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Story Publication logo April 22, 2008

Kenya and Ethiopia: The Most Dangerous Men in Kenya

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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The first thing I thought of when I saw the scorched whitewash, shattered windows and collapsing skeletons of businesses in Kisumu's downtown was my father's furniture store in Seattle.

Poking through the remains of doctors' offices, electronics shops and grocery stores — plastic vials and discarded packaging cracking and rustling beneath my sneakers — I imagined the nights of heartbreak the owners of these business lived through in the anarchic weeks following Kenya's most recent elections.

Fifteen-year-old images of American cities burning mingled with the sounds of my panicked father rummaging through a tangle of sports and camping equipment in our messy basement for an ancient baseball bat to protect his shop from looters.

In the outskirts of Kisumu, touching ragged graffiti scrawled furiously in pencil on the disintegrating pastel walls of an abandoned guesthouse, I watched a small crowd of young boys cut the branches from an acacia tree in the debris-strewn courtyard.

Between the thumps of their dull machetes I heard the ghostly words of mothers, like mine, trying to keep their husbands home during those first nights of violence.

Through the confused innocence of the children's destructive play I saw 12-year-olds, like me, watching the incomprehensible images on the evening news, skin prickling with the knowledge that something terrible was happening.

My father's shop was passed over that chaotic night in the spring of 1992. Most of Seattle's businesses were. The merchants of Kisumu, Kenya's western urban capital and a flash point for much of this year's violence, were not so lucky.

And with cabinet seats finally settled and the new coalition government forging ahead, the remains of their middle-class dreams still lie in defeated heaps across the city.

Ironically, though I'm in Kenya as a journalist, I was not in Kisumu to cover violence or ethnic clashes. I came here to report on the shrinking of Lake Victoria, which laps at Kisumu's shores. But the recent trauma of the city found me between interviews with environmentalists and fishermen's collectives.

A search for a good cybercafe resulted in a surreal encounter with a businesswoman, sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of an echoing room, empty but for printed signs indicating hourly Internet rates and rows of shredded wires where a fleet of now-looted computers were once connected.

"They're all gone," she explained, staring out the open door and into the crowds passing by outside as her voice bounced off the concrete walls. "All the computers are gone."

Many of the restaurants I frequent in Kisumu had their faded curtains drawn over cracked and splintered windows, now patched with thin strips of cardboard.

One interview with a Lake Victoria activist was rendered completely useless by the crashing of metal sheeting as construction crews tried to remove fire-damaged material from the office building we met in.

Some stories just force themselves on you, no matter how hard you try to ignore them.

Maybe I'd been trying to ignore this one because I felt compelled to avoid the cliche of writing on turmoil in Kenya, because it seemed that larger stories from this country were being overlooked in favor of the typical "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of so much Western coverage of Africa.

Or maybe, and more likely, I was just overwhelmed by the pain that recently ripped through this complex country.

It was a conversation with Paul Ochieng, a friend and native of Kisumu, that finally forced me to admit that there was a story yet to be told here, even if other Western media outlets had long since disappeared.

It was Paul who convinced me to meet the most dangerous men in Kenya.

At first the damage in Kisumu seemed like a force of nature, an amorphous political storm that experts neglected to predict in time for citizens to protect themselves.

It was hard to imagine these fresh ruins as the work of individuals who became the mob that decided to light the match, throw it onto a gas-soaked floor of a small shop and rejoice as the flames unfurled up into the black night sky.

"These young men have no hope," said Paul one night over fried fish in downtown Kisumu. "They have no jobs, no hope for the future; they turn to crime and political violence in their desperation."

He wanted me to visit a group of young men who had formed a kind of business collective washing cars as an attempt at providing regular employment in Manyatta, a growing slum on the outskirts of Kisumu from where much of the recent violence had sprung.

By Paul's own admission, many of these teenagers and 20-somethings had been part of the violence and destruction that marched through the city a month ago.

I didn't want to meet them. It was frightening to imagine interviewing these faceless criminals and it made me uneasy that I was being asked to contextualize their crimes, to rationalize ethnically motivated brutality.

But I told Paul I'd go, and early the next morning we hopped boda bodas (bicycle taxis) and then a tricked-out matatu (small private bus), crowded with cartoon decals and blaring reggae, to the outskirts of Kisumu.

When I first encountered Ray, spokesman for the Manyatta car-washing collective, angry adrenaline was sending tremors through his long hands.

Almost immediately upon my arrival a fight had broken out: the very men I was there to meet were viciously mobbing a customer for not relinquishing full payment.

Out of embarrassment for myself and Paul, I tried to ignore the brawl even as it reached a crescendo of shoving and shrieked cursing. While attempting to politely turn my attention to a group of children that were curiously surrounding me, I watched out of the corner of my eye as one man staggered and fell in the rocky dirt road. A young guy, who we soon realized was Ray, spun frantically in the harsh midday sun as a hand clutched at his worn T-shirt.

Eventually, Paul shuffled away, shouting in Dholuo at the mob that they were making fools of themselves in front of the visiting mzungu, or white person.

After Ray had changed out of his damaged shirt and into an equally worn button-up, we all sat down on narrow handmade benches under the shade of a tree. There was a group of 10 or 15 young men there from the collective.

Though Ray's hands still shook and sweat beaded at his temples as he introduced me around, the tone had shifted. Suddenly, this group of young men in T-shirts advertising airbrushed images of 50 Cent and wife-beater tank tops seemed shy.

They mumbled their names and a brief history of the collective, which had been operating in Manyatta for almost a decade, and then quickly looked down through their loosely clasped hands at the dusty ground by their feet.

With introductions out of the way, I had no idea how to continue. It seemed rude and intrusive to simply start asking them if they had been involved in the burning and looting of Kisumu. I felt unsure of why I was there and began forming a polite getaway strategy to save us all from what clearly seemed an awkward idea.

But Paul was undeterred. In his relentlessly cheerful manner, he stood up in his creased slacks and luminous white polo to address Ray.

"Tell Sarah what you used to do for a living before the collective."

Looking up from his hands and into my face, Ray stalled for a moment with series of fidgets, pulling on his jeans a few times before looking at me squarely:

"Well, I started robbing people for their purses and cell phones when I was 12. I used to specialize in robbing mzungu because I knew their wallets were fat."

I assumed I was being made fun of, but when I looked up and saw the laughter in Ray's face I knew he was doing his best to acknowledge and diffuse the tension among us all.

I made an exaggerated move to protect my purse and everybody cracked up in unison.

After that they wouldn't stop talking.

They spoke of poverty and of being expected to feed and take care of themselves by their early teens. Many described turning to theft almost immediately, well aware that even the lowest-paying factories of Kisumu wouldn't hire them. They came from the wrong neighborhood, none of them had finished school — and anyway, around here any available job, no matter how menial, was filled before the help-wanted sign could even go up.

Though I'd hardly asked any questions, Ray and his friends shouted over one another as they recounted run-ins with police, deals gone wrong and opportunities lost.

The collective emerged as the brightest spot in many of their young lives. They spoke of the founders with reverence and described how washing cars had offered them a sense of dignity and financial security for the first time.

The work doesn't pay much, about 200 Kenyan Shillings ($3) a day, but a portion of the revenue from every car washed goes into a communal pot that assures daily wages to every member, and is able to provide some savings for emergencies — or even for future expansion of the business.

Everyone seemed animated, curious at my interest and eager to discuss their lives, so in a rare pause I decided to take the plunge by asking how they had been impacted by the post-election violence.

"So, well, I mean, were … ah, it's just that people say that guys from this neighborhood were responsible for some of the recent violence. Um, did, uh, was anyone here, you know, involved?" I stammered stupidly.

The conversation stalled.

The natural spring that served as a source of water for their car-washing gently sloshed in the background. A gang of barefoot kids ran past and an ugly old pig as big as a hippo rooted around in some garbage down the road.

I looked toward Paul who, regardless of the sudden silence, continued to smile blithely at the crowd before him.

"OK … " said a quiet but defiant voice rising from a group seated on the ground. "I rioted."

Despite the hardened older men who had dominated much of the previous conversation, many with long scars and puckered burns running up and down their bare legs and arms, this voice came from a fresh-faced kid with neat rows of dreads hanging loosely from below a stylish knit cap and clean white sneakers.

His name was Kennedy. He was 23. He spoke English, wanted to finish school and hoped to attend university. He also bluntly described going out night after night in the wake of the recent botched elections to throw rocks and light fires. He was quick to add that he hadn't killed anyone, but had only fought with police and destroyed property.

As Kennedy spoke, Ray and the rest of the group admitted their own involvement, through slow nods.

Not sure how to proceed I simply asked why they rioted, expecting generic pledges to Raila Odinga (recently sworn in Prime Minister, head of the opposition party in Kenya and lightning rod for often-violent support from politically underrepresented tribes throughout the country) and even maybe some ethnic vitriol.

That's when one young man in a secondhand American T-shirt spoke up and said shyly, "We were thinking, maybe if Raila won we could have bought a power washer for the car-washing collective."

The cruel graffiti and crumbling storefronts of Kisumu came rushing back to me.

And I struggled to reconcile the images of destruction and rage with these young men — these dangerous, incomprehensible criminals — who spoke dreamily of winning the chance to obtain a loan, open a bank account, finish school or find some small investment for their collective.

They said they hoped Raila's swearing-in as prime minister (in a joint government with President Mwai Kibaki) would mean better lives for them, but I heard doubt creeping around the edges of their hope.

That power washer was still as far away from reality today as it had been a year ago.

My mind flashed on the despondent woman slumped in her bare and ruined Internet cafe just a few miles away. There was little chance she would ever meet the men who crushed her modest entrepreneurial ambitions. I wondered if she would ever be able to ask them "Why?" herself.

But sitting on that rough little bench in the rising afternoon heat, it all seemed so terribly clear to me.

Violence was the most potent form of communication the young men of Manyatta had, and after generations of disappointment they were determined to be heard.

I worried that Kenya's troubles might not be over.

Three days later, violent protests again filled the streets of Kisumu as Odinga and Kibaki squabbled over cabinet seats. I was back in Nairobi, sipping fruit juice in a fancy coffee shop and looking at the contorted faces of rioters through flaming roadblocks on the front page of Kenya's Daily Nation.

Though I didn't recognize the faces, Kennedy's words came back to me through the worried murmurs of fellow diners.

"It's just that we had so much hope, then it all was taken away," he said, his thin arms hooked over his knees as he crouched in the dust by a freshly washed matatu. "And we were so angry."



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