“Nyinyi ndio mna sumbuka raia hapa?” That’s all I heard as the two policemen approached my brother and I. “Hapana ofisa, sisi tuko na mama yetu”, I murmured my response. “Kuja hapa, leo mta jua hii ni Kenya”, shouted the officer as he swung his button to greet us. The first and second strike followed almost instantaneously. As they proceeded to arrest us. He then walked us a few meters to a makeup shack where they had detained other civilians like sacks of potatoes behind a canter, awaiting transportation to the local police station.

“Ingia hapo na ukae chini flat, nimesema kaa chini flat. Kijana unataka kushindana na serikali?” continued shouting the first policeman. As his colleague hit my head using the wooden butt of his Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47). I was dazzled from the blow. I felt the weight on my knees as I buckled onto the ground. The knock from the “Ofisa’s” rifle on my head was more than I had signed up for that evening.

Even if you surrender, the only language they know is violence — credit AFP

I had never been stopped, detained nor arrested by policemen. In fact, I had no prior run-ins with the law. But here we were, my brother and I, being arrested and detained with no explanation given. The evening had started with my mum walking into our room. My uncle had fallen ill, and she wanted to pay him a visit. He lived a few hundred meters from our home. It was at most 15 min walk. However, it was approaching 5 pm and my mum needed my brother (14yrs) and I (13yrs) to accompany her and my sister. She didn’t fully trust the streets after dark.

After visiting my uncle, we started making our journey back home. This is a route we had walked thousands of times. As we had often visited our uncle. It was around 7 pm when we left his place. My brother and I in our childlike fashion, were at each other playing on the streets as we journeyed back. We were just two teens being teens. Unknowingly to us, we veered off a few meters in front of my mum and my sister.

We had probably walked for 200 m when we reached the main road heading back to our home. There was a police car that had pulled over on the side of the road. A Mahindra (Mariam) 4X4 which were typical police cars back then. This is the point at which the two very “friendly and respectful” policemen decided to arrest and harass us minors. My mum was a few meters behind when they stopped us. Before she could react, we had joined the entourage destined for the comfy police cells.

We tried to plead our case with the policemen, but all our cries fell on deaf ears. These guys were determined to see to it that we got our first taste of the Kenyan justice system. My mum on noticing the policemen walking us towards the shank, she came to clarify that we were with her. She begged the guys, mentioning we were only minors; her children. But even a mother’s plea wasn’t going to soften the belly of the beast. The policemen proceeded to drag us away to join the other social “misfits”.

My brother for whatever reason had kept his cool composure throughout the entire ordeal. His demeanor has not changed to date. I, on the other hand, was ready to channel my inner James Orengo. I was fuming, huffing, and puffing as I held back my tears. How could the policemen be so cruel? How could the men charged with serving and protecting us end up doing the exact opposite? No minor deserves to be arrested and detained, I thought to myself. Where was lady luck this evening?

A few minutes passed and I heard our names being called by the officer. Who then proceeded to yell these magical words, “Simama, mama yenyu ame wakujia”. We were “free” to go, our freedom was ours again. I didn’t look back; I didn’t waste a second. I didn’t check who was next to me, I could only imagine what their plight would be. The policemen were blatantly asking for “kitu kidogo”. How many of these guys could afford to part with their hard-earned daily wage?

The policemen had asked my mum for chai to secure our release. As in what nerves do these “horrible” humans have to subject a mother and her children to such treatment? The entire ordeal was probably been 15/20 min, but to me, it felt like an eternity. I was just 13, a frail figure, I barely had on any weight. The wind could have easily blown me away. I had vowed never to have further run-ins with the police, and I buried the experience in an abyss. Unfortunately for me, this would be the first of many encounters with the boys in blue.

The unfortunate memory of the blow from the officer’s gun has never faded away. It is something I carry with me to remind me of how powerless you can be. How fragile life is, how the policemen can be the judge and decider over whether you live or die. I must admit, the experience made me develop some prejudice and dislike towards policemen. I was conflicted, knowing my very own grandfather was a policeman, and several members of my family, are proudly serving the nation.

In Kenya, they don’t kneel on your neck. They stomp on you instead.

“While everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, black people in America are still facing the battle against racism…and coronavirus”- Trevor Noah. This statement got me thinking a lot about our own reality. As a black man, a Kenyan, and an African, this statement pierced through my reality.

In Africa, we are not fighting racism like our brothers and sisters in the US. Even though some parts of Africa still have historic colonial injustices. In Africa, we are at war with ourselves in the form of tribalism, fascism, and self-hate. For the purpose of this article, I would shun away from tribalism discussion. As of this writing, 15 Kenyans have lost their lives at the hands of the Kenya police. All in the name of enforcing the curfew. Let that sink in.

This past Tuesday, I joined millions of folks on social media in supporting the black lives matter movement and supporting #blackouttuesday. I even went further to switch my profile picture to black on my social media platforms. I stood in solidarity with the family of George Floyd and the millions of people of color who face such atrocities every day. Being black in American is a task. Every day, you need to strive to be the best version of yourself to avoid undue attention and scrutiny. Every day, you must prove you are not a criminal, dangerous, or a threat to society. You must do this in order to navigate a system that in essence, isn’t designed to aid you.

I struggled with this reality that people of color face every day. It forced me to reflect on our own reality back in Kenya. As we cry for justice for our brothers, we should not forget our own fight back home. Lately, perusing through my social media feeds only serves to remind me of the injustices that we face. Seeing the images of policemen harassing and mistreating my fellow citizens reminds me of how far we still need to go. There is still more work to be done.

Kenyan Police at their best “serving and protecting” innocent wananchi (citizens)

As I have grown older, I have come to realize the issues with the policemen in Kenya is much more complex than portrayed. We have a police force that is first and foremost grossly underpaid. The policemen live in deplorable conditions. A large percentage of the policemen can barely make ends meet on their monthly salary. This forces a lot of them to engage in what has become common practice in Kenya — Kitu kidogo.

As if the salary situation wasn’t sad enough. The profession itself is looked down upon. In the past and largely still the current reality, the people who scored the highest grades never wanted to enlist to the forces. The pay upon graduation wasn’t attractive enough and there was no proper career track for professionals (this changed with the push for the officers’ program in the 2000s).

If you just take these two key aspects, you can see the root cause of why our forces sometimes don’t reflect the best of our society. We need a force that is balanced with both brains and brawn. We need both to be able to have a police force that serves and protects. You need people who have situational awareness to recognize how to deescalate and handle situations. Case in point, the handling of the COVID curfew was just unfortunate. Those 15 deaths could have been avoided.

If you have had the luck to travel and see how police forces interact with civilians in other parts of the world. Then you know we need to do better. Being a policeman/woman should be a noble cause. Something you do if you want to empower, improve, and keep your society safe. But I believe the training in Kenya needs to improve. Sentiments echoed by the police spokesman, “Some of these police officers are very young, they can easily get drunk with the little power they have and do very wrong things.”. Such comments only prove that our training isn’t teaching policemen to avoid oppressing and killing civilians.

We need to hold the men and women in blue accountable. Unfortunately, based on reports, only 6 people have been convicted over the last 10 years for police brutality. This is based on data from the police watchdog Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). Even though more than 10,000 complaints have been lodged against the force.

I don’t have the answers on how to make the situation better. But what I know for sure is that we need to press to have more discussions around this issue. We need to push our politicians to pass better laws. We need to push for an overhaul of the police force. We need sweeping reforms across the board to ensure we preserve the dignity and sanctity of human life. One life lost is one too much.

Today’s article couldn’t be based on just one song, one artist, one album, and not even one narrative. It will take a collective effort for us to have institutional changes that address the issues we face from our men and women in blue. Nevertheless, I have curated a playlist for your sampling. As you ponder ways to be part of the few that will be willing to stand and be counted.

Spotify

Youtube

Translations

“Nyinyi ndio mna sumbuka raia hapa?” — “Are you the ones who are bothering the civilians here?”

“Hapana Ofisa, sisi tuko na mama yetu” — “No Officer, we are with our mother”

“Kuja hapa, leo mta jua hii ni Kenya” — “Coming here, today you will know this day is Kenya”

“Ingia hapo na ukae chini flat, nimesema kaa chini flat. Kijana unataka kushindana na serikali?” — “Get in there and sit down flat, I said sit down flat. Boy do you want to compete with the government?”

“Simama, mama yenyu ame wakujia” — “Get up, your mother has come for you”.

“Ofisa” — Officer

© Untitled’s Cut

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A curious mind. Inspired and passionate about how Africans are influencing, shaping, and creating modern arts and culture.