul Blanca put him in front of the camera for a series of photos of Amsterdam’s street gangs. Blanca remembers Amanuel quite vividly and recalls one particular photo of a younger 20-year-old Maantje staring deeply into the lens of the camera with the most menacing look on his face. The series of photos was titled, “Mi Mattie,” a phrase borrowed from the Surinamese language which means “My Friends”.
To say he will be missed is a serious understatement. It’s a bloody shame. When I asked what actually happened, I was told that it was due to the many months of lockdown. The two assailants arrested for his killing were young people aged 21 and 24.
Coming of Age Under Moi’s Shadow
I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
We are poor because we are not in government. These words, said by my grandfather, my father, my uncles, and later by my compatriots at various stages of life, have stuck with me. They were simple enough words, but their weight was hidden in the everyday realities of the men and women whose communities were perceived as the opposition, viewed as enemies of the government. That government was one man. President Moi. For 24 years he dominated the national psyche, changing people’s lives the way a hyperactive child switches between television channels.
If you caught Moi’s attention by doing something as mundane as composing a song in his name during the national drama festival, you could become rich overnight. Not being in government was tough. This is because the Kenyan government has been set up to strengthen ethnic dominance, rather than to build national cohesion. I grew up at a time when my community was strongly represented in the opposition. This made us fair game for the government of the day.
Like many Kenyans, I was anxious about joblessness. I was young when my uncle Ben graduated from university in the nineties. His stories of desperation and despair for a job, and his death four years after graduation, were a constant source of anxiety as I studied at Kenyatta University. Like many graduates, Uncle Ben did not have connections in Moi’s government. Our people were not in power. Even the local district officer in my hometown was from the president’s tribe. And the local administration policemen too. The entire police force spoke the dialect of a single tribe. The president’s tribe. The police force was supposed to mirror the face of the nation. That was on paper. In reality, it was the face of ethnic dominance, an expression of the desire of the ruling elite to control power.
The public kept up hope nonetheless, and every year, young men and women across the country would be taken through a grueling marathon of physical exercises in the hot sun, running until they were broken. The few who would make it back to the stadium, sweating, almost fainting, were not guaranteed success. They could still be disqualified because of a missing tooth.
In a country where dental care is difficult to access, replacing a tooth is not something that is within the reach of the poor. Uncle Ben ticked all the boxes. He was an athlete. Six feet and three inches tall. Perfect teeth — except for the nicotine stains from smoking to relieve stress. But he didn’t make the cut. Year after year. My father said it was because we didn’t know anybody important in government. That seemed to be the only pathway to employment in the late 80s and 90s when the economy was shrinking under Moi’s stewardship.
Moi’s twenty-four years at the helm ended in 2002. 2001 had been a pivotal year in Kenyan politics and Moi’s reign was coming to an end as I was coming to the end of my second year at Kenyatta University. The fear that Moi would be president for life was wafting away like a bad smell. We were ecstatic. We were also aware that the late Prof. George Eshiwani, our vice chancellor then, did not share in this excitement. His exit was perfectly aligned with Moi’s. State agents were no longer at Prof. Eshiwani’s disposal and student leaders who had challenged him in the past started showing up on campus. Word was also going around that lecturers who had been thrown off campus like homeless people, were agitating to return. One of them, Prof. Kilemi Mwiria, would later head the education docket in the new government. If Prof. Eshiwani did not leave willingly, we would force him out. We forced him out.
President Kibaki took the reigns of power in 2002. Unlike Moi, he was a closed man. We waited with bated breath to see how he maneuvered. Up to then — and still to this day — only two tribes had ruled over the other forty-plus tribes. And like in many African countries, the elites from these two tribes had been awarded plum positions and government contracts. There was entrenched ethnic dominance. I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
Adhiambo, one of the soldiers involved in the attempted coup, lived less than five miles from my maternal grandfather’s home. He was released after many years in jail. People gossiped that he came back a shadow of his former self, whispered about his inability to have children. And that sometimes he talked to himself. He settled in his father’s shop. I walked by that shop a few times with one of my uncles just to get a glimpse of the man. To see just how much his body had been broken at Kamiti Maximum Prison.
Moi’s daily presence in our house — for a minimum of fifteen minutes during the seven o’clock news and for another fifteen minutes during the nine o’clock news — was a source of tension. When home, my father would demand that we switch off the television. My mother on the other hand would plead with him to allow us to watch Moi. We young ones enjoyed watching the beautiful schoolgirls and their teachers dancing for Moi. They seemed to be in a bubble of security and infectious happiness. We marveled at how privileged these children were that Moi would visit their schools to fundraise for development projects. How lucky they were to be on TV, to take pictures with Moi.
My father hated the obsession with the president, abhorred the spectacle of grown men and women pontificating about Moi being their father and mother. He hated it even more when the local chief came to our family’s tailoring shop, a small business my father had set up to supplement the family’s income. The chief was enforcing an order from the district commissioner. Word was that Moi would drive through our rural town on his way to nearby Rongo, the hometown of one of his new friends from my community. He had risen quickly through the ranks to become a powerful minister of internal security. It was rumored that he was the custodian of a secret.
Moi was on his way to open the massive Seventh Day Adventist Church that his new friend had constructed in Rongo. A gift to his people. And a sign of gratitude to God for his newfound power. Potholes on the Kisumu-Kisii-Migori road were hastily filled with red volcanic soil and a thin layer of tar. There were also security meetings where the local chiefs were instructed to ensure that the local KANU offices had a fresh bright coat of red paint with the party symbol, a red cockerel, clearly visible. The show of loyalty had to be explicit in these opposition zones.
In addition, local businesses, like my father’s tailoring shop, needed to clearly display Moi’s image on their walls. When the chief and his men came, my father was not there. They confiscated the sewing machines and demanded that my father collect them with proof that he had Moi’s framed photograph on the wall of his shop. The local KANU offices were selling framed portraits of Moi at a profit. Who didn’t love the president? Who didn’t want Moi following them with his warm reassuring eyes as they went about their business?
Uncle Ben took a newspaper, cut out Moi’s image, stuck it on a cardboard and framed it. I expected the chief to be furious but he relented. His two sons were in the school where both my parents were teachers and he always needed my father’s help with school fees or a contract to supply maize and beans. Also, why start a fight with my father when there was no chance Moi would see this image of himself plastered onto cardboard? After all, all businesses would be closed when Moi passed through so that people could stand by the roadside and wave to him.
I remember Moi’s convoy driving through my hometown at high speed. I remember the disappointment on people’s faces as the convoy disappeared into the distance. I remember people sighing and trying to console themselves: “I saw his car”. “But which car was he in?” “The one with the flag”. “But there was more than one car with a flag”. “Don’t worry, he will stop on his way back,” our school principal consoled us. He said that Moi had been busy, that he needed to keep time for his next appointment. He reminded us of the need to keep time like Moi. We had waited for Moi for over five hours. The school choir had run out of songs of praise for Moi.
Later that evening, my father bemoaned the time wasted composing and practicing songs for Moi. The time wasted standing in the sun, the school hours lost.
In the early 90s, with the rise of opposition politics, a circular was sent to schools instructing teachers to shave their beards. The government wanted presentable teachers. Also, people with beards had been seen to be sympathetic to the opposition as well as harboring Marxists ideas in parliament. “The six bearded sisters”, a group of opposition members who had mustered the courage to criticise Moi, were under government surveillance. My father was made aware of this circular by the head teacher of the school where he taught. He was instructed to shave. The government was not only controlling freedom of expression. It was controlling freedom of personal appearance. My father protested. Word started spreading around that teachers were getting shaven forcefully by the local administration. The Nyanza provincial commissioner was reported to have supervised one of these forced beard shavings. I didn’t see my father much during those days. He would play cat and mouse with the school administration, teaching his classes before going into hiding in our rural home.
Moi was a good man. He did not drink alcohol. Not like Mobutu Sese Seko. The only beverage that would corrupt his body was coca cola. Which he also drank in moderation. Moi was also in church every Sunday, where the pastor would pray for his good health so that he could continue guiding the country away from the unpredictable hands of the opposition, lest Kenya descend into chaos like our neighbour Uganda. Or Sudan. Or Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Somalia. Or Sudan. And occasionally we would also get free milk at school. We would carry it home, or drink it under a tree during break. With our stomachs full of milk, we knew we were lucky because Moi loved children. Otherwise, why did he work so hard to provide us with milk?
In 1992, when I was ten years old, uncle Ben came home abruptly. Unannounced. Dr Robert Ouko had been killed. He had been very loyal to Moi. Uncle Ben and my father were glued to the television screen as riots engulfed the streets of Nairobi and Kisumu. Many people died in Kisumu, Dr Ouko’s hometown. My father and Uncle Ben seemed defeated. We are poor because we are not in government. And when one of us gets into government, they kill him. It was hard to reconcile the images of Moi the all-loving father of the nation, Moi the God-fearing, humble servant with the Moi accused of heinous human rights abuses. And to reconcile this with the message from my pastor every Saturday that all leaders come from God and that, therefore, God had given us President Moi for twenty-four years.
Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist: “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.
I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.
My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.
I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.
Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous. It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.
The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.
We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!
I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.
In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.
We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.
Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.
When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.
The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.
Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.
The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.
As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.
Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.
In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.
Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.
When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.
Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
The Militarisation of US/Africa Policy: How the CIA Came To Lead Deadly Counter-Terrorism Operations in Kenya
Politics1 week ago
We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
Politics1 week ago
For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
Long Reads3 days ago
The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself
Op-Eds1 week ago
Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer
Op-Eds1 week ago
USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory
Op-Eds1 week ago
Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy
Satire1 week ago
Storm Deaths in US as Caucasian Spring Spreads