Every Death Should Matter

Guest Writer
30 September ,2014

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Morris Kiruga

In the dead of the night, two groups methodically approached the small serene police station. The outer wall of the station had seen better, cleaner days. Its dark blue and white paint had been peeling for years, and the little of the police crest that was left was now indiscernible. Tonight, it would get a shade of red.

The leading group wielded traditional weapons such as knives, and bows and arrows. It was both the decoy and assault group and it would, by the end of this first attack, have traded its rudimentary weapons for something with a greater punch. The second group kept a distance, with each of its members carrying a gun to cover the first group’s activities. As the first group entered the open police station door, the police officer on duty yawned, groggily registering the ragtag militia of young men coming his way. They must be bringing in a thief or something, he thought. It had been a quiet year. The last time anything big had ever happened was five years prior, and the local police station had remained untouched. To the young officer at the Occurrence Book (OB) desk, this was just as any other night.

Only that it wasn’t. The small group of visitors suddenly turned vicious, attacking the police officer and his two colleagues. They approached the armoury, their main object of interest, while the second group outside returned fire to a few officers who responded to the call for help.

For neighbours of the police station, what was weird about that dark night in Likoni was the fire that engulfed their beacon of hope. The Kenyan Police Service, albeit notoriously lax and underfunded, is still better than nothing. They provide some semblance of order when they want to, and when they can (although they are more likely to come in the morning to collect your corpse than to come in the dead of the night to rescue you). But tonight, the protector was burning, and all hope was lost.

As if cloned, a similar group of attackers, organized in the same way, was attacking a small police post at the ferry. At the same time. It was a night to be remembered, and for the young Digo men who formed this two cadres, it was the first of many nights of war and blood. As the police station and post fell, and screams filled the night, the attackers filled their own armoury and grew in strength and firepower.

Before long, they turned their sights on their primary targets, the civilian population. They had a specific profile for their victims, and they knew who they wanted to slaughter to terrorize those who were lucky enough to survive. For those victims, even police presence would have done little to save them but their absence, with six casualties by midnight of that night, made the already grim situation much worse. It was a bloody night in as the attackers ran rampage, killing hundreds in their eight-hour spree. They faced little resistance, except from the few brave men and women who lifted a panga or a rock to defend their families. Or the few young men who tried to save their own lives. Those died the most brutal deaths. By first light they had disappeared.

This cold night marked the first of many in that cold August. It was the beginning of the slaughter of ‘outside’ tribes in areas around Likoni, and it spread faster than anyone wanted to mount a response. Those who died became numbers on a Red Cross list, at least those who had relatives and friends who cared to look for them. Others were lost forever in the melee of the massacres and murders that would define the next three months.

The events of the night of 13th August 1997 seem eerily similar to those of the Mpeketoni attacks in 2014. The same ethnic profiling defined the victimology, and it was clear that the attackers were not just random spontaneous assailants. They had been funded, trained and fed by someone, or a group of people, and went on to fulfil their part of the bargain. Such planning always leaves a trail that should be easy to follow, as was the case in 1997 when an unassuming diary of the planning stages was found. Its contents bore details that revealed just how organized the group was, as has been almost every other group of attackers before and after that.

As has become common in the days since the first six people, all officers, died in Likoni in that election year, thugs and assassins have become more and more daring. The firepower is also getting better as terror organisations connect with home-grown terrorists, making the situation even worse.

The problem with Likoni is that it shows the lack of proper response services in the country. One might justify the fact that the police response was slowed down by just how quick and brutally efficient, and strategically genius, the first attacks were. There was no time to make radio calls, and hence, the world remained in the dark for eight hours as civilians and police officers died. But Westgate and Mpeketoni tell a different story.

In one of the security camera clippings featured in a recent HBO documentary on the Westgate attack, the four attackers seemed lost on what else to do. It takes a keen eye to notice the immediate lack of direction before they go back to their spree. In launching such a blatant attack in an opulent urban area, they had anticipated a full attack within the first few hours. It is likely that all they needed was an hour to do their damage but in the structural failures that would follow, they got at least two days. They had not surprised the security forces as the Kaya Bombo raiders did in 1997, yet for the first two and a half hours they experienced little resistance from the few officers and armed civilians who jumped into the melee on their own accord.

In Mpeketoni, news leaked out that the intelligence services had warned the security services days prior to the massacres. The police seemed not only complacent but also part conspiratory as they redirected traffic and went missing as the attackers turned the settlements into killing fields. They did the same thing the next day, as happened on the night of 14th August 1997 in Kaya Bombo, and then spread out their attacks into other smaller ones. Terror, it seems, has been winning all this time.

The problem is part police and part societal. The Kenyan way of handling everything, including insecurity at such a grim level, is to make do where the government fails. The answer to rampant insecurity is not demands for heightened police presence, for example, but the coming together of neighbours to hire security companies and Maasai guards. The private sector, both formal and informal, thus thrives in the government’s ineptitude, yet the masses for whom public services are meant cannot afford the comfort of making such decisions.

On the part of the police, the problem is multifaceted. While the organisation problems such as low pay and bad working conditions are common knowledge, there is a general institutional lethargy that bedevils the entire Kenyan public security system. Mix this up with organisational rivalry that exists between its different wings and you have a recipe for chaos, where the bullets of terrorists will continue mowing down Kenyans as security bosses decide who has the mandate to shoot back.

Consider Westgate, one of the most recent examples, where the media frenzy around the four-day attack allowed the country to see its police and army soldiers jostling for control and jurisdiction. That rivalry cost at least three lives, one of a General Service Unit (GSU) commander, and at least two soldiers who were shot in retaliation. It should have been a revelation that the rivalry was not a mere joke anymore but one that had gone to the extent of an internal war.

What it showed was a Mafia-like unspoken rivalry between the forces meant to protect Kenyans, both from themselves and from outsiders. Within the typical Mafia organisation, a murder must be avenged for there to be any forgiveness. Every cartel has its own territory, and breaching such territory is a declaration of war for which assassins will get paid to clean out the competition. Such competition exists in all spheres of life, although not all of them are marked with bullets and combat gear. They are what we have come to expect of drug gangs and Mafia organisations but not from security organisations.

The question of who should protect the country should be a fairly easy question to answer. It is not one that a civilian should even be expected to contemplate as terrorists aim to maim him or her. As a law-abiding, tax-paying, peaceable civilian, one’s right to life should be more than guaranteed. The social contract that drives this relationship demands that the civilian population only cede its rights to the government on the primary promise of security. If that promise is breached due to one reason or the other, such as foolhardy competition or incompetence, the contract should be assessed. But the Kenyan civilian population has grown numb to pain.

When the bullets rang in the air and the machetes were sharpened in Tana River, over 100,000 people had to flee their homes to survive. The terror that spread as each night approached meant that little or no work got done and the local economy suffered. In what often seems like a peaceful country, 0.25 percent of the population could not sleep at night for fear of attacks. The rest of the country, numbed by decades of rampant attacks, discussed the issue for a few days and then moved on to the next big issue.

Such has become the only way the national psyche can handle death and drama. Our legendary amnesia has moved from being a behavioural reaction to being ingrained in our social DNA. Within it has emerged a disconnect from the subject, and an acceptance for the government’s ineptitude as its unchangeable character.

As part of society, the ability to forget even the greatest of pain is actually derived from the pre-colonial era, although it is during the colonial era that people learnt to flinch when the needle pricked but say nothing about the jab in the days to come. It was necessary to forget. To accept and move on.

With Kaya Bombo in 1997, a flurry of calls to bring the obvious political influences to book followed. Investigations included a commission of inquiry which, spurred on by international organisations and other pressures, was one of the most efficient in the country. Of course few, if any, of the actionable points in the report were ever read even a second time. With Westgate, an attack on the higher income classes mostly, a new sort of silence followed. One year after the attacks, no such inquiry has ever been done, and the event seems to have been accepted as a disaster. Not a disaster that could have been prevented, or even stopped in its tracks within hours, but one that happened. The numbness to traumatic acts of public murder that now defines our social nature is frightening.

For societies to grow and develop, history shows, they have to be highly efficient and forward-looking. One of the ways to do this is to redefine the security parameters in such a way as to ensure that the farmers beyond the castle walls have access to the castle walls. Without them, the country burns and the Lord of the castle will starve and die with his nobles. Since an economy is essentially an ecosystem, each limb and organ must do its part for the entire system to be complete. Numbness denotes lethargy first, but the apathy of Kenyans towards their own security is not only a death warrant, but a shaky hand on the crystal ball.

The Russian mass murderer, Josef Stalin, once quipped that the death of one is a tragedy, and the death of a million is merely a statistic. He had a point, that until the death of each human being is considered a tragedy, it is impossible for mass murder to ever be anything more than a statistic.

In Kenya, at a different time and place, the likelihood that the next answer to a knock on the door may be your last is the harrowing possibility you have to live with. Even worse, that once the obituary page has yellowed and the mound of soil on your grave has flattened, and the flowers withered as the termites gnaw away the cross, your death will have taught us nothing, and will have meant nothing.

Morris Kiruga is a writer, blogger and researcher.

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Asking For Stories

Guest Writer
26 August ,2014

by Wanjiku Mungai

This is what terrifies me: one day, we’ll wake up and find that all of the stories are gone.

Let me explain.

I find myself thinking more about endings as I grow older. Of late, I’ve been thinking specifically about what comes after the end. Not in the sense of what comes in the afterlife – although I have been compiling a list of questions to ask God when I meet him/her/them – but more, what do we leave behind us when we are gone? Some people might call this a legacy. I’m going to call it the stories we leave behind.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed something else about growing older, which is that the older people in my life become more expressive, more open to sharing the stories of their childhood and their past as both of us grow older. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not speak with us much when we were children. When she did, she was usually shouting at us for doing something that we shouldn’t be doing (which happened often). But something really cool seems to have happened since I turned 20 – nowadays she wants to tell me about her life. Like, really tell me. Not in a way that’s an attempt at giving me advice, but as if she’s honestly sharing her own past. I’d like to hope that it is therapeutic for her to let out some of these thoughts, memories and feelings.

The last time we talked, she told me about what it was like to live during the State of Emergency in colonial Kenya. She described to me the way that young boys, their only crime being the fact that they were Kikuyu, would be rounded up, tortured, taken to prison; killed. At this point in the story, my young cousin, who’s about seven years old, was playing close to her feet. My Cucu pointed to him and said: They would kill boys as young as him.


I grew up treating history as something that was far removed from me: notes we read off of Social Studies textbooks for the sake of memorizing years, passing exams. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I ever “felt” the impact of history. I mean, sure, at the back of my mind I knew that the story of colonialism featured in my life history in the sense that I am a descendant of people who survived it, but the actual effect felt so distant from my existence in Nairobi. I used to think: Yes, colonialism happened, but it’s all in the past now. We’re all right. We got independence. We survived it.

My grandparents survived colonialism. They lived to have children and grandchildren. They were strong and hardworking people who believed in God and in the promise of education. But surviving does not mean that everything that happened is finished and done, it just means that we pick the pieces together and we learn to carry all of the pain, the fear and the memories in a way that’s dignified and socially acceptable.

Think about it: when you fall in love and lose that love, it changes you as a person. You can’t go back to who you were before, because you now carry the lessons gained from the relationship. So, too, we cannot just be done with colonialism. We continue to carry it within ourselves, in the systems of government and of law of our nation, in the languages that we use to communicate with one another, in the fact that our country is shaped like an uneven swimming costume.

Warsan Shire writes about maps and bodies and pain. In this one poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” she talks about receiving the news that someone burnt down her aunt’s house. She ends the poem with these words: “later that night/ I held an atlas on my lap/ ran my hands across the whole world/ and whispered: where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere”.

When I first read this poem, I thought that she was just talking about the fact that there’s so much pain and conflict in this world. But when I read it again a few weeks ago, I saw something different. I thought of the very idea of the map, the very existence of countries that are shaped a certain way, the fact that boundaries do not just come into being, they are negotiated and renegotiated with the use of force. And the names of countries and continents– Chimamanda Adichie says this: “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

Pain is embedded in the geography of our land and of our identity. So when Warsan Shire says “everywhere/everywhere/everywhere”, it could be that she’s talking not just about the geographical existence of pain, but to the fact that it has been there in the past, in the present and in the future, and to the fact that it’s contained in all of us.

I am Kenyan. I am African. I claim my heritage with a sense of pride and of passion because to me, being Kenyan does not just mean simply existing in the boundaries of this state: it means identifying with a certain story, a certain set of stories (not everyone feels this way, and that is completely valid). But in claiming my Kenyanness and Africanness in an article I’ve written in English, I need to also acknowledge that there’s a history behind how all of these things came to be a part of me.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a friend, and I were looking at the different exhibits and she pointed out something that I’ve never really paid attention to: when you walk in a museum, there are those pieces of art that have a name attached to them “Art by Rembrandt Harmesz. van Rijn”, and there are those that are simply presented as “Art by the Congo People”. So, too, “1,200 people have died of Ebola in Africa” versus “Keith Brantly” and “Sarah Writebol”.

Chimamanda Adichie, again, puts it aptly: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”


There’s a moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Christina Yang is speaking about her ex fiance Burke, and she says that when she was with him, he took so many pieces of her that she lost herself. Violence and wars, even when they are finished, take away pieces of us. And this is why I am so terrified about us losing our stories: when history stops being something that we can relate with, when it becomes reduced to a thing that happened many years ago that we read about briefly in our text books so that we can pass our exams, then we lose pieces of ourselves. And one of the things that we lose is the ability to know where it is that our pain and our beauty come from.

This is my fear: that one day, we will have lost so many pieces of ourselves that there will be nothing left.

But maybe that’s not how it ends. Maybe, before that day comes, we speak with one another. We ask for the stories. Like, really ask, not for exams, not so we can win debates, not so we can know how to make money, but so that we can understand each other and our world better. We ask the people around us, “Hey, tell me a story?”. Our friends, loved ones, grandparents, great grandparents, even and especially those people with whom we disagree most vehemently.

I think you could call this hope: this thinking that maybe, asking for and sharing our stories could be the thing that saves us.

Wanjiku Mungai is a student and lover of life, language and literature. She blogs sporadically at www.thiskenyangirl.com, Find her on twitter at @AnsheeMungai

Something Somewhere Didn’t Click

Michael Onsando
13 May ,2014

Dear Mr President. It has been 6 months since our performance at Kenya@50! Please pay us our dues. @UKenyatta #kenyaat50

Sauti Sol

There is something oddly symbolic about that tweet and, more particularly, the reactions to that tweet. It now comes to light that the Kenya at 50 celebrations were rife with corruption, dodgy bookkeeping and, generally, a great deal of underhandedness. This is not “news” in the strictest form of the word – we always knew that the process through which government awards and rewards these things leaves much to be desired.

And, because we knew, we are hearing people say stuff like “It’s their fault they didn’t have a contract!” (Did they? Did they not? I don’t know). Or “Did the president personally call them to perform? Why are they harassing him?” (Does he read his Twitter account? I read the tweet more as a way to leverage public pressure than anything else). This, of course, is classic victim blaming. It is the fault of the band that they got swindled – they should have known better.

There is something oddly symbolic about this situation.

Eight years after Uhuru gave an eloquent speech against the government honouring payments to “shadowy Anglo Leasing contracts” he now finds himself having to defend his government making the same payments. The culmination of a nation is that of one whose past seems present seems future. During (then opposition leader) Uhuru’s speech, he warned that such scams would not just hurt that government but future governments as well – and that’s exactly what happened.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Just after the blasts on Thika Road, a friend told me that talking about it was futile. Her argument was simple: All the government will do is arrest someone irrelevant. We’ll then get angry and call for their release. They’ll do that and move on with their lives. That is exactly what happened.

In 2011, Kenyan writers and public intellectuals wrote a letter against the incursion into Somalia. A part of it reads:

“The army will claim, as invading armies always do, that they have courageously engaged the enemy, when they have really killed innocent civilians.

All of us are paying already for this bout of blood-thirst. We will go on paying, for many years to come. We will pay with our taxes, our un-built schools and hospitals, our unpaid teachers, our still-jobless youth, our rapidly deteriorating security situation, our shattered relationship with our neighbours.”

There is something oddly cyclical about Kenya.

Aleya takes us further back, talking about the 1982 coup. She writes:

“It was like that and worse Aleya. So much worse. They went from house to house, forcing their way in. The stealing was one thing, but they raped every woman they found. Every single one. In front of their brothers, fathers, grandfathers. So many of our Asian women.”

It is impossible to talk about the Asian Kenyan without talking about the complicated history of their place in society. Thankfully, I’m not talking about the Asian Kenyan.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Alphonse Karr

Over the last ten years, the government has strived to become the Kenyan “employer of choice” – you can feel free to vomit at any time. How can this be when they can’t even get round to paying contracts within a timely fashion? How can we endorse this government?

In another conversation, I was reminded that I’m talking about the same society that blames rape victims for their rapes. We can’t really put any kind of blaming beyond this society. “Why are you still surprised?” Even in this kind of framing  – that I’m guilty of as well – I see another kind of victim blaming. Those who expect more from society are told to lower their expectations.

The real problem, they have been told, is not what the problem is, but their expectations. And thus the hurt inflicted by society is, really, their fault

“How dare you expect better?”

How dare you not?

Are we really at the point where an elected official can call a voter a cow in a public space and have nothing done to him? In fact, when the lady goes ahead and writes this up, the debate becomes about how she could have written it “better”(as if the real problem here is the literary aesthetic), or how this had nothing to do with her gender (when it had everything to do with it).

These are the kinds of fights that we need to have every single day. And then be called repetitive.

We have to keep repeating the same things because they keep doing the same things.

Wambui Mwangi

When Sauti Sol sent that tweet, what happened is that we saw something that we have seen before. Something that we are tired of seeing and, hence, dealt with it in the only way we knew how – we quickly hid it under the rug. The shame of a nation that is unable to pay out on public contracts was not something we wanted to discuss.

Instead, we would like to listen to rumours of jobs that the government will create –250,000, 600,000, 700,000 – are just numbers. Numbers that, without action are worth less than the 3 seconds it takes to type them out.

In Kasarani, we are holding people in cells – stacks of stories stream in everyday talking about what is happening there and, again, we have decided to look away. In fact, not just look away, but actively stop anyone who tries to talk about these things. We have criticized, mocked, taunted and insulted the people who insist in looking in directions that we have since decided not to.

If you don’t use your humanity, are you sure it still works?

Shailja Patel

The citizens of a state need to leverage public pressure to get paid by the state for the work that they did for a state function. It is safe to say that this state is not doing well. There is something oddly symbolic about that Sauti Sol tweet and I know what it is. That, when it comes down to it, it really isn’t odd at all.

Memory Serves You Wrong

Michael Onsando
18 March ,2014

Take back

your memories.

 – Witness #115

There is something about remembering that is completely anti-establishment. Memories are fragile things, and because we continue to experience things collectively as individuals, they are also very subjective.

It’s easy to say “I remember…” and be saying something that is completely false.

This has been on my mind as I think of our collective memories. Our histories, and who these histories allow to exist.

To narrow this down more people have been talking about how they wish Moi was still in power. That life was better then. That, although he was a dictator, the citizens could afford to live under him. The memories of the financial have crippled the other memories. Or, to ask more directly, what do we remember?

In Silence is a Woman, Wambui Mwangi writes:

To ‘re-member’ is to make a member again, to bring that member back into the community of imagination, re-awakening past trajectories and giving new momentum along new paths of the present.

The problem with bringing something back to the realm of the imagination is that it causes all sorts of distortion within the realm as it already exists. This is to say that remembering, and reminding others, reawakens what would have rather been left to sleep.

Last week on twitter Ory Okolloh was informed that, because of her constant questioning, she must be lacking in patriotism. And that’s just the example that came to mind. Very often people who bring things to light are defined as people who lack love for the country. (I am reminded that countries are fictions).

People who dare to remember, and remind, are challenging the power as it sits and are making things uncomfortable. In ‘the problem of perception’ Sara Ahmed writes:

When you perceive a problem your perception becomes the problem.  What I learn as well from being a feminist killjoy is how noticing a pattern in how things tend to fall is understood as making your own life more difficult than it needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: just stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased.

The worst thing about this is that it creates roles. Suddenly, we sit  smugly in our roles waiting for the people who are meant to oppose to oppose. And, if this opposition doesn’t happen we demand the roles they have been cast in be played. Tweets like “Where are the feminists now?” show up. As if, somehow, it is only the feminists who must speak out against these things. And, in knowing who must say what, their saying becomes ineffectual. They are trees falling in the forests, surrounded by people who lack the capacity to see, hear or feel.

A friend once asked me, “Why do you always talk about death?” I didn’t know how to respond. I could easily have said that I am constantly aware of how disposable our lives are. I could have said that I don’t write about death.

The word death sounds incidental. I write about killing, which is very purpose filled. There are a number of answers I could have given him. Instead, I stayed silent, and pretended not to have heard the question. I did this because I knew the conversation, I knew my role in it. And I knew his. Silence was my way of refusing him the delight of playing this particular game.

The thing with having these roles is that they then make any kind of work ineffectual. When shouting against something ,it is no longer the something that is heard, but the someone. It is more of, ‘Who are you?’ as opposed to ‘What are you saying?’

This kind of thinking is why male allies repeating what feminists have been saying for years get heard. Or why it is such a big deal when a white person stands up against racism.

The work of remembering needs to be done collectively. In order for this to happen, certain voices need to be listened to. The catch is, these same voices will reawaken demons that we rather hoped were asleep.

“I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.”

Prof Saidiya Hartman

The present is very much a product of the histories that created it. Whether we chose to remember them or not. If one chooses to forget that they had their arm amputated when they were 7, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. In ignoring the memories of oppressed people, we are in effect subjecting them to a more profound form of oppression. The form that doesn’t allow  their histories and their memories.

If you read the history books, it will look like black people suddenly appeared out of nowhere at some point. Many will only speak of black people after they were ‘discovered.’ After this, the legitimization struggles will happen and black men will start to appear (black women come in much later).

What do we chose to remember?

Scratch that.

What are we allowed to remember?

An obvious falsehood is that the world was all white for a while. Even Europe was never, ever, completely white. Lake Victoria had several names and, I can assure you, none of them had anything to do with the Queen.

There is no way to think about what happened in the past without thinking about the future.

In thinking about what we are allowed to remember, we are thinking about what we will allow others to remember. About the kind of world we will leave behind. In remembering and articulating our memories (whether by tweet, by blogpost, essay or just in conversation), we are storing these memories in the collective memory bank that they may be called upon where necessary. We are allowing people to reawaken and reimagine today in its totality. We are  pointing out that these things happen, these things have been happening for a very long time. We are helping create a future where these things might not happen. After all, an injustice can never be corrected.

A deed can never be undone. The only thing that can happen is we can learn from it. And, if we are not learning, then what are we doing?