A Shot in the Dark

Michael Onsando
25 February ,2014

No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger nurses the trigger of an AK – 47 is less a tip than a ransom.

– Teju Cole, Every Day is for The Thief

Fact: Between March and August 2013 the police in Kenya shot, and killed, at least 100 ‘suspects.’

I have seen far too many guns in the last year. There is a certain despair to having an AK 47 pointed to your face and knowing that you are at the mercy of a twitch of the index finger. The one thing I have learned is that the fear that runs down your spine is the same whether the gun is held by a policeman, a thief or a terrorist. There is no such thing as a comforting bullet hole. There is no such thing as friendly fire.

Let me go back a little.

In September 2013 Cabinet Secretary Ole Lenku said there is no such thing as extra judicial killing. This is something that completely refuses to sit well with me. So I write about it here. One comment tells me that the essay is good, in theory, but completely out of touch with the realities on the ground. There will always be lives that must be lost in order for other lives to thrive. There will always be lives that we need to keep in the fringes. Lives will always be lost to keep lives from being lost.

In conversation, a friend noted to me that the people will always believe the police. He said that you could be shot and your own friends will start to doubt. Questions will come to light: “He always had money though, and he didn’t earn that much,” and other stories will be told about you. Another friend writes about a run in with the police where the (laughable) idea of rights came up.

On February 2nd the police raided a mosque and ‘officially’ killed 2 people. This, we are told, is the price of the war on terror. We must be on our toes. We must kill “them” or they will kill “us.” The media claims to be impartial and asking the difficult questions, yet when a survivor tells her story, no one airs it.

Reports are written. Reports will always be written. One quotes a police officer as telling a detainee “We are tired of taking you to the court. Next time, we will finish you off in the field.”

This casual-ness is what tires me. The ease with which we accept, and continue to accept, the precarity of our situation. It’s not that it happens but that, for the most part, it is okay. It is okay that the holding of a trigger while asking for a bribe is not seen as a death threat while it, very much, is.


I don’t like guns. Mechanisms that were created solely for the purpose of taking life away or, at the very least, causing serious injury, make me uncomfortable.

I find it impossible to celebrate death. It does not bring me a sense of comfort to know that the police are out there shooting people on the ground of being suspicious.

In Thrown, Like Another, Wambui Mwangi writes:

If you are a young girl, at the moment you become aware of yourself enough to look up and take in the workings of the world, a woman has always-already just been beaten or raped or killed.  Because the food was late, or burned.  Because she smiled at Another Man.  Because there was no reason.  Not-you has always just been killed.   Or she will be, soon.  Later today, or tomorrow, or perhaps it happened yesterday. Not-you’s body was found raped, torn apart, mutilated, dead.

In the same vein, I’d like to think about not you as a Kenyan. They have always been killed. Perhaps they were walking in the wrong place, saying the wrong things, looking at the wrong building. The difference is you have never identified with them. You have never known that not you could be you. It has never occurred to you that next time someone is shot, in the still of the night, it could be you.

This has kept you shielded.

It is a burden, emotion. Feeling is a labour, and it is exhausting. It is more comforting to tell yourself that the word “suspect” is a verdict.

People who are suspects are, more often than not, bad people who deserve to die. Our court system is broken and prisons are full. It is more efficient this way. These are the half truths we tell ourselves. They help us keep our faculties. They keep the other world, the one where poverty exists, at a safe distance. Far from everything, and everyone, it’s easy to imagine that it is a beautiful world.

The problem with the bubble of security is the bubble of security. By its nature, it is fragile and precarious, it can pop at any time. And, when your bubble pops it will only be your bubble.When that mugging, that police harassment, that carjacking happens, it will only happen to you. Your friends, whose bubbles are still intact, will tell you that you are over-reacting, if only a little. That you need to get over it, everyone goes through these things. From the safety of a security bubble it is easy to dismiss the pain of others.

“The government is murdering us.”

– Cleric in Mombasa

I’ve seen far too many guns in the last year. They’ve been pointed at me by thieves and by police.

Militarisation is a long word. Death is a shorter one. Death is one that is easier to understand. Death is a word that is easily seen, easily imagined, easily known, easily feared. At some point, we must see these deaths as deaths. We must see these deaths as a price. And, in being a price, we must ask what  they are paying for.

“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace”

– Keguro Macharia

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