I stumbled into police high handedness at Mathare North, a community in the Ruiraka constituency of Kenya, while arriving via bodaboda, (Okada) against the wishes of all I engaged over going to a NASA stronghold. Even before I could step off the pedal to dismiss the bike rider who was obviously enjoying his fame after seeing himself on the live Facebook feed, teargas canisters exploded, discharging their burning smoke into the airspace.
I was completely unprepared for this. In fact I didn’t even look for a handkerchief. I searched my mind for any remote knowledge of how to deal with it. I went blank. There was nothing I could fall on and my eyes were already burning. The fumes were now choking. But even the bottle of water on the side of my bag was not thought to be useful. I forgot it existed. I removed my sunglasses and dumped my eyes into the sleeves of the blazer. It was no relief.
Then the rider told another person washing his eyes from a gallon of water under a deserted shed to move away for his guest to wash his eyes. I was his hero. He became the toast of all at the main road leading to the community. Like the lame man who called on Jesus for favour, he demanded that I let the world hear him. I obliged and he was full of praise for President Kenyatta.
The gentleman stepped aside, so I could rinse my burning eyes of the residue of what the police had been visiting on residents there for hours. I was instantly outraged. Not because my eyes were still burning but that the security detachment there was deliberately filling the air of this vulnerable community with the harmful smoke of a substance designed to repel obstructive crowds. The residents, who are mainly factory hands, self-employed and other low level employees, woke up to heavy security presence. But soon they were a nuisance.
The bike rider, like all before him, had become a prophet of doom. He had insisted that it wasn’t prudent to go to the community because in his words “the people are violent”. But if I didn’t, how would their stories get out to the world? Someone needed to make that sacrifice and I was willing. Then we met this ‘run for your life’ moment. He encouraged me to join him back out of the volatile situation, but I would have none of that. I paid him off so I could begin duties.
If there’s one thing that life teaches you, it is that once you gain their trust, even the most unreasonable people are willing to engage you. All you need to do is to meet them at their point of need. My Kenyan friends, including my host who saw the feed from Mathare, was shocked that I took such a risk. But how would this life be worth its while without risks?
Real stories for a journalist, are not official narratives designed for public relations purposes. They are often the lived experiences or sharing intimate moments with those who lived it. But first, they must trust you.
Children who were on the balconies of their storey buildings rushed in, while others were caged by their parents to prevent them from coming into contact with the teargas. It felt both shocking and emotional for me. How do parents explain what was happening to their kids? What will they tell them brought the police to the community and what explanation could they proffer as to why their homes were being filled with teargas so frequently?
When the burning wore off, I had to pay the bike rider but he had no change so I had to go round looking for change. A gentleman passed a KES100 for my purpose. I didn’t return it. In fact I couldn’t even say thank you for the bottle of soda he offered, before leaving. It was my birthday present and the only meal till after 9pm. Thank God for mercies.
I asked for residents who could speak English and to my surprise many of them expressed themselves like any educated person would do. They assured me that my backpack, which was about eight feet away from my view, containing all my equipment was safe. I had to trust them.
The second person I interviewed was an elderly man. He said the police was provoking them and that they were peaceful people. I couldn’t identify the more. These people were in their homes and teargas was deployed for their discomfort. There were coughs, sneezes and eyes filled with tears.
“We have not gone to vote. It is our democratic right not to vote, isn’t it? We have a presidential candidate who pulled out and now they want to force us to go and vote. It won’t happen, it is a democratic country and voting is a democratic right”, he insisted.
Teargas had taken over the atmosphere by this time and the battle-ready security officers trekked the streets of the community. It was a warlike situation. There was a pickup full of teargas boxes and the men onboard held the canisters in their hands ready to release them into the air for the residents’ discomfort. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who put them up to that?
A lady who had been shouting that they must secede from mainland into a western republic said on live camera that with the training from the National Youth Service, if she had a gun she would have killed some of the policemen for coming to disturb their peace.
Another gentleman said as a taxicab driver, he could not go to work that day because the blockade made it impossible for him to step out with his vehicle to work. Maybe, God made it happen because he saved my life from rioting youth who were incensed by my tripod or maybe my colour. But it later became obvious that they had no trust for the local media and so everyone will take a closer look at my accreditation before feeling comfortable around me.
When the battery of my phone died in the middle on an interview, they offered me a place to charge it so they could tell the world their story. Trust the power of social media. After two hours in the community, three white journalists showed up. They took photos and videos of the same people pelting missals who threatened to kill me.
One of them run after me with a broken glass. By this time, they had been incensed by the death of their brother, friend and neighbour, whom I understand was a ‘computer engineer’ most likely a (hardware technician). His blood was all over one of the people I interviewed. Despite my fear of the dead, in the line of duty, I was going there so the world will know what was happening in the low class community of Mathare North.
The police officer in charge of the detachment refused to talk to me. Maybe it was the best. He would have lost either his temper or his job. Because it wasn’t just what I had heard. I had seen his men running after people just for standing by the roadside. When did it become a crime to sit along the road in one’s neighbourhood? Why was the police using live bullets, when they had hot water cannons, teargas, tasers, handcuffs and the law on their side? What was the crime of these residents who were in their homes but had to endure the burning sensation of teargas? Who put them up to that? Was that the professional way of with folks who were abstaining from an election? Alas, no one would have to answer any questions.
These people are poor and also have invested their everything in man. For them, Raila Odinga is their source of direction. I felt sad in my heart. Odinga’s children and immediate family who will enjoy the state largesse, if he wins an election, may not be this obedient. But these guys were. You can call it gullible, ignorant, naive or even stupid. But for them it’s a cause. Some said they were willing to die for the cause. Did they really mean it? Yes they did. One of the interviewees who kept shouting about nothing, said he wanted to be the next person to take the bullet.
It was overwhelming but insightful, that these guys hinge not just their fate and future but their being in a man who promises to better their lots. A man who may not know them by name. A man who would not recognize them if there are no elections. A man they would never have access to even as he is not yet president. But they were willing to lay down their lives for his cause. And for what?
The violence unleashed on the innocent, as I saw it, was not acceptable but it happened. It is very unlikely anyone will be punished for taking the gentleman’s life. In fact, the residents believe they targeted him for elimination and so they did. How do you dispute it when the bullet that killed him went through his head?
I have seen protesters defy police in my own country, but these were not protesters. In fact those engaged in stone throwing were less than 20. So why subject the whole community to torture because you are in uniform.
But is wasn’t surprising, because right behind the walls, on the compound of the Drive In schools, the security officers on duty were drinking plain liquor from a bottle. Their actions were influenced by alcohol. But who would investigate and bring justice? What amazed me was their rush around the community to find evidence to justify their actions.
At one point about 30 combat-ready men rushed to the shed under which I was standing with some of the residents, they fled leaving me to my devices. I had a mounted tripod but without a camera. They wanted the residents to leave so they could take photos of what looked like the slim opening of a bottle with a wicker. But there was nothing else that showed it blasted there, but is was evidence on their phone camera, as their superior interrogated me.
Knowing that I wasn’t a national was relieving. I’m sure he thought I was no threat. If only this world was fair and African democracy was anything to go by, these guys will go before a tribunal and answer for the trauma visited on particularly the children of Mathare North. Someone needs to help them out of their trauma. But who would? Not the President, not their hero, ‘Baba’. So whichever way you look at it, these poor folks lose.
We can only pray that should justice elude them here, their hereafter would be just.
I rest my case.
By Kobby Gomez-Mensah
The writer is a Ghanaian journalist