Tuesday, the 17th of January found a group of us, from Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) making our way to Mlango Kubwa for a community dialogue session on the issue of political precarity occasioned by the violence of the state against its citizens, and continually using the police as a tool for arbitrary arrests, malicious prosecutions, enforced disappearances and death of said suspects of crime. Being a fortnight after Christmas, there would be expected some mirth in the community, with children playing or even, at least, conversations about the great year ahead. But all is sullen, most people restrict their movements to within their close neighbourhood, actually, we were invited to this particular area by the youth who were disturbed that they were being killed like dogs! They confided that a policeman in Mlango killed 6 people and the very next day 5 people. There was nothing to celebrate about the new year. No rest. No peace. This story of police brutality and then shattering anguish of the bereaved goes much the same way as it does in many parts of the country, Mathare forms part of the many ghettos within Kenya that are clouded with the plague of normalized extrajudicial executions. Alarmingly, these are perpetrated by a body established within the constitution and mandated to ensure security of the citizens. It is therefore ironical that here in Mathare, the custodians of law and order have become the harbinger and perpetrators of anarchy and broad-daylight executions.
It was noted in the dialogue that:
The policeman patrolling the area that may or may not be in their jurisdiction and that(he)
- guns down one or more young men who are alleged criminals.
- A gun finds it way to the body of the then diseased.
- Usually a fake gun – Bonoko. Usually the very same one.
The Kenyan state has made extrajudicial killings and unlawful arrests excruciatingly mundane for the second class citizens, the residents who live to the east of the city. Dying in Nairobi is a particularly class thing.
It is about 10 am and people are quickly filling in. The few narrow benches against the walls are not sufficient to contain the numbers of mainly young people making their way into the building. There are as many men as there are women. The faces of the departed were present too. Painted on the t-shirts of friends and family whose existence continues to be etched on the scenes of the crimes.
The discussion begins with a short introduction of the people from MSJC. After this, Steve, speaks in detail on Article 49 of the constitution on the rights of arrested persons. Steve who is now a law student, grew up in Mlango Kubwa. As a member of the community, and as someone who has been unlawfully arrested, he speaks with a deep understanding of what it means to encounter the cruel hands of the law. The very idea, that one could demand for official details and reason for arrest from an armed and often times intoxicated policeman with a record for shooting at sheer will seemed incredulous to most. That one should refuse to pay a bribe to a policeman and face the risk (or have their friend or family) of languishing in jail was almost laughable if it was not so heart wrenching. It seemed that everyone so desperately wanted to believe Steve. To imagine that we too had rights, we too were citizens of this country; as human as everyone else.
Gacheke speaks: And people respond in intervals. Writing down a pledge on the funeral fundraiser book, printing t-shirts for burials and memorials sometimes for someone as young as 13 years old shot dead by the police is too tragic a routine to get used to. Fear is sown easily here. And so your neighbour may report you, sometimes, to save themselves. Or your aunt, who together with your mother and friends paid the bribe to have you released from jail asks back for her contribution. You were arrested for touting! Try and disprove that. What is a young jobless person to do? Of course, there are options. But very few options.
Someone asked the question – ‘and how many people have been killed’? Jonte answered – well over 500 young men have in the recent past been gunned down by the police. Where is justice to be found? The police will at best, ask for a bribe. Mama Rahma, who was just named the best human rights defender of the year, said, that when she goes to the police station to complains about muslim women being raped, the response of the police is ‘but you are used to being raped. It has happened to you since you were 12’. When we try to access the internal commission of police, we are stopped at the gates by the guards. Why? Because our clothes are as faded as our skin and we are immediately assumed to be thieves. The politicians and the chiefs are never to be found in these times. They appear cyclically every 5 years. People are not people. They are only voters. Now that the election registration season is here, they have once again appeared from whichever mansions they had sprinted into, leaving their promises to us cracking out in the sun. This time though, things have to be different. Maybe we should take the money they offer us and still vote them out. But whom should we vote in? Are they all we have? What has democracy done to the wretched of the Earth? What can the oppressed do to own their dignity? What is human dignity these days?
As if to illustrate the point of the conversation, a commotion suddenly broke out outside. A man sprinted past, a police man followed suit, with a thick crowd of young men growing bigger behind him. The meeting of course stopped. Most people poured out, some, immediately joining the crowd. A few strides later, the man was in the hands of the men. His name is Bizna. Some stones and sticks had found their way to his body. He still had some pieces of his shirt on him. As it turned out, there was a rivalry between the older men and younger men in Mlango over the control of business ‘tenders’ like garbage collection. The older men tried to take over, sometimes reporting the younger men to the police. And then what always happens happens. Gunshots. A dead body. And a police narrative to justify a reckless shooting of an unarmed youth. Luckily for Bizna, the younger men decided to take him to the police station. Meanwhile, Mama Uji, beautiful, fierce, spots a young man in the crowd who had earlier on stolen some of her clothes. Together with a friend they accost him, physically. ‘you will bring my clothes’! His terrified body is now crushed against the wall of our meeting hall. He begs for forgiveness. They lean into him, squeeze a little more air out of him, and then let him go. He stumbles towards the crowd proceeding to the police station. People flow back into the meeting.
A number of MSF people had filed in earlier, to speak on emergency medical services that are available in the general Eastlands area. They come at a point when we are well into the second month of the national doctors strike with no sign of respite. The national fever is voter registration. The government agenda is politicization of ethnicity. We are reminded that we are not patients. We can never be too sick to register as voters. To our ‘leaders’, we are only voters. They speak about the availability of emergency services. They hand out business cards with emergency numbers and appeal for patience. Because the public hospitals are barely functioning, their services are now on very high demand. Two of the MSF staff present are from Mathare and they speak not just about the services that MSF makes available, but also share their thoughts on the troubles that afflict this community. Should we seek to change our social relations and uproot exploitation from below, or should we agitate for political change from above? As these thoughts percolate, two staff members from the Internal Affairs Unit arrive. They had been invited to speak with community members on how to report police brutality, unlawful arrests and false charges. They went through Article 49 like Steve had just done. The questions. ‘How can we get into Jogoo house where your offices are, with the guards keeping us out’? ‘How can the duty roaster of the police in charge at the stations be made available so that we know who is charge on a particular day?’ and ‘What will be done about the known assailants – like Rashid for instance, an Administrative Police who has murdered so many young men, and whose gunshots have become the morning alarm clock’? What about the OCS Madam Lang’at at Huruma police station who undermines and dismisses our basic humanity at every turn?’ ‘Do you know that many policemen are intoxicated when they patrol this area?’ The response. ‘Unacceptable, here are our details, call us when you get to our offices – Steve, we will leave you with the details, we shall deal with these known cases. Follow up on the 17th of February’. It’s the old song, the same promises, but this time they do not promise any hope, their lies, their incompetence, their consistent failure to protect human dignity forms a rhythm, a sad dirge, a premonition that echoes into every alley way of Mathare, a chorus that reminds us that we are on our own. Without jobs, without opportunities with the little education we have, and in a community that is not adequately served with schools, running water, hospitals and electricity, we are left to hustle for our own security. Democracy and Devolution has failed within the boundaries of our community. We are a people cast out -and the police have their muzzles gaping at us to keep us ‘disciplined’ ! We are daily wringed of our humanity!
But what can we do? Gacheke speaks about courage, like Maya Angelou did when she said ‘courage is the most important of all the virtues. You cant practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage’. We need to organize. Not with money. Not with the false sense of security and erratic donor funding and demands. Not with the political elite. But with our bodies, with our sense of courage, with our shared pains and hopes. Something is already happening. A group, The Pirates has emerged – an initiative of the Mlango Kubwa community against police violence. There were more suggestions. ‘Let’s have a wall of remembrance here. All the names and pictures of our community members murdered by the police. Let us create a project of self-reliance. Maybe we can even have a farm that generates income for us. Let’s take charge of our children’s education. Impart values of love and courage, however painful. They cannot separate us. They would have to kill us and bury us in one hole’. But even from our graves, we would rise. Our spirit is that of the MAUMAU, we cannot die, we cannot be wiped out. If they try, memory will remember us. Courage will stand for us. We shall keep struggling against oppression till every drop of blood collects into a wave, strong enough to triumph against the walls of injustice. We do not cry for riches, to live in penthouses or to assassinate our enemies. Not at all. We cry for Social Justice. For the basics of life!
Report by Noosim Maimasiah and Kenyan Mwangi.
Here are some pictures from this dialogue: