Kenyan fathers grapple with police involvement in their sons' deaths

A portrait of Peter Njogu, 62 seen June 13, 2020, through the window of his home in Kayole. Njogu's son, Daniel, was one of many people who have been killed while in police custody in Kenya.


By MAX BEARAK AND RAEL OMBUOR | The Washington Post | Published: June 23, 2020

NAIROBI – Late on the night of June 27, 2018, a crowd gathered in a slum in Kenya's capital, incensed at two young men who, after a night of drinking, had stumbled against a fruit vendor's stall, knocking a few bananas to the ground before running home.

Two policemen came to Peter Njogu's door with handcuffs. But instead of taking his son, Daniel, 20, and his friend Amos Ng'ang'a, 17, to the police station, they cuffed them and dragged them onto the unlit road and into the mob. In front of Destiny hair salon, the officers stepped back and let other neighborhood youths smash their heads with rocks, killing them as Njogu watched, helpless.

No one filmed the moment, and it slipped into Kenya's ever-growing annals of death in police custody. Njogu avoids that road in his neighborhood of Kayole these days, just as he avoids the two police officers, whom he still sees patrolling.

Death at the hands of police or in their custody happens at a far greater rate in Kenya than in any other African country, according to reports aggregated by human rights organizations. Here, where the police and their victims are invariably black, racism isn't the driver behind brutality. Almost all the dead are young men in the slums, where residents say police operate with impunity because legal recourse is largely unavailable to the poor.

As in the United States, the government in Kenya makes no attempt at official, nationwide record-keeping of police brutality, a task that falls to grass-roots organizations whose fieldworkers are regularly menaced for doing their work. Their estimates range from several hundred to thousands of cases per year, including hundreds of deaths.

By their count, others meet the same fate as Njogu and Ng'ang'a every day. It is a fate so common and the conviction rate for officers is so low - below 1 percent - that each killing tends to move from its bloody climax to numbing aftermath within a few days.

A spate of at least 15 killings committed by police while enforcing a coronavirus curfew, according to a police oversight agency, has gained a bit more attention amid the impassioned global pushback against police brutality. Six officers have been charged with murder and assault in curfew-related incidents since March. Three more were arrested June 10 after a video of them whipping and dragging a woman behind a motorcycle circulated widely. But out of more than 10,000 alleged cases of brutality since a police oversight agency was launched in 2012, only 26 officers have ever been charged, and six convicted.

In Kenya, there is no groundswell of public outrage – small protests here and there, mostly in the slums, often met with tear gas – and community support is mostly directed toward victims' mothers and children, if they had any.

In mainstream Kenyan culture, male grief is swept under the rug. Grinding of teeth is expected, but tears are not supposed to flow. Expressions of rage are met with shame. So instead of taking injustice as a call to action, many fathers suffer the loss of their sons in silence.

After Barack Odhiambo found his son in Nairobi's city mortuary in February 2019, he stashed all his photos of his son between the pages of a book and hid it under a pile of household items so he wouldn't be tempted to look.

Evans was 23, Odhiambo's firstborn, and the police left his body with four bullets in his stomach at the morgue, with a note for the attendants that all four bodies they had dropped off that night belonged to known phone thieves.

A police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Evans's death.

"This is the first time I'm sitting and tell the whole story to anyone," Odhiambo said on a recent day in his single-room home. "I told Evans, 'The more friends you have, the more likely you are to get killed. You never know who the police will hunt next.'"

Odhiambo mends people's shoes for a living and had gathered together enough money to pay for Evans to be apprenticed to a mechanic. Long stretches would pass when they wouldn't see each other. He went to the mortuary only when one of Evans's neighbors said he hadn't been home in days.

Evans's body remained in the mortuary for three weeks while his father scrounged up enough money for a burial. His wife sought solace in the embraces of other women, but the only support Odhiambo received after his son's death came in the form of crumpled shilling notes from neighbors.

"As a parent, I feel like I am just a living dead," he said. "Seeing his friends, it's like seeing his ghost. I think about him every day, but there is no one to talk to about it."

Odhiambo says police killings in his community reflect the force's contempt for the poor. Even if Evans committed a crime, he was killed for far less, in his father's estimation, than what the rich get away with on a regular basis.

He takes it as a given that a poor man like him can't get justice in a court system riddled with corruption. He decided not to lodge a case against the police, an indication that a number of cases go unreported.

"How does one fight the government? How do you do it when you are so poor that every day is a struggle? How could I ever afford a lawyer?" he asked. "I take his death like this: Once water is poured on the ground, you can never put it back in the bucket. I take it as part of my life."

The day after he spoke to The Washington Post, Odhiambo was detained by police for improperly wearing a mask, which is mandated by law in public during the pandemic. The officers demanded a bribe, he said, but let him go when they were certain he was broke.

Mental health and counseling are taboo subjects for most Kenyan men. Voicing fear, rage or even grief can be seen as unmanly. The suffering man, dealing with his traumas alone, is often seen as dangerous, cursed or lesser, mental health advocates say.

"We have to ask ourselves as Kenyans, are we okay with that fear, anxiety and anger just continuing on, even growing in our men?" said Chitayi Murabula, a psychiatrist in Nairobi. "We stigmatize, repress and deny instead of equipping ourselves to deal with these issues."

When Peter Njogu speaks of his son's death, now two years ago, the anger is still palpable. Sitting in the small office of a local social justice organization, located in a converted shipping container just blocks from where Daniel was killed, he beat his chest at certain moments, such as when he said his son's name, willing himself not to cry.

Unlike Odhiambo, he filed a case against the police and hopes for justice. But he, too, feels he may never recover from the loss.

He gave away his butcher's business after he stopped being able to go a day without breaking down. He says he sometimes gets paralyzed by shock; it hits him when he isn't expecting it.

"Most men wouldn't talk about it," he said. "It's a lonely journey. I'm alone in this - or you could say it is me and God."

Njogu's case is one of thousands being investigated by Kenya's Independent Police Oversight Authority. It says it is waiting for Njogu to provide access to a key witness; Njogu says he's given the authority everyone and everything he knows. The case hasn't moved in more than a year.

The police in his neighborhood deny that any member of the force has killed anyone. The worst any police officer in Kayole has been reprimanded for, according to officials, is drunkenness. Charles Owino, Kenya's national police spokesman, doesn't routinely respond to requests for comment, but recently he went on television to cast doubt that police had killed anyone while enforcing the curfew despite copious eyewitness testimony.

"Honestly, in Kayole, there's no police brutality," said Hellen Mideva, the superintendent. "It's a misconception. People want to be on the wrong side and blame the police. We don't shoot to kill. We just scare, you get me? We do decent arrests."

Njogu's pictures of his son, taken just months before he died, are more accessible than Odhiambo's: They're under his mattress. In the photos, Daniel, whom friends knew by the nickname Njoro, looks fashionable – and young.

The folks at the social justice center in Kayole like Njogu. He's the only father who has ever reached out to them, they say. If there were more like him, maybe other men wouldn't hide - and then, they said, maybe some kind of seal would be broken, and Kenyans would stop enduring the killings and come out on the streets, as they've seen the world do in recent weeks.

Njogu hasn't followed the global protests closely, but he knows his goal is the same.

"No one has the right to kill anyone," he said. "When they do, there must be justice. That's the only way to end this - to prevent another father from being in my situation."

A photo of Daniel Njogu, 20, a few months before he was killed. Photographed June 13, 2020.