WHAT MOTHERS WANT
Social justice – and how victims of police violence in Nairobi intend to get it.
BY KANYI WYBAN
The last few weeks of October, 2021, have been especially intense for Mama Victor, Effa Kwendo, Mama Kevin and all members of the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN); people from various Nairobi settlements who lost their loved ones to police killings and enforced disappearances, who fiercely resist systemic violence while leading the way to healing and justice.
About twelve of them, more than three weeks ago, drove one hundred and fifty kilometers to show solidarity and grieve fully with the family of the Kianjokoma brothers, Benson Njiru (22) and Emmanuel Mutura (19), a case of extrajudicial killings over which the Kenyan media has been in a frenzy.
Due to immense pressure occasioned by the publicity, the six police officers involved have since only been granted a Kshs. 300,000 cash bail and barred from entering Embu County.
While a majority of the Kenyan populace debated on whether or not the officers should be allowed to make bail, the family in Embu, particularly the boys’ mother, Catherine Wawira, struggled to navigate severe trauma.
By the time the mothers from Nairobi arrived in her home, deep sorrow was written all over her face. Sudden tears continuously interrupted her attempts at speaking, so Mr. Kamunyoti – her husband – weighed in every once in a while as the mothers shared about their journeys of healing and restoration.
Through the visit, these formidable women also scrambled to explain to the Kenyan public why the authorities should find them so dangerous.
“For an oppressive system, victims with conviction are an affront, and those defiant ones who cannot be bought or intimidated are mortal enemies,’’ Mama Victor asserted, “The killings suggest a state that is now more predator than protector.
A poor woman, whose son has been killed, of course, is more likely to go mum. Even if she knows her rights, she may hesitate to call attention to the problem, since poor people often can’t afford to fight in court, much less against the government!” Like Catherine, Mama Victor also lost two sons, Victor Okoth (24) and Bernard Okoth (22), to police bullets at the height of 2017 election tensions in Mathare 4A, Nairobi.
“It’s such a deep blow that your body kind of goes into a profound stop,” she continued, as she detailed how she threw herself into the human rights advocacy life, now acting as convener of the MVSN.
After a whole day of listening and interacting with colleague mothers, Catherine was in better spirits than she had been since the tragic incident. She shared funny stories about her slain sons, teased the pet and gifted her guests with fresh cabbages and lettuce from her little garden. “I am done stuffing down my disappointment and swallowing my anger. I suddenly feel like I have an army behind me,’ she told the women who promised to walk with her and turn up during court hearings.
On Sunday 24th October, 2021 – two weeks later – MVSN launched ‘They Were Us’, a book which chronicles sixteen stories of eighteen families impacted by police violence in Nairobi and their transformation from victims to defenders of human rights, through
startlingly candid interviews and lean, eloquent narrations. The book launch, held a few meters from State House, was tailored to hold the state accountable on violent policing in poor communities, share testimonies from the perspectives of victims’ mothers and call people to action.
“This event is an opportunity for those of us with strong and loud voices to use them on behalf of all,” Effa said to me right before she sat on the panel of four members from MVSN, a duty-bearer and counselor.
Effa Kwendo, who is now left a mother of only one child out of eight, has had to learn forbearance over the time, after wrestling with her feelings for years. “Once you lose your child, what are you supposed to do? Do you quit, live with it, or try to act?” she wondered, “Kenya is, with casual contempt, waging a crushing war on its citizens.”
The mothers imagined that, once they share their stories and point out what the law is, they can begin to challenge the humiliation and shame of feeling that you are regarded as second class. Stories that seem simple aren’t always so.
The number of lives lost in police custody often gets lost in statistics which can make your eyes glaze over, even when you care about the issue.
At the backdrop of the panel discussion was a list of names of victims of police brutality, colorfully sewn on a large black cloth. For this the goal was to constantly remind the audience that these were real people, most of them brilliant young men who lived with us, who were us, and who we must always remember by saying their names.
Effa has short, well kempt hair, and a stern gaze. As she recounted the journey she has been through, her eyes welled up uncharacteristically.
During the panel discussion, duty-bearer representatives took questions, or, rather, largely evaded them with careful politesse.
Asked directly about the delays in arresting rogue officers, the representative from the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) proclaimed that there is ‘a significant difference in the scope and scale’ of what IPOA and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) are mandated to do.
In recent years, the movement to tackle police excesses has been gaining momentum. With this has come a growing awareness that the violence is not an individual misfortune but a social problem with far-reaching effects. Most of the women in the network said they are the primary breadwinners of their families, which brought about another aspect that curiously doesn’t feature in most human rights conversations – economic justice.
Lameck Otieno, who survived a stray bullet from a military officer’s firearm in 2017, has so far endured through eight expensive surgeries on his leg and counting, a situation that has shaken the economic foundations of his entire family. He is now forced to rely on friends and people of good will to make ends meet. Worse still, government institutions that should assist him in his quest for justice have abandoned him and ceased to respond.
The mothers’ network has become his new community, as has been the case for Mama Victor, Effa, and fifty other network members present during the launch.
While making his remarks, Lameck clarified that one does not necessarily need to be a mother of a victim – or even a mother, or a victim – to care.
That we all must push this issue to the front of conversations so that policy-makers, middle and upper classes across the country can truly understand that all citizens must be treated equally. Not close. Not almost the same – equally.
Through the panel discussion, members of the network corresponded about the particulars of their situations and then crowd-sourced solutions. Some best practices emerged. The book launch now doubled as a formal grievance, which manifested through a list of demands, framed in a cheerily righteous tone, as a form of tough love.
- “We demand Police officers to be operating in marked cars and uniforms that state their badge numbers.
- Police terms are limited to a maximum of three years in each station.
- Immediate investigation into the Pangani-7-‘killer cops’ who operate in Mathare and immediate arrest of all known killer police officers until investigations are complete.
- The implementation of the 2017 Coroner’s Service Act, so an independent coroner will investigate any cases of suspected police killings. Right now, perpetrators are investigating their own crimes while tempering and planting evidence.
- Increased capacity of the Witness Protection Agency so it is able to effectively protect vulnerable witnesses and human rights defenders from intimidation, harassment, threats or elimination.
- State to issue reparations for victims and survivors of police brutality.
- Media highlights all cases of police killings and enforced disappearances irrespective of the socio-economic background of the victim,” read their articulate and self-assured list.
The Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network embodies the hope that a few determined women might be able to beat the system, here and there, some of the time. Bringing different sectors to the book launch; media, artists, activists, duty-bearers, middle-class, etc., was part of a growing bid to include everyone in fixing the system holistically.
One of the major revelations of the reckonings of the past years is that isolation is not only a consequence of inequality but also a root cause. Increasingly, the most effective fights, like that of the mothers network, owe their success to coming together and sharing – information, risk, the emotional burden of public scrutiny and internal backlash.
The reason the police think they can get away with their murders is that they haven’t factored in the multiplier effect of solidarity.
Yet, the work of the mothers comes at a significant risk. So much that it requires them not only to deal with harassment, but also evade surveillance.
About two days after the book launch, Mama Victor’s one-room house was broken into and vandalized. Nothing was stolen, but everything was broken and turned upside down. It was a warning and there was no much doubt about who did it.
Within the same week, Police officers stormed into Effa’s house and left with all the money earned from her shop that day, after harassing her husband. Luckily, she had walked out using a back route when she suspected their car, which was parked outside longer than usual. Mama Kevin, also one of the panelists had to move out of her house owing to a nondescript Probox car that is persistently parking outside her house. She is now living in fear for her life.
This ending is unsatisfying, worrisome, poetic, and true. The mothers were aware that by going against a violent system so publicly, they risk a backlash, and are sensitive to the fact that change is never linear, that humans are ever complex, and answers are rarely easy. However, standing up for themselves and for others in the face of violence is the purest and most radical show of courage. They are hell bent on earning our compassion and vigilance and we must support them. “For whom is there benefit in trying and failing? We don’t want future generations to have to fight this battle tomorrow because my generation failed to win it now,” Mama Victor tells me. “I don’t think, in twenty years’ time, that anyone on the other side of the argument will feel proud of themselves.
We’ll look back and say, how did anybody think it was okay?” She adds. “The bulk of the cases are literally just sitting on people’s desks. Meanwhile, in Kenya’s low-income neighborhoods, years pass; children die.”