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My two nights of terror inside congested, smelly police cells amid protests

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At first, my cellmates were two young men, barely in their late 20s. One, a newly-recruited county inspectorate officer, who had just bought his first car from the savings of his new job, and had been tricked into the ownership details prior to servicing the loan that would enable him process his logbook, and now he was a guest of the State. 

Photo credit: Pool

Today, I will jump the sequence of my extra-judicial abduction, which is now in the public domain, to the section where I finally found myself inside the Kajiado Police Station cells, halfway around the world from where I was picked up, at ungodly hours, ironically by a regime that campaigned on the deceptive platform of returning Kenya back to the body of Christ.

Tuesday afternoon, June 25, 2024, my cell inside Kajiado Police Station started filling up. At intervals of less than half-an-hour, the station duty master would antagonise the momentary peace by fighting the partially grilled door to allow those who had been rounded up, mostly young men, allegedly for participating in the demos in Kajiado town that afternoon, to join us in refusing to be sold fear.

At first, my cellmates were two young men, barely in their late 20s. One, a newly-recruited county inspectorate officer, who had just bought his first car from the savings of his new job, and had been tricked into the ownership details prior to servicing the loan that would enable him process his logbook, and now he was a guest of the state struggling to clear his name that he was not part of a notorious car theft syndicate.

He narrated his ordeal with deep pain and open defiance, partly because he was about to lose both the car he had painstakingly bent backwards to acquire, and his freedom.

When I asked him which one of the two he would surrender given a choice, he responded, unequivocally, with a tone of condescension, that he would rather die than lose either.

My second cell-mate was your typical gung-ho outlier. He had been picked up by the police, at a faraway rural outpost, where he had gone to record his discovery about a strange occurrence to his child.

According to him, someone known to him had ran over his young daughter by a motorbike, causing her life-threatening internal injuries that later led to her painful death.

At the time of the young girl’s excruciating ordeal, she was in the custody of her unbothered grandfather, as her father was faraway in the fields sweating for their daily bread.

When he returned later that evening to launch an inquest as to why his daughter was in dire straights, a confrontation ensued between him and his father, one thing led to another, and the family decided to sacrifice him for being overly rebellious.

Fighting to breathe

Tuesday morning, when he was finally taken to court, he came back in the cells with a report that he had not been arraigned because his file had been found missing.

All he wanted was to be released to go bury his daughter, but someone back home was still tightening the screw for him to be denied bail.

And then the Tuesday demos that was the talk of Kajiado town turned our cell conditions on its head. Young men, most of whom claimed they knew nothing about the demos that afternoon, were being dumped in sets of twos and threes, and before long we were fighting to breathe the pungent air polluted from one plastic bucket at one corner of the cell that acted as part-dustbin-part-urinal.

Uric acid can be pungent. Uric acid expelled from an inmate is not only pungent, it is deathly. Urine excreted inside a cell is not just urine – it is a toxic mixture of ammonia blended with anxiety, frustration and, for the young people who had just joined us, resentment to authority.

In other words, we were breathing in poison brewed in pent-up rage and, before we knew it, our cell had been converted into a flaming combustion chamber.

It became worse when word came around that the Officer Commanding Station, that afternoon, had been involved in a fracas with the demonstrators and was rushed to hospital after coming into contact with one of his occupational hazards.

In Kenya, inflicting injury on a police officer is considered next to a death wish - imagine sending to hospital their front line commander in a style only comparable to a no holds-barred takedown.

To avenge the disability of their limping team leader, the enraged police on duty turned Kajiado town upside down picking up anything that moved, and woe unto you if you were a young man just minding the business that pays you.

The result of the indiscriminate crackdown that Tuesday afternoon converted our three-man wheezing room into a fainting hell-in-a-cell.

Overnight internet sensation

On a normal day, Kajiado is cold and dry. On a normal night, even a triple-layered blanket would struggle to kick-start your internal organs back to room temperatures.

A cell that was designed for three-persons max was now bursting at the seams, and had the station orderlies not have intervened at the nick of time, the humanitarian catastrophe that was waiting to happen would have been a breaking news story on CNN International.

Before the decompression of my cell, two critical things happened. One, I was escorted out to the office of the county criminal investigations department to face a five-person grilling panel, who were more interested in how I had become an overnight internet sensation than why I was being held incommunicado.

Two, the fiery venting by the youths who had been rounded up that afternoon gave me perspective on why Gen-Zs in Kenya had finally decided to pay the ultimate price in exchange of fixing this country, once and for all.

For me, it was a case of making lemonade from the lemons the government had decided to throw at me – what other choice did I have, anyway?

My anthropology training is rooted in a research method called participant observation. Unlike other professional fields which derive study conclusions from a set of predetermined binary questionnaires, anthropologists are trained to immerse themselves in their study subjects by reading, mostly non-verbal cues of, their study subjects and triangulating them with the chatter across the room.

There is a young Maasai boy, barely in his early twenties, who was part of the gang that had been hauled into our suffocating cell that afternoon who summed up the national mood that afternoon, and I quote; “The police who arrested me did not even care that I have a hearing devise attached to my left ear when he found me at our workshop where I was busy finalizing on a client’s order. He should thank God I left my piercing rungu at home today.”

Postscript: From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the Kajiado County Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) officers. Throughout the three hour intense grilling, you remained professional and humane when you didn’t have to. I will remember you when I get to Paradiso.