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.

I listened to the heart-breaking stories at the MSJC launch. The young people of Mathare talked about the very likely event of death by gun violence. I heard stories of mothers who wake up in the morning to the news of another young man shot dead, “Why do we give birth, if our boys will never live to see adulthood”. To the general public, far from the scene, watching the events like a spectacle on TV, they are all thieves. The whole lot of them. They had it coming. Shoot to kill is the only language they understand.

The culture of gun violence that afflicts Kenya’s urban inner cities is complex. Young people are born into a life of cyclic violence that assaults them from all directions. They grow up in hostile neighbourhoods where the fierce competition for scarce resources means only the strong survive.

Poverty is hard work. It is to wake up at 4am and walk for two hours on foot in the early morning rain. It is staying calm as you open a gate for a tenant who has walked 10 metres from his rented apartment to his parked car and lost his cool because he waited for 5 whole minutes. It is also running into police at night after a hard earned drink with your friend and knowing you only have two choices, run kijana and hope to survive, or plead and pray for the mercy of a police cell.

The reality of inner city living in Nairobi has been the subject of all major underground musical acts. Kalamashaka sung about “ Maisha kule D’ in their hit single Tafsiri Hii, 20 years ago and contemporary artistes like Kitu Sewer continue to hold the torch, still telling stories through verse and rhyme of the crime of being born poor. It is in the lyrics of underground acts like Naju Danito of Mathare who sings about dreams of a safer city, free from war and crime.

The bullets are flying. You do not know if its thugs or cops. Mother is calling, where are you my boy?

A core of every conscious theme in every song is the perpetual issue of poverty profiling and gun violence. The youth sing about been hunted by a system that has licensed its agents to kill.  They talk about the dysfunctional homes, absence of fathers and the single mothers who pray for safe passage for their boys every night. There are surrounded by thugs and the ones they are really afraid of, are those handed the power of judge and jury, to shoot to kill.

The chronic social problem of inner city life is a reflection of a deep masculinity crisis and consequences of pent up frustrations. The demanding conditions of survival have given rise to a hyper masculinity culture where violence is a legitimate way to earn one’s respect and a means of living. At the age of puberty, boys are forced to leave their homes and graduate into men who can provide. In a quest to assert their masculinity and sense of self respect, they come up against a social system that leaves them with very limited options for escaping the cycle of poverty. The violence is a direct result of poor identities and a society that devalues your existence.

The rest of society, continues to look away, shielded from the raw savagery of inner city living by the privilege of class. It is easier to go with the simpler narratives that poor criminals deserve summary justice.

We are a society that has to confront the disturbing tolerance of the criminalization of youth victimized by social pressures that are not of their making. We have to listen to the pleas of the ghetto youth and stop acting like they are invisible because they can only be ignored for so long. British urban youth specialist and speaker Craig Pinkney puts it succinctly.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child but when you do not recognize that village, sometimes that village can kill a child. If young people do not feel a part of that village, they will burn it down to feel its warmth”.

The MSJC report is a tribute and a memory of all the victims of gun violence at the hands of the police. It is a courageous attempt to face the trauma of loss and the pain in order to find some sort of healing and reconciliation in a country where is safer to accept misfortune and move on.


Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Godfrey bakressa

    We are losing boy child in Mathare and even today six boys have been gunned down by the police one of them was 17yrs while the others were still under 20!!!

  2. Reading this, I cannot help but see the parallels with gun and gang violence in inner cities in the U.S. The difference is that in the U.S. majority of the poor affected by gun violence (and victimized systematically by the justice system) are mainly blacks and latinos. I have always argued that the problem is not one of race but poverty and access to resources. But taking that position means coming up with real solutions – other than lock ’em up or shoot em.

  3. Mama Watoto

    Good piece.However I am sorry to say that I am part of the society that is “shielded from the raw savagery of inner city living by the privilege of class.”I have however suffered in the hands of these young men and during that torturous moment it is hard to understand that the trigger happy young men are just doing the only they can to survive. Going forward I shall not pretend to totally understand and respect what drives them to crime,but the next time I hear of another extra judicial killing I shall spare a thought for their loved ones.

    • I suppose now you know. They say those who hurt are usually hurting and stories like these put their pain in context.

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