Kenyan Mothers Point to Police as Sons Go Missing

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Touts gather passengers for a Nairobi minibus.

NAIROIBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–For Kenya’s police force–struggling to keep the peace in a nation traumatized by post-election violence that tore open ethnic fault lines–a handful of middle-aged mothers from the slums of Nairobi make a strange sort of target.

“We are Kenya’s four most wanted,” said a 43-year-old woman who sells traditional wrap skirts for a living. She called herself Mary, saying the police would come for her if she gave her real name.

Around a table scattered with empty tea cups three other women–a vegetable vendor, a cloth dealer and the owner of a shanty saloon–nodded in agreement.

Their crime? Protesting against a band of local police they say have been running an extortion racket, kidnapping their sons for ransom and even killing them once the money runs out. By springtime, the women knew of eight young men from their neighborhood shot by police.

On the first of June their patience ran out. The women happened to be looking on when a policeman passing down the street grabbed a bowl of porridge from a young carpenter’s hands and threw it down because he would not pay a bribe. A crowd of women poured into the street shouting, and then more joined, perhaps 100 in all, chanting for the police to leave.

“We started protesting,” Mary said. “When the police came, we ran. They beat the ones who couldn’t run and they threw teargas into our houses.”

By the end of the day television crews and newspapers had picked up on the story.

Few Stand Up to Police

Standing up to the police isn’t something most Kenyans are keen to do in the aftermath of the violence that followed the December national elections that left more than 1,500 dead. Police bullets were responsible for more than 200 of those deaths, according to human rights groups.

Kenya’s constitution has barely been altered since the 1963 independence from Britain. Authoritarian police laws meant more to control than to protect the population remain virtually untouched. One result is that complaints about police are made to the police themselves and only the president has authority over them.

In May, the women detailed their allegations and named officers in letters to Nairobi’s provincial police officer. When the police responded by asking the group to meet at the same station they’d complained about, they feared a trap and avoided going.

The dispute started when a local band of corrupt police accused the women’s sons of belonging to the Mungiki, an underground traditionalist faction of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. The group admits to supporting over 1 million members by demanding payment from drivers for permission to pick up passengers at the hundreds of thousands of minibus stops the group controls.

Like tens of thousands of young Kenyans, the women’s sons hustle for work in a gray area of the economy, which is staggering under 40 percent unemployment. But they say the police knew they were not Mungiki.

“Me, I say the police know very well who the Mungiki are because they work together, they eat together,” said the saloon keeper, who is 44. “Half of the take is eaten up by the police.”

Sons See Too Much

The mothers say it is the officers who are in cahoots with the Mungiki rather than their sons, who witnessed members of Kenya’s underpaid, ill-equipped police force taking bribes from the Mungiki to look the other way or even participate in their dealings. Before long, the mothers said, their sons knew too much.

“If my son is Mungiki, why don’t you take him to court?” asked the saloon keeper, who leaned forward over the tea cups, jabbing her finger at an imaginary officer as she spoke.

She answered her own question: “If the boys are taken to court, they will say we are giving money to the police and the Mungiki.”

The question is hypothetical, though. The saloon owner’s son will never see a court. He’s dead.

When he finished high school two years ago, the only job he could find was as a “tout,” who gathers up passengers for the minibuses that most in Nairobi use to get around town.

Drivers paid him the equivalent of a few cents for each passenger and at the end of the day he’d come home with two or three hundred shillings, the equivalent of $3 to $5.

He didn’t earn enough to get his own place so he stayed in his mother’s house, spending most of his money on the local “changa,” moonshine.

Like many a tout, the saloon keeper says her son wound up playing bag man–collecting payoffs from drivers–distributing money both to the Mungiki and to the street police they needed to keep quiet.

Twice her son was arrested and then released after she raised around $300 for bribes.

“After that someone called my son through my phone and another young man came and took him away,” she said. “I waited until morning. He didn’t come back. I went to every police station in Nairobi and I didn’t find him. So my husband went to City Mortuary. He found him there.”

He’d been shot three times. The police said he’d been armed and was shot in self-defense, a story his mother does not believe.

A Few Bad Seeds

A deputy spokesperson for the police department, Charles Owino, acknowledged there might be a few bad seeds in the force and that some officers were arrested for graft last year. Still, he said the police have a duty to uphold the law and the right to defend themselves from armed suspects.

“No parent will be happy when their child is killed,” Owino said. “So we will always get a lot of complaints.”

In fact, most people don’t dare complain.

Another woman at the table says she is struggling to support her 22-year-old son, his wife and baby, with the $2 to $3 daily profit she earns selling vegetables. Her son used to help out when he worked as a tout. But since a couple of police officers paid a visit two months ago, she won’t let him out of the house.

“They told me you can tell your son to stay in the house or else prepare to buy a coffin,” she said.

The cloth dealer’s son also hadn’t left the house in three months. Police have assured him he will not live to see another Christmas.

She says she knows at least eight young men from her neighborhood who disappeared after police threats.

Her claim is substantiated by a local human rights group that reports young people are disappearing across the country.

“It is widespread,” said Kamandra Mutheke, of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. “Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people may have disappeared. As we speak I am coming from Naivasha (where) as recently as Thursday five people have disappeared.”

Over tea, the mothers are planning another rally.

“The next should be for women only, old women,” said the cloth dealer. “They don’t shoot women, though they’ll beat us.”

Zoe Alsop is a freelance writer based in Kenya.

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