Nairobi - It's a city under siege by murderous gangs
05 Feb 2007 - Daily Nation by Rasna Warah
They shot my 19-year-old nephew, Jaimeen, last week. I don’t know who “they” were, but I do know they were young men barely out of their teens who felt no qualms about killing someone for a few shillings, a mobile phone or a car.
“They” are the face of Kenya today: ruthless, lacking in compassion or ethics, totally devoid of feeling, worshippers of only one god – money.
The bullet entered my nephew’s intestine, where it left 16 gaping holes, finally lodging itself in his thigh. Luckily he survived. But though the wounds have been stitched and he is healing, the trauma of the event has left him permanently scarred.
The same day that my nephew was shot, “they” invaded parts of Nairobi’s Kangemi slums, not far from where my nephew lives, and tore down mabati shacks so they could steal the few possessions of Nairobi’s dispossessed.
Women and girls
This was a less ambitious group of criminals, but sources tell me that the fear they instilled in the slum was so widespread that no-one slept that night.
Neither the near-fatal shooting of my nephew nor the slum robbery was reported in the Press. Nor were the cases of the many women and girls who have been violated and tortured by robbers in front of their husbands, fathers and sons in the last few years.
Their tragedies are being played out every single day in this city gone mad. And no-one, except maybe the Nairobi Women’s Hospital and some good cops, cares.
Every day, and today is no exception, someone somewhere in this city of dread will be killed, raped, robbed or carjacked. It wasn’t always so. When I was growing up, most people in the city didn’t have askaris guarding the gates to their homes.
The windows in houses lacked grills and the remote alarm was something we only saw in James Bond movies. Dogs in those days were pets, not man-eating beasts trained to maim intruders. Most children walked to school without ever wondering if they would be raped or molested on the way.
In my family home in Parklands, we often left the house door open, even at night. People drove with their car windows open and their car doors unlocked. If your car broke down in the middle of the road, someone would stop and give you a lift, and even take you home.
The security business was virtually non-existent. There was crime, but the benign kind, an odd jewellery snatching here, a pick pocketing there. The men with guns had not yet arrived.
Then it all changed, suddenly and without warning. A financial scandal of monstrous proportions was revealed. It emerged that the people we feted as heroes were, in fact, thieves, smugglers and con men. Kenyans lost faith in the system.
Overnight, the money they carried in their pockets wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Inflation soared, banks collapsed. Middle class Kenyans moved to slums. Slum dwellers struggled to survive. Kenya joined the ranks of the most unequal societies in the world.
As neighbouring Somalia descended into anarchy, a culture of impunity set in. AK-47s were being sold openly in Nairobi’s Eastlands for less than Sh500 each. Police officers looked the other way. Well-off Kenyans sent their children abroad in the hope that they would never return. Skilled professionals left the country in droves, to the US and Europe. The brain drain became an epidemic.
Meanwhile, back home, security firms flourished. Night guards became mandatory in all housing estates. Construction companies began building homes with window grills, barricades and electrical fences.
Gated communities became the norm rather than the exception. Nairobians began to believe that it was normal to have “safe havens” in their homes, three locks on their front doors, and alarms next to their beds.
Fear, the biggest inhibitor to freedom of movement, ruled the streets and invaded our houses. We became hostages not just of our dictatorial government, but of the thugs who roamed freely on the streets with their guns.
Order of the day
One foreign correspondent even compared Nairobi to Mogadishu, where lawlessness and violence were the order of the day. When the new government came into power in 2002, we thought things would change, but they didn’t. Some believe they have actually become worse.
Nairobians have now learned to live in fear. They envy people in other cities who can walk alone at night or who sleep without worrying about the safety of their children. They dream of escape – to Europe, America, Australia, even Asia, where living in a city does not mean always wondering if or when you will be killed or maimed. The ones who get away never come back.
Those of us who stay out of misguided patriotism, lack of resources or just plain bad luck do the only thing we can in these circumstances – we come home from work before dark, lock ourselves in our homes and pray.