Guest Post: Mathare Futurism: From Beggars to Masters Of Our Own Fate

Words: Wyban Mwangi

Allow me the joy of teaching you a new word today. The word is ‘duru’. Most of my millennial peers, where I come from, have an extensive grasp of what it means. It is simply the art of approaching a stranger, after careful analysis, wearing a sunken face then stretching your hand to them the same way a customer does when asking for their change. I am emphatic about calling it an art, since it is a skill that requires a lot of practice and experience. Mothers and aunts are the best teachers for this skill set. At least that is how it was set up for my family and many other families within my community as I grew up.

Who Is Next? The Criminalization of Poverty in Mathare

“Who is next” is the title of a report by Mathare Social Justice Centre ( MSJC) launched on 30th of May at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, in Nairobi. It documents over 50 cases of young men arbitrarily executed by alleged rogue police force members in Mathare. The majority were between 14 and 20 years old. It poses the loaded question, why have extrajudicial killings become accepted as normalized incidents for inner city urban youth in Kenya?

The story of Mathare’s extrajudicial executions of young men is a story repeated in Kibera, Kayole, Dandora, Eastleigh, Majengo in Mombasa and Obunga in Kisumu. It is the reality of been born into hardship and violence in a society that criminalizes youth and poverty.

Time For A Thievery Guild

My mother used to say. Thieves are manner-less. In her long life, she had witnessed several audacious acts of petty thievery.  When the young men started to get restless, old ladies could not sleep properly. Rural village life, with its idyllic charm, was balanced out by its challenges. Poverty and its three ugly sisters, depression, disease and death.

During the ‘hungry days, in mid-season when food became scarce, the boys would scavenge through homesteads at night. They rarely broke into houses and avoided homesteads with well-fed mongrels. In the dead of the night, they would sneak into compounds that had been surveyed during the day, to rummage for stuff of value.

Water buckets, clothes on the line, jikos and the odd wheelbarrow. They preferred quick get-a-ways and kept identities hidden. The stolen items were exchanged for petty cash that was promptly converted into a harsh drink. It was cheaper to get high than to fill a belly with food.

Mother said, that they were not real thieves. They were just hungry. Real thieves, are manner-less. They are not afraid to show their faces. They can even cook in your kitchen. They insist on having a conversation and demand to know where everything of value is hidden. Real thieves are never in a hurry and they tend to be very meticulous.

Of Guns, VIPs And The Watus

Sonko guns

Internal Security CS Joseph Nkaissery is developing a penchant for issuing threats and ultimatums. He wields his big stick, swatting perceived threats to national security with the fervour of a man pursuing a mosquito with a hammer. Recently, Mombasa governor Hassan Joho was caught in Nkaissery cross hairs. In Nkaissery assertion, Hassan Joho is unfit to own a licensed firearm due to his latest public outbursts which is a reason that could equally apply to the Internal Security CS.

As Kenyans were treated to another public spat about the right of our leaders to bear arms for their own protection, I could not help but marvel at the captive nature of our big man syndrome. Gun ownership in Kenya is a study in class disparity. Out of the 80,000 members of the police force, 11,000 are dedicated to the security requirements of our VVIPs. Cabinet Secretaries and Governors are entitled to between 6-15 members of the police force for protection. Members of Parliament are eligible to two policemen at a bare minimum while High Court judges have access to up to a 5 person security detail. The attainment of the recommended ratio of police officers to civilians has become another laptop dream, deflating public confidence in the police.

It is illegal to own any type of firearm without a valid gun ownership licence issued at the discretion of the Chief Licensing Officer who has the power to deny or revoke an ownership license.

The irony, is the elites of our society who probably never get to use their firearms outside a target range thanks to the privilege of security paid for by taxpayers, enjoy the almost exclusive civilian right of bearing arms.

Sources indicated that they are averagely 6 000 licensed gun owners and God knows how many unlicensed ones exist in the country. In a TV interview in February this year, police spokesman Charles Owino alluded to a suspected criminal gang behind issuance of firearm licences outside the official security procedures.

Owning gun has become a status symbol and even two bit pop celebrities have been caught in episodes of misuse of personal firearms. Gun licensing proportionately increases with the high net worth of private citizens. The recent unchecked terrorist attacks and the ever constant threat of armed criminals, has increased the demand for guns in civilian hands. Owning a gun has now become as equally sensible as getting health insurance.

Meanwhile, the hoi polloi, 40 million strong have been conditioned to accept the ineffective status of an overstretched and demoralized police force whose primary mandate is VIP security. Unarmed private security personnel who are supposed to help us sleep better at night, specialize in manning gates, running errands and washing cars. The working classes most in need of personal protection that a firearm seemingly guarantees are explicitly banned from the thought of gun ownership unless has one has no qualms getting branded a criminal, bandit or terrorist.

Poor people cannot be trusted with guns. Most residents of rural Kenya see no need to challenge the status quo and make do. No real man in shags goes to bed at night without a panga or a rungu beside his bed. In the Nairobi’s informal urban settlements, self-defence and prayer are the only options. Paradoxically, legally licensed guns are killing more youth than criminal and terror elements. In places like Mathare, a young Kenyan is more likely to be felled by a police bullet than by a criminals’. Hip hop pioneers, Kalamashaka in their hit number Tasfiri Hii stated back in the day, of the zero difference between polisi and jambazi in urban ghettos. Not much has changed since those poignant lyrics were dropped.

To be young and poor is to be born a crime. Policing of informal urban settlements profiles all young men as potential criminals to be neutralized at the slightest hint of suspicion. Public apathy towards the government lip service commitment to national security has created a space for extrajudicial executions of poor young men all over the country on the grounds of fighting crime and terrorism.

These are relics of Britain’s colonial legacy that created a police force to protect the interests of the elites and keep the masses in their place. Class privilege has always underlined gun ownership in Kenya, quieting the fears of the haves against an uprising from the have-nots. One hundred unarmed civilians can be controlled by a single individual with a gun.

Those who control the economic or material forces our society, commandeer the priorities of the nation. The interests of the wealthy few at the top have become the dominant ideology of the country. Personal interests of the leadership are packaged as common interest of all. Like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some of our animals are more equal than others and the security needs of the masses cannot take precedence over the safety of our wahemishwa. And, that is just the way it is.