“When an acquaintance from Colombia moved to work in Kenya, he encountered a long list of public security warning including, no answering phone calls in traffic in an uber. The first time he ventured into the city centre on his own, to meet up for a drink, he remarked at how pleasant Nairobi was at night and how alarmist security briefings restricted his movements to the supposed safe neighbourhoods.
Nairobi like any cosmopolitan city in the world is defined by its overlapping stories and endless layers.
Few ever get the privilege of peeling back the masks and seeing what lies beneath the stories they hold of the ever changing reality of a city. On the flipside, his Colombian nationality, his easiest form of identity, trigger the default response, “Escobar”. Colombia’s most recognisable media export was a notorious narcotics dealer, Pablo Escobar whose story was the subject of the captivating and highly rated Netflix series, Narcos. Pablo Escobar might be long dead but the ghost of his notoriety had traveled halfway around the world to a non Spanish speaking audience. Indeed, stories shape perceptions.
That is the danger of the single story that gifted Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie made famous in a powerful Ted Talk series. Kenya has a fair share of single stories but when it comes to political violence and hooliganism, nothing comes close to Kisumu. The lakeside, the capital of Luo Nyanza is a designated trouble hot spot. Ever since the tragic fall out between the founding fathers, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga, Kisumu has hogged the headlines as the capital of violent demonstrations. History continues to repeat itself 48 years later in a political stalemate between the sons of Jomo and Jaramogi and Kisumu continues to defined by its past.
On 25th October 1969, President Jomo Kenyatta had arrived in Kisumu to open the Russia hospital today known as the Nyanza New General hospital.
The construction of hospital was made possible through funds from Russia and had been spearheaded by Jomo’s former VP turned fiercest critic Jaramogi Oginga. 1969 was particular tense year for the Luo nation. In January 29th of that year, foreign Minister Argwings CMG Kodhek a brilliant lawyer who made name in defence of Mau Mau freedom fighters in the colonial courts died in a mysterious road accident on the road from Hurlingham that now bears his name. In July 1969, Trade unionist, leading political light and one of the founding father of the republic Tom Mboya was assassinated on Government Road (now Moi Avenue) in Nairobi, adjacent to a street that now also bears his name and statue. Both murders remained unresolved and the seeds of tribal prejudice have matured into a tree of ethnic based political contest that has been watered by the blood of innocents almost half a century later.
It was against this tense backdrop three months later in October 1969, that President Jomo Kenyatta would arrive in Kisumu to officially open Russia and confrontations seemed inevitable between Kenyatta and Jaramogi who had formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) in opposition to the ruling party KANU.
The crowds on the ground were hostile to the President’s unwanted presence. Both men assumed uncompromising hardline positions and harsh words were exchanged (matter of historical public record) which only agitated a home crowd in Kisumu still in mourning. Tensions quickly escalated as section of the crowd engaged in stone throwing. The presidential security guard reacted and made a serious error of judgement by firing directly into the crowds as the Presidents motorcade sped away from the grounds leaving a trail of dead bodies. 11 civilians died that morning of October 25th 1969. Several suffered sustained serious injuries in the ensuing police reprisals.
Kenya People Union was banned three days later, its leaders arrested and detained and Kenya became a defacto one party state. Ever since this tragic episode, Kisumu has experienced waves of brutal police crackdown and paid a heavy price for political dissent. In 1990, after the brutal murder of popular foreign minister Robert Ouko, demonstrations in Kisumu were met with live fire. Throughout the struggle for multiparty rule, the 2ndliberation, the new constitution and cycles of election disputes, violence has become the byword for dealing with the “Luo problem” in Kisumu.
During the August 8th election, Kisumu once again bore the burnt of a disputed election contest. Police brutality was visited upon residents of the Kondele and Nyalenda neighbourhoods. The residents of Kisumu have barely dried their tears since the loss of baby Samantha Pendo, the innocent 6 month old clobbered to death in aftermath and the violence appears to have returned to their streets.
What has now become the norm is a criminalization of dissent in a country that has accepted shooting of demonstrators, endorsing a policing culture that rarely shows restraint.
The militarized police presence has become a constant feature of Kisumu recent election disputes and witness accounts continually talk of a rogue elements in uniform engaged in ethnic profiling. The simple story that has now played into the national psyche is that violence breeds violence and the blame resides on the civilian who threw the first stone and provoked the wrath of the police. The pain of victims is ridiculed by a public that has no context of the reality. What is happening in Kisumu is not a Luo issue. It is a human rights abuse issue.
The forgotten story in this no holds barred political contest is that a few hundred agitated demonstrators do not represent the whole of Kisumu.
So this October 25th, spare a thought for the trauma and the ghost of political contest that returns to hold Kisumu hostage and remember, they are hundreds of thousands of ordinary peaceful Kisumu residents of all ethnic extractions who have no where to run, because the only home, they know is Kisumo.
The stories we tell about Kisumu matter.
The same stories that have been used to undermine, condemn and silence entire communities of people can also be used to empower, dignify existence and restore life.”
This story first appeared on Oyunga Pala Blog.