Book Review

From victims to defenders of community

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Summary

  • How long can our Kenya government and the international community turn a blind eye to the impunity, cold-blooded criminality, and sheer human cruelty of our national police?
  • That is the question one has to ask after reading the new book by the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network entitled From Victims to Community Defenders.
  • Published as a project of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, the book encapsulates countless horrors enacted by officers ostensibly employed to protect members of the public.

Book: From Victims to Community Defenders

author: MOTHERS OF VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS NETWORK

REVIEWED BY Margaretta Wa Gacheru

How long can our Kenya government and the international community turn a blind eye to the impunity, cold-blooded criminality, and sheer human cruelty of our national police?

That is the question one has to ask after reading the new book by the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network entitled From Victims to Community Defenders.

Published as a project of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, the book encapsulates countless horrors enacted by officers ostensibly employed to protect members of the public. But in reality, they do the exact opposite

The book features 35 tragic stories of impunity, including the daylight murders of the mothers’ sons and husbands, nephews and cousins.

There are also a few fathers and brothers who have joined the Network, usually after having had a loved one ‘disappeared’ or reappeared in the mortuary without fanfare.

The stories, accompanied by photographs of survivors by the British photojournalist Ed Ram, might seem unthinkable since the sheer lawlessness of the police makes the Mafia look like Boy Scouts.

It’s the first-hand accounts of the Mothers Network that give the book its credibility and also advance MSJC’s agenda to document what are known as EJEs, ‘extra-judicial executions’ in Kenya’s informal settlements.

Such stories cannot help but arouse human sympathy for these indefensible daily deeds that go on around the clock in Nairobi’s informal settlements as well as in other urban centres around Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and elsewhere.

The stories are also meant to serve as documented evidence that can hold up in court when MSJC and the Mothers file cases against the police.

But if the book doesn’t convert the reader into also becoming a ‘community defender’ him/herself, which it could do, then one can visit the Circle Art Gallery where professional photographer Ed Ram has taken and displayed a series of striking portraits of many of the women and men who are members of the Mothers Network.

Circle Art is also one venue where the book is for sale. Otherwise, they can be obtained at MSJC itself.

Most of Ram’s sharp black and white portraits convey the sense of tragedy, stoicism, and loss that these women and men have endured since the demise of their loved one.

In some cases, mothers have lost more than one son. In others, if a son survived being shot, as in the case of 12-year-old Collins, he may be traumatised for the rest of his life.

And often, the loved one who died may have also been the family breadwinner, which de facto has made the Mothers Network not just a source of solace and psychological comfort for the survivors. It has also become a means of sustaining those who have been left behind.

The one portrait in the book that conveys a courageous look of defiance, anger, and desire to fight back is that of Lucy Wambui, who coincidentally is one of the co-founders who started up the Mothers Network in 2017.

She and other mothers have been spearheading the Network’s outreach ever since.

Wambui lost her husband Christopher Maina when she was eight and a half months pregnant and just days after they had moved out of Mathare and found a house in Githurai.

But as he still had casual jobs near their old home, he had returned to Mathare on the fateful day that he died inexplicably at the hand of police.

Wambui calls the man who killed her spouse a “serial killer cop” and even names him in the book. But she has yet to see justice done on her family’s behalf.

If Wambui and the other 34 stories don’t touch your heart, then one must see the nine-minute video created by Ram for MSJC and being shown at Circle Art.

It goes straight to the point and lays out the challenge that every person in the settlements face, apparently because they are poor, vulnerable, and easy prey for men who have gotten used to using their guns with impunity.

But it does so as a clarion call to get involved after feeling the righteous indignation that is inescapable if one has an iota of feelings for the residents of Nairobi who deserve humane treatment from the police.

The beauty of the video entitled MSJC: The Start of a Movement is that it captures the fearless spirit of Mathare youth as well as of MSJC.

That spirit is best expressed by one of the MSJC researcher, Juliet Wanjira who says in the film, “When you lose your fear, they lose their power”.

MSJC was started in 2015 by Gacheke Gachihi.