Mystery of the Kenyan woman who vanished without a trace in the US

Irene Gakwa, the Kenyan who disappeared mysteriously in the US.

Irene Gakwa, the Kenyan who disappeared mysteriously in the US.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Irene Gakwa left Kenya to join her two brothers in the US. A short while later, she met a man on Craiglist and they started dating, then moved in together. Soon, Nathan Hightman wanted to marry her. Not long after that, Irene disappeared and has not been heard from since.

America was Irene Gakwa's dream nation. But her mysterious disappearance has continued to intrigue her friends, neighbours, and family, who cannot determine her whereabouts. And, what could have gone wrong, went wrong.

Irene, 32, was supposed to be home with her family in Kenya for Christmas. Her father, Francis Kambo, was to buy her an air ticket and had high hopes of seeing his daughter. Instead, for the past 304 days, Kambo does not know his daughter's whereabouts.

Those who know are silent. Kambo and his family have been waiting for any news. So far, it has been a frustrating and agonising wait steeped in mystery.

“No information is coming,” a devastated Mr Kambo recently wrote on a Facebook page created to help trace the whereabouts of the Kenyan healthcare worker. I reached out to Kambo and he asked several questions that are bothering him: “Why are they treating Nathan Hightman (Irene’s boyfriend) like there is someone protecting him yet he was the last person to see my daughter?”

The story of Irene Gakwa has touched many. It has been on CNN and leading outlets. It is one of an African family struggling to have the US institutions, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations, add an effort to trace their daughter; or, simply still, resolve the riddle.

“Getting GPS of his car’s mobility, cracking his phone has not been done. Again,Nathan’s choice to remain silent to the police and not explain what he was burning in a 55-gallon metal drum,” says Kambo.

Irene moved to the US state of Idaho in May 2019 to join her two brothers, Kennedy Wainaina and Chris Munga. She lived with them before getting an apartment with a friend in Idaho in September 2019.

Irene met Hightman on Craigslist, a dating forum, and they fell in love. From there, she is said to have moved in with Hightman.

After her brothers learned about the relationship between Irene and Hightman, US media reports say, they made contact. Hightman then wrote a text message to Wainaina on July 20, 2020, seeking his approval: “I wanted to get your input, as head of the house before making any big plans.”

Hightman said he had bought a pre-engagement ring to indicate his commitment to Irene. By then, they had been dating for half a year. He further said he wanted to give her a ring in front of a family member. Wainaina wrote back, wishing he could slow down the two lovebirds: “Take things slow. Don't be in a hurry.”

Wainaina, in retrospect, appeared to have been wary of Hightman, who was looking for approval. Hightman wrote again on July 25, 2020, to Wainaina: "Kennedy, I mentioned this previously with you, but if you had any questions or wanted any proof of my commitment to ensuring Irene's well-being, I would be more than glad to meet with you or answer any question."

They later met more than 10 times for dinner. Still, he found Hightman to be somewhat “cold”.

Wainaina told the press he did not understand why Hightman was looking for his approval rather than his sister’s. “I think he expected us to jump on the wagon and approve ... I kept telling him it was my sister's decision and I wasn't the one to approve and that it would take time for us to get to know him,” he told a US media outlet.

At one point in August 2020, Irene returned to Wainaina's home after an altercation with Hightman. Hightman was angry that Irene had used his credit card to purchase an air ticket to Kenya. According to Wainaina, Hightman reported the matter to the police and pressed charges.

There is some mystery around Irene because she told her brothers that she had moved alone to Phoenix, Arizona, and they thought she had broken up with Hightman. But she had not. To maintain the lie, she returned to Idaho in November 2021, during Thanksgiving, and said she had flown from Phoenix, Arizona. It was the last time they saw her — and they think she had been driven by Hightman from the neighbouring state of Wyoming, where the two were living, rather than Arizona, a 17-hour drive to the south. If that was the case, why was she lying to her brothers? Nobody seems to know. It is also unclear whether Hightman had manipulated her to lie about her home address.

Wainaina has told Wyoming Truth that he wishes he could have helped his younger sister. "I can't help but think this is my fault ... I wish we could have been there for my sister."

All this time, although they used to talk, her father didn’t know his daughter was living with an American boyfriend. What is known is that the two lived together for a year — before they moved to Wyoming in July 2021. The brothers did not know about their sister's move to Wyoming, which was a surprise since she had said she was looking for a place with warm weather. According to the US media, the couple had said they were moving to Arizona because Irene disliked the cold weather — but she ended up in the much colder Wyoming, where they didn’t know anyone.

Finally, how she later disappeared without a trace is a mystery. But there is a trail of clues left by Hightman, which suggest that something sinister might have happened.

It is alleged that on the day Irene disappeared, her boyfriend had bought a pair of boots and a shovel using Irene’s card. Why did he buy a shovel? This is one of the leads that police are following.

Police regard Hightman as a “person of interest” and have charged him with draining Irene's bank account of $3,000, changing her bank password, using her credit card to withdraw $3,230, and deleting her email account. Hightman claims that he used all her credit card limits and blocked her accounts to force her to return to him.

According to US media outlets, Irene was last seen in a video chat with her parents in late February this year and was reported missing by her brothers on March 20. Her father told a media outlet that she looked tired.

Hightman told police that Irene fled and was driven away by an unidentified man in a dark-coloured SUV with her belongings in two plastic bags. That has not been verified.

Irene’s father does not believe this story: “A fiancée leaving your house and you do not take a picture of the vehicle or record its number plate — or record any conversation between her and the driver.”

The Kambo family is frustrated that the pretrial conference has yet to start. It was rescheduled to January 4, 2023.

“How many extensions is [Hightman] going to get? He's out and enjoying hiding behind closed doors while we are having sleepless nights,” said a relative.

Although the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has taken over the case and collected evidence, the wait is agonising for the family.

“It's been really tough on us as a family,” Irene’s sister-in-law told Wyoming Truth, which has been following the story.

Kambo told me: “It has been 10 weeks plus since FBI went to the house where she was staying with Nathan and searched for more than eight hours. To date, no report or analysis of what they took has been given. Records are there that they give results in two to three weeks.”

Any hopes of ever getting answers is dwindling.

“Sometimes I think Irene is just going to show up at my door or give us a call,” her brother, Chris told a US news outlet. “I don't know ... I want to have hope, but it's getting hard,” he said.

The search has been kept alive by the efforts of a resident, Stacy Koester, who has been organising search parties to comb the open fields for evidence. She also launched a reward for anyone who volunteers information that can lead to an arrest or finding of Irene.

The search for Irene covers some 15,000 square kilometres in Campbell County, and volunteers have been combing the open fields in search of clues.

Volunteer searchers use human remains detection dogs to help in the search.

It is a painful Christmas for the Kambo family as they agonize about lost kin.

A dream has been shattered mysteriously. And the question remains: Where is Irene Gakwa?


To all my faithful readers, it has been yet another year. Thank you for the enormous feedback, the discourse, the tips, and above all your love to look at issues from historical perspective. As we embark on yet another year, I wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, 2023.

[email protected] @Johnkamau1