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An old acquaintance came to Nairobi earlier in the year to start work on an international assignment. With restrictions imposed to control the spread of Covid-19, and social distancing still the order of the day, he hasn’t been able to travel around Kenya.
His only trip outside the city was a weekend at the Maasai Mara. With so little travel, his impressions of the country have so far been largely shaped by the media that he consumes voraciously and conversations with the Nairobi elite.
We spoke several times by phone and finally had a long sit-down last Friday. Coming from a nation ruled by a strongman and its fair share of state violence and rampant corruption, when I asked him to compare Kenya with other African countries, I thought he would speak about the similarities. Perhaps, speak about the similarities in the cynicism of its political class, corruption, the infrastructure politics, the dramatic radicalisation of civil society, and the daily struggles that are the lot of the ordinary African.
On the day, the news had broken that fugitive policewoman Caroline Kangogo had allegedly shot herself to death at her parents’ home in Elgeyo Marakwet County, and graphic photographs of her slumped body in a pool of blood were making the rounds on social media.
The shock murder of leading environmentalist Joannah Stutchbury was also still on newspaper front pages.
Stutchbury was shot dead on July 15 outside her Kiambu home on the outskirts of Nairobi. She had for a long time vigorously opposed several projects seeking to encroach on protected land and was particularly vocal against private developments in Kiambu Forest. It is believed that she was killed by rogue developers because of her green activism.
It was these developments that were weighing on his mind. He said while the corruption stories, the excesses by security services and the political feuds he was reading about in the media were familiar, what set Kenya apart for him among the countries on the continent he had worked in were the “daily deaths”.
“I read the papers a lot, from front to back,” he said, “and if you put them together, every day there is a relatively high-profile murder, suicide or mystery death somewhere in Nairobi or the counties.
“I have seen a lot of wholesale murder by extremist groups and the state in West Africa and the Sahel region and state-inspired violence in many places. What sets Kenya apart is the retail murder. Killing has almost been democratised. The only other place I have been to with a similar retail murder profile is South Africa.”
Found the bigger story
Not being focused on the seemingly major headlines — the battles over the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)-fuelled Constitution amendment referendum; or the feud in the ruling Jubilee Party between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto — he had found the bigger story outside the cover headlines and in the obscure corners of the inside pages.
The reason as to why this was happening, however, was a more complicated one, and answers were not immediately clear.
However, going back 10 years, the common thread in the deaths seems to be that Kenya is witnessing a particularly sharp and deadly struggle over resources. Stutchbury’s murder was most likely carried out by private developers who, everywhere in Kenya and, indeed, many other countries in Africa, are grabbing forests and public lands like it is going out of fashion.
Exploding urban populations, the demand for housing it has spawned, lands increasingly degraded by overexploitation and climate change and finite spaces for development have become a deadly cocktail.
But it goes further down than that. There are also very many stories of mistresses, and cheating husbands and wives, murdered. A stranded chap who has an affair with a female headteacher feels he has hit the jackpot and will do everything possible to protect the status quo. The step from there to conspiring to murder her husband is a short one. A big man’s job is everything. Out there in the rat race that most of us are in, he would starve.
If his mistresses becomes troublesome, and threatens to spill the beans to his wife, with the resulting publicity costing him his position or office at the next election, then her body will be found in a sack floating on a river some days later. But his wife, fearing he will decamp with his mistress and leave her to struggle in hell with the children without much support, is also likely to take care of business.
My friend also said that Nairobi is “too frenetic, too fast, too hungry a city” that it shocked him. In this “Green City in the Sun”, it seems many people have little bandwidth left to care for others and the community. If you are lonely, you feel it bitterly. If you are having a bad day, or are not feeling well, you are unlikely to have many shoulders to cry on.
Too many people are ending up like Kangogo, with the only shoulder they have to rest their slumped head being their own.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3