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Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age

6 min read.

The High Court’s decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear.

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Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age
Photo: Jason Leung on Unsplash
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I will never forget that weekend, over 32 years ago. It was a sunny day; I was walking on Koinange Street, and was about to get onto Kenyatta Avenue, when a vivid and amazing realization hit me, “I am gay!” I was 22 years old at the time, and had been struggling for many years prior – I had become familiar with the darkness of depression and shame at the thought of being homosexual. I had prayed desperately to God to take away the feelings I had.

I knew from a very young age I was different but never actually understood what that difference was. By Class Three or Four, my brothers – I have five in total – had given me nicknames “Ciku” or “Suku” that always had me fighting with them, since they seemed to disparagingly suggest I was engaging in roles that were supposed to be for girls. I was too young to understand any of this at the time. But as I grew up and went into high school I completely got lost when my male peers started having discussion about girls. I could not understand their excitement and strategies on how they would get their first kisses or hugs. My lack of comprehension of what my peers were going through began a deep fear in me that there was something terribly wrong with me. I pretended with my friends that I understood their conversations but I failed to catch this wave of pubescent excitement.

It was not until I got into college, and luckily took a class in human sexuality, that I finally understood that I was part of the sexuality spectrum that included same-gender attraction. This realization was liberating, albeit for a very short period, because once I actually understood what this meant for me, my understanding of my family, my culture, religion, friends and everything I held dear to my life, I became petrified. I was barely 21 and was about to start a very challenging journey of shame and refusal at what was very clearly the reality of who I was. I loved my family deeply but with the realization that I was gay, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to my loving and supportive parents. This of course led to feeling ashamed and undeserving. The prayers to God and anybody who could hear me seemed to land on deaf ears until that fateful sunny day on K-Street. It’s kind of funny how this moment happened on a street that was known to be Nairobi’s red light district. Irony, you might say.

For reasons I still do not understand till this day, I felt a divine intervention and connection in that moment, possibly with ancestors looking out for me, that finally made me stop questioning myself and finally accept how I was born and who I was. For the next many years, I realized that my realization on that sunny day was just the beginning of a very long journey of self-discovery, a different kind of struggle that comes with claiming my space in life.

With a new acceptance of myself, I began looking for people who might be going through similar experiences. This was Nairobi before the digital age and so there was no Internet, no social media, Facebook, Twitter, or anything like that. Amazingly, there were individuals going through the same thing, and often one got introduced via networks that people had made over time. The fear slowly began to ease, and I began to be excited since I now did not see myself as a problem but as someone who belonged.

Over time some of us spent long hours at various places, including Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue, talking and getting to know one another. There was a lot of cruising around on Kenyatta Avenue, where lifelong friendships and even relationships were born. I was to later learn that these encounters were happening in other parts of the city and particular bars, clubs had begun to be spaces that individuals could meet and socialize. This is why it is important to have spaces to experience oneself with people like yourself. And all this existed in pre-digital Nairobi. Today’s society might not want to believe it, but we – queer people – have always been here. These pioneering spaces, I believe strongly, were the precursors for organized LGBQTI groups that were to start in the late 1990s and really blossom in the mid-2000s.

I left Kenya soon after for further studies, and moved to New York City. There, an HIV epidemic was in high gear, affecting primarily gay and bisexual men. While in New York, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and working within the HIV sector, I saw dozens of my gay friends die, not only from the lack of medication then, but from also the intense stigma and discrimination they received from the society at large. With my background in health, I got immersed in the responses against HIV in the city. This included facilitating HIV-positive support groups for gay and bisexual men of African descent ( African-American, Caribbean and African immigrants), and visiting hospitals to visit abandoned gay men whose families only showed up once they had passed on. I could not, and still do not understand how a family can abandon their child simply because of their sexual orientation.

It was at this time, and I believe as a result of a lot of pent up anger at the injustices I was experiencing all around me, that I came out to my family. My thinking was if they decided to abandon me (as I had seen many of my friends experience with their families) then I wanted to be in the space where I could speak directly to that, in case it ever happened. But I was surprised – and incredibly relieved – that my brothers were supportive of me even though they did not quite understand what I was experiencing at the time.

I began my journey back to Kenya in 2006 and finally settled back home in 2008. I had come back to support the beginnings of the governmental response to the HIV epidemic affecting marginalized communities including the ‘Most at Risk’ Populations (later to be renamed ‘Key Populations’ – sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs). My experience in the US provided me with some perspective to the growing voice of marginalized communities to the HIV pandemic – I felt I had something to contribute. I was also blessed to join in the growing voices of LGBTQI activists beginning to articulate and claim their rightful spaces as full citizens of this country. Eleven years later much has been achieved by LGBTQI and other marginalized communities in both the health and legal sectors.
This is why I woke up with great expectations on that Friday, May 24th 2019. I was optimistic because within this past decade, the LGBTQI community has had some incremental but significant legal wins, many of them made possible with the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights. In 2012, for example, a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police, in the full glare of the media. The court ruled her rights had been violated and ordered the government pay for damages caused. In a 2013 case that challenged the NGO Board, which had refused to register LGBTQI organizations, the High Court held that Article 27 of the Constitution protected ‘every person’ regardless of their sexual orientation. The Court further held that permitting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be against constitutional provisions of equality and non-discrimination.

And in another 2013 case, Baby A was born with both male and female genitalia. Hospital records indicated the baby’s sex by a question mark (?) and as a result, the child could not be issued a birth certificate or, concomitantly, an identity card. The court agreed with the petitioners that this offends the child’s rights to legal recognition, erodes its dignity and violates the right of the child not to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment as guaranteed in both the Constitution and the Children’s Act. It was a landmark case that provided for the first time relief for intersex persons in Kenya and ultimately led to the creation of the Intersex Task Force by the Attorney General’s office.

It was with this background of the successes the LGBTQI movements have had in their engagement with the judiciary, which gave me hope that early Friday morning. But halfway through the reading of the judgment, it became clear to all around that things were not going well. When the judges stated that majority views – ‘public opinion’ – must at times prevail in rulings such as this, we knew the case was lost. The judgment made it clear that in Kenya, the existing Victorian-era colonial penal codes are here to stay.

This decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. The High Court’s conservative negative ruling basically invalidating the existence of LGBT people in Kenya was not only a body blow to many LGBTQ individuals in Kenya, but truly had me going back to 32 years ago, where shame and self-hate ruled my life. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear. The ruling seemed to not address the pertinent issues brought up by the petition but used as a platform to preach to queer Kenyans about Kenya’s cultural and religious values, things that were simply not being challenged in the court.

The reaction of the LGBQTI community has been one of devastation. We are part of this country. We work and contribute to the nation’s development. We will continue to challenge laws and a society that is intent on excluding us from our rightful place as citizens of this country. We have however shown great dignity and resolve and intend to continue our long journey for recognition, the same as has happened in other struggles in the past, including for our own country’s independence. Our uhuru will come.

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Nguru Karugu is a public health social justice activist and practitioner. He is a great cook and loves entertaining. He lives in Nairobi

Reflections

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

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Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa
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Dear Natives, do you know any conservationist who was in Marseille, France, in the last couple of weeks? If you’re a conscious African citizen, you need to ask them exactly what they were doing there and what they discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Personally, I was there as part of a group organizing resistance against the relentless advance of colonialism throughout the global south under the guise of conservation. Like most conservation conferences today, this meeting was full of backslapping and self-congratulatory nonsense exchanged between celebrities, politicians and business people. This is the ultimate irony because this is the group of people most responsible for the consumption patterns that have landed the world in the climate predicament we’re in today.

They created the most effective filter to keep out people from the global south (where most biodiversity exists), the students who may be learning new scientific lessons on conservation, and the independent-minded practitioners who would be there to share their views, rather than show their faces, flaunt their status and prostitute their credentials for the benefit of their benefactors. This filter was the registration fee. The cheapest rate was the “special members fee” which was 780 Euros (slightly over KShs100,000).

While most of the Kenyan conservationists are now back from Marseille gushing about the beauty of the South of France (which is true), I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

For any African proud of their heritage, this worry is heightened by the unending queue of Home Guards and Uncle Toms lining up to sing for the crumbs and leftovers from Massa’s table, the small jobs, big cars and trips to conferences where the only thing prominent about them is their dark complexion and not the intellectual content of their contributions. These heritage salesmen and saleswomen give themselves all sorts of fancy titles, but their brains are of no consequence to the European colonizers. They are as much props as the obviously (physically, mentally, both?) uncomfortable woman unfortunate (or foolish?) enough to have her ridiculous image carrying a pangolin used on the blueprint for the new scramble for Africa.

The biggest thing out of Marseille was the European Union’s grand plan to capture Africa’s natural heritage through a programme called NaturAfrica. Since they know that they have selected partners in Africa to whom prostitution comes easily, they drowned the announcement in noise about doubling of funding for conservation on Twitter.

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the NaturAfrica initiative.

In the first photo above, you can see the EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the audacious grand plan. He expressly stated that they are going to use the “Northern Rangelands Trust model” which has served them well thus far. I’ve been saying for the last 5 years that NRT is a model for colonialism and some invertebrates here have been breaking wind in consternation at my disrespect for their cult. The financiers have now said that it is a pilot for their planned acquisition of Africa’s natural heritage. What say you now? Who’s in charge of the plantation? Do the naïve majority now understand the violence in northern Kenya? Do the naïve majority now understand why foreign special forces are training armed personnel (outside our state security organs) to guard the so-called conservancies?

Following this extravagant declaration by Mayaux, the CEO of the NRT, Tom Lalampaa, barely containing his joy, took to the podium and gushed that “NaturAfrica will be welcomed by all Africans.” Only the irrational excitement brought on by Massa’s praises can cause a mere NGO director to purport to speak for the 1.3 billion inhabitants of the world’s second largest continent. Kwenda huko! Get out of here! We can see through the scheme!

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

On the map presented by Mayeux, you can see the takeover plan (the dark green areas); Tsavo, Amboseli and Mkomazi in northern Tanzania is a colony of the WWF “Unganisha” programme. To the west is The Nature Conservancy colony consisting of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya, and the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative. The rest are the NRT colony (including the Rift Valley, which is clearly marked) and the oil fields in northern Kenya. East Africa’s entire Indian Ocean seascape is marked for acquisition; spare a thought for the Island nations therein, because they have been swallowed whole. The plan has already been implemented around the Seychelles and documented.

I will repeat this as often as necessary: the biggest threat to the rights and sovereignty of African peoples in the 21st century is not military conflict, terrorism, disease, hunger, etc. It is conservation organizations and governments that seek to dominate us through conservation. They will bring their expatriates, their militaries, and their policies. If you look at the map, the relatively “free” countries—like Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, etc.—are those where international conservation NGOs haven’t been able to get a foothold. Here in Kenya, our state agency, the Kenya Wildlife Services, is busy counting animals, not knowing that it is well on the way to becoming an irrelevant spectator in our conservation arena. If you think this is far-fetched, ask someone there why there are radioactive materials dumped by the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National Park. Or why the Kenya Forest Service is standing by without any policy position while the Rhino Ark goes about fencing Mt. Kenya Forest, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Has anyone asked the EU why this grand plan isn’t global, but only focused on Africa? Are there no conservation concerns in Europe, Asia, or the Americas? Ours is the land of opportunity and this is why they want it. The funding will facilitate immigration and pay to employ the expatriates that will look after their interests in our homelands. Their militias will keep us out of our lands which they need for “carbon credits” so their industries can continue to produce and pollute unabated. Lastly, they need our land for export dumping of their household rubbish, toxic waste and, most of all, radioactive material. This is obviously a continental initiative, but addressing my compatriots (Kenyans), can you now see what I have been talking about for years, even as the European colonists tell Maasais, Samburus and other pastoralist communities that they shouldn’t listen to me because I am Luo? Can you now see how miniscule that school of thought is, how easily your attention has been diverted to discussing irrelevant minutiae in the face of the scale of their grand scheme?

As I said in the beginning, my mission, together with colleagues in Survival International, is the de-colonization of conservation in Africa and the global south. The routine violation of indigenous people’s rights, and the violence constantly meted against them, is the most visible symptom that brought this problem to our notice, but we must understand that the violence isn’t just for sport, as much as these organizations revel in it. Like 18th and 19th century colonialism, it is a commercial venture where political interests follow in its wake because it is too big to remain private. When Leopold’s Belgians massacred people in Congo, it wasn’t just for sport (although at some point it looked like that)—they were there to collect rubber and other resources. The conservation militias don’t just kill indigenous Africans for sport. They are here to protect colonies on behalf of capital interests. It is not about the wildlife—that is just the window dressing. After all, the people and the wildlife were here for thousands of years before their militias came.

This is why we cannot afford to give up. It’s not just about biodiversity. It’s also about our identity, our resources and our children. This is why we must fight intellectually to develop our own conservation philosophy and reject this violent and elitist Tarzanesque Western model. In order to restore the rights of indigenous peoples, we must tackle the reason why they are being oppressed, tortured and sometimes killed. It is commerce. Conservation is just the attire in which it is clothed.

Find an African who was in Marseille and ask him or her what they were doing there. If they cannot demonstrate that they spoke against this colonial project, they had better show you a lot of photos of them shopping and spending a wonderful holiday in the south of France. If they can do neither, then be sure they were in France selling or facilitating the sale of our heritage to corporate pirates.

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Reflections

Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home

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Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods
Photo: WikiCommons/tropenmuseum
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What you up to I asked.
I’m going back home to take some pictures for my foundation was the answer.

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home. Because we remember how far we have gone.
And no matter what trauma and hardships we suffered – we remember this time through rose tinted glasses.

What? Going back home, home I said
Yes, won’t be there for long but we can meet after. No way! I am coming with you. I am going home too. And so, we set off.

First stop Kaloleni – Ololo – for a walk and picture taking.
You see for them Americans to give their hard-earned cash – we have to reaffirm our poverty and massage their saviour ego.
But today I am not on that soapbox.

I am 7 years old, visiting a relative in Kaloleni – eating peanuts that Nyaredo (my uncle) has bought us.
I am 7 years old – waiting for the medicine man to bring a variety of roots that need to be boiled and me washed with it. You see at age 7 I have terrible eczema and the many trips to Aga Khan courtesy of the KQ medical cover has not helped.
Dana knows the cure – and so off we go to Kaloleni.

We say hi to Mama. She is shocked to see me. I am happy to see her.
And of course, I come bearing gifts. I know she loves flowers – and these are bright orange. My Mama loved orange.
Mothers are precious and I do miss my own Mama, so I channel that love to any mother I come across – especially my friends Mums.

These houses looked much bigger when I was 7. They seem shrunken – but we have grown. This takes me back to the sights and sounds of our homes growing up.
Wow – it must have been loud – with laughter, joy, tears and hopes.

We walk around the old neighbourhood.
There is a beautiful old building that was the maternity clinic back in the day. A safe place. Walking distance from any home for mothers to welcome new life.
The library is next – open – recently renovated.
The social hall still stands …and there is a handball pitch too.
Hmmm – handball I inquire – yes, it has been here since our childhood.

This estate was planned.
Every common space has a tree.
The wooden shutters – painted green and that city council sky blue are still present. I am 7 years old, eating peanuts as I wait for the medicine man.

Next stop is my hood. Jericho.

Jogoo Road has changed but it is still the same.
Barma market – where we bought live kukus for those special Sundays still stands. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We exit Jogoo Road as we remember the number 7 and 8B bus routes. Long live Kenya Bus Service!

Bahati estate is still the same. Jennifer would get off here.
She was beautiful – Arab looking Kamba gal – Evelyn Tei’s cousin. Next
Evelyn and Davi would get off at Kimathi.
These were the it houses! 3-bedroom stand-alone homes – yo!

I was then in the bus by myself or with Agnes till Jeri.
Funny – no one lived in Jerusalem or Ofafa Jericho…maybe they did, and we just didn’t take the same bus…

Welcome to Trench Town

The sign greeted me as the bus turned into my road. Then I knew I was home safe!

Oduko so – the big shops – the main shopping centre – our Mall
I ate mtura there and ferried metal birikas of soup from there to neighbours’ homes. I got my shoes mended there at the cobbler outside the bar.
My feet grew like weeds – no new shoes, mended shoes for me.
My Mum’s local – drinking those small Tuskers with my Godmother and various aunties. Laughing.

The field next to the dukas was where the monthly open-air movies were screened. To this day I wonder who was behind that…
Bringing a screen and projector and showing a free movie to the masses.

Then the clinic…
The clinic where you had to buy an empty small bottle for your cough medicine. In the hood, Actifed came in 5 litre jerricans.
The clinic where Starehe Boys volunteered during the holidays.

Them in their very colourful uniforms – ever so smart. Patrick Shaw smart. The clinic that I ran to when I broke my toe…
Which was not set properly – and has given me wahala ever since.
I remember the day clearly because my uncle Cliff was there volunteering that day… The game was tapo…or blada…or cha mkebe
Anyway
I ended up with a broken toe that healed funny.

St. Joseph’s …my nursery and local catholic church. Weird place, looking back.
Lots of light skinned kids …pointies…running around. The only white jamaas were the…. yeap! ‘nuff said!
We drive to the parking lot and I am 12. I loved a boy from that house.

He smelled sooo good – Old Spice I remember.
First place I ever heard Tracy Chapman.
His brother was playing his guitar to ‘Fast car’. But alas, he was smelling good for someone else…

Celestine’s house.
Her mother told her not to talk to me because ‘I knew too much’. Celestine got pregnant in Standard 8…
Clearly, I knew nothing!

Wiki’s house – Wycliff – his full name was too long for us kids. First boy and last male who ever slapped me.
Heard my brother defended me by giving him a thorough beating! The joys of big bros in the hood.

Hilary’s house.
Now that was an anomaly…
Hilary lived there with his Mum. The end.
Just him and his Mum…in that huge 2 bedroomed house! My family of 5 kids was the smallest…the average was 8 kids We had a cousin and house help living with us…
We slept in one room.
So, you see the thought of just Hilary – alone – in the room – solo…that was mind boggling!

Owanjo so…the big field Looks so small now.

Walking to church along the bougainvillea fence…
Wondering why the boys are allowed to watch football whilst I have to go to church.

Oti Papa – towering tall. The coach. Superstar Someone scores, the crowd goes wild…
I walk to church…

I am 10.
Walking across the field after school to the far far corner to buy deep fried mhogo… Laughing with my two mates – Pauline and Mamie
Pure bliss
Them Mushrooms are having a jam/rehearsal session. The drums sound good, I fall in love with the guitar We eat and listen…

Thoma’s house.
First real rejection. I am 15 going on 16
Standing in the kitchen – the gally kitchens of Jeri… Gathered courage to go in for a kiss.
Dude jumped back as if I was about to stab him…
Note to self – do not make any sudden movements towards the male species. They are somewhat fragile when not in control.
Years later – we are back in the kitchen. Him from Sweden, me from my new hood. He has lost his Dad; I am saying pole.
And I remind him …ai ai ai…wacha hiyo story Posh (my hood nickname). We laugh and he goes – lakini you are free ku jaribu tena.

The car park.
With the Maasai watchie wrapped in his Raymond’s blanket, armed with his bow and arrow. It must have been a good year for Peugeot…everyone seemed to own one…or so it seemed. There was the occasional Datsun, Nissan and my Mama’s VW – KGG 908.

My street. Our house.
Laughter – it is a Saturday and Mama is having her bura – she is laughing, my aunties are laughing, gossiping, listening, helping, soothing, accounting for the monthly contributions. They are drinking and laughing, and Franco plays in the background.
Sisterhood – this is what it looks like.
Joy – Earth, Wind and Fire – blasts from the record player. I am mesmerised by the sparkly cover.
Fear – people running, horses…what? horses in Jericho? Screams… the 82 coup has arrived. Tears – loud wailing – my Uncle’s death – HIV – early days…he makes it into Newsweek… Violence mwizi comes the rallying call. We all pour out of our homes…
Nyerere with a panga, blood everywhere, leta mafuta…
Later on I wonder how witnessing that affected us kids…
Domes – the wall shook…my neighbour battering his wife. Her head made contact with the wall.
The late-night knocks, the crying, black eye, broken bone – letting in a weeping female who needs to make it to hospital…
Clear thought goes through my child mind – never marry a Kisii or a Luo for that matter…

The big easy – remembering the lazy Sunday afternoons, the footballers walking home, Leonard Mambo Mbotela asking us je, huu ni ungwana.
The only time I think Luo men my Dad’s age attempted to understand Swahili.

The Bus Stop
My stop – 3 steps and I am home.
The bus stop where Mwangi gathered courage and gave me a love letter via Freddie.
In their Martini uniform. Martini which I later realised was Martin Luther King Primary School. Go figure!
Mwangi from Ziwani.
As I got off the 8B – he got on. At times he didn’t.
He sat there with a clear view of our kitchen and veranda. Young love.
I turned him down gently…he swore to love me fore

The Obembo tree.
Weeping Willow – I discovered years later in my adulthood.
Dhi kel kedi – go bring a stick. God help you if you got a dry one!
It had to be flexible…so as it came down on you, you were dead just from the swishing sound it made.

I am 9.
In standard 3…
I have a toothache.
I take a nap after lunch and I miss my afternoon classes. The maid reports me to my Dad with glee!
Dhi om kedi. I die a thousand deaths. I am sick, in pain, my tooth!
All my Dad hears is that I skipped school…like that is my fucking nature!
I pick a nice flexible one because even in my misery, I want to be good and obedient and get a good kedi.
I have seen this guy cane my brother.
Watched my brother cry – my defender, my hero against the hood boys… I can’t imagine that wrath reigning down on me.
My Dad is speaking… I can’t hear him…
I am dying – can’t he see? I am crying – I am the good one. I am screaming – I am not lying! He raises his arm…
I pee…right there where I stand. He looks at me in shock…
I look at him in shock… He tells me to go shower.
He never raised his hands again…to me. But everyone else got it…sadly.
That is why only one boy has ever slapped me. One. Once. The end.

The hood.
We connected at a basic level
No pretence. No explaining. No pity. No judgement Just simple memories…
The medicine man The bus ride Sunday football Them Mushrooms
The Weeping Willow – which caused a lot of weeping Love – young unrequited love
Friends – rest in peace Mamie Tracy Chapman
Old Spice.

I am 45.
Standing in an empty car park Facing owanjo so
The bougainvillea is long gone
There is a stone wall instead – protecting the space from land grabbers…Kenya! The grass and red soil are now gone…
It is astro turf
Kids play in their bright yellow jerseys…dreaming… Oti Papa would be proud.
I wonder about Celestine, Wiki and Hillary…

Me at 45
Standing in the car park Old spice in my memory
But now not quite Old Spice but an expensive scent Tracy in my memory…
Nvirri the Storyteller on my mind
Football in the background
And in front of me… Home.

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Reflections

Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

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Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya
Photo: Julian Myles on Unsplash
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If you want to see colonialism alive and well in 2021, one of the first places you should look is Mathare, or any of Nairobi’s informal settlements. These are places where people are still not treated as full citizens, but rather, as sources of cheap labor. Citizens deserve publicly provided or accessible water, electricity, healthcare, education, roads, etc. But the people of Mathare are not treated as citizens. They are treated as disposable.

One of the ways that disposability is made most clear are police killings. In August, there was one week when police gunned down seven uncharged, unconvicted young men. But, while criminal suspects in other parts of the city are arrested and jailed, police kills the “disposable” young men of the ghetto because society, in its complicit silence, has agreed that it is more efficient this way.

We know that Kenyan civil society has long spoken up against police killings. The recent murders of Benson Njiru Ndwiga and Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga while in police custody in Embu have rightfully incited public outrage. But what about the seven young men who were shot dead by police in Mathare within that one bloody week in August?

*****

On 9 August, 2021, a young man called Ian Motiso sat down to take a late lunch at a kibanda in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare when a killer cop called Blacky passed by. Blacky took out his gun and shot Motiso down then and there. Just like that, Motiso is no longer with us. He was 21 years old.

Another extrajudicial execution. Another life cut short.

Even though police killings continue throughout Kenya, people are speaking up about it now more than ever. A couple weeks ago, the Ndwiga brothers were detained in Embu by police. While in police custody, police beat them to death. The public responded with anger. National news covered it widely. Lawyers have taken up the brothers’ cases.

But what about Motiso? What about the other six young men killed in Mathare within that week? Almost silence.

People say that the young men police kill in the ghetto are “thugs.” People say that those who speak out against police killings simply do not understand what it is like to be a victim of crime in informal settlements. I was born and raised in Mathare. I have been a victim of crime. I know the pain of being robbed of valuable property. I know the pain of beatings from heartless young men. I know the pain of losing loved ones to “boys” who stab with knives.

Motiso committed crimes. Motiso personally attacked me. And Motiso did not deserve to be extrajudicially executed. I believe this, even though I still have a wound behind my right ear from when he bashed my head.

Two months ago, Smater Zagadat and I had just arrived at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) to lead rehearsals for the MSJC Kids Club as usual. MSJC Kids Club is an initiative that uses dance and community theatre to advocate for social justice. Smater and I are the coordinators. That afternoon, I was wearing a black T-shirt with the logo “Dance with Zagadat”—Smater’s brand—so Smater took our her phone to take a picture of it. Within seconds, three teenagers swooped in and snatched the phone. We ran after them down towards the river and managed to catch the guy who grabbed the phone. Some kids from MSJC Kids Club followed behind.

We grabbed the thief and dragged him back up to the office so he could return Smater’s phone. But, suddenly, a group of young men came out of nowhere and attacked me. I only remember feeling their punches coming from all directions. Their fingers were covered with heavy coated rings. My teeth almost came out. I could not see what was happening, but I could see blood coming out of my mouth. All of this happened in the early evening on Mau Mau Road, between the bridge that connects Kambi Safi Road to Kosovo Hospital Ward, a very busy area—yet no one came to my rescue, except for the MSJC kids who shouted and cursed the attackers.

I recognized one of the attackers. Even though he recognized me back, he didn’t stop beating me. He felt no shame attacking someone he knew. He was Motiso.

Let me take you back, because I want you to understand something important. Motiso was born and raised in Mathare. He knew all six wards of Mathare very well, from the elderly to children. By the time he was 16 years old, he was already a very talented dancer and was a part of the Billian Music Family (BMF), together with Smater herself.  The community loved these dance groups, and in return, the groups inspired many kids in Mathare, including myself.

The first time I saw BMF’s Dance group, I was just out of primary school. The dancers were performing “Vigelegele” by Willy Paul along Mau Mau Road. That was the first time I heard the name Motiso. The kids, yelling above the booming speakers, cheered for him as he danced.

“Umecheki vile Motiso amedo hiyo Stingo?!”

“Atakua dancer mgori!”

He was just that good, and I guess that’s why he easily became famous.

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

Maybe if he wasn’t born into a poor family, his hard work would have turned his dream true. But Motiso was born into a place that reeks of all sorts of human rights violations, of poverty, of ecological injustice. His dream was shut down because of the environment he was brought up in. So, did he give up? Yes, Motiso gave up.

Imagine the struggle he passed through. First, he was unemployed. Motiso, like many of us in Mathare, was trapped in a cycle of wage slavery. You wake up, go to job, get a salary, barely make food and rent, sleep, repeat until you die. But your work never turns into a dignified life. You’re just trapped.

Second, Motiso was in the danger zone of being a man in his twenties living in the ghetto. As young men in Mathare, when we reach this age, we automatically become an enemy of the state. The ghetto is a place where a child grows up innocent, then later on becomes a victim of predators who target, hunt, and prey on them.

So Motiso went ahead and jumped on a bad bandwagon. He left dancing and got involved in crime like petty theft. The reason why he chose crime over a path of straightness is simple: He needed to survive.

Some people criticize his decision, asking why he should commit crime when the government has offered plenty of job opportunities to the youth, like one program called Kazi Mtaani. But, if those people understood that Mutiso was a victim of structural violence created by the system that we are born into, they would understand that they are demanding a young man to make “good” decisions while he chokes inside a system that has never treated him as a human.

Mutiso did try to join Kazi Mtaani, actually. A few months ago in Mathare, a group of young men went to the administration to register for Kazi Mtaani. But they were surprised to find that, in order to participate, they would first have to bribe the Area Chief 1,000 KES ($10). How can you look a young unemployed man in the eye, when you know he has no job, and ask him for money? Maybe the thieves who snatched Smater’s phone wanted to sell it in order to bribe the Chief and get a job.

Motiso will always be remembered as a thief. He robbed many. Many are still crying because of what he did.

But remember—he was also a friend. He was a family member.

He never deserved to be born into a system that does not care for poor people.

He never deserved to live in a world that kept poor people powerless in order to exploit them and, when they did what they wanted to survive, killed them off.

He did not deserve to be killed by the people whom we expect to protect us.

He never deserved that.

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