It is said your whole life flashes before your eyes in a near death situation. November 26th 2014 is probably the closest I have come to tasting my mortality. And it stank of cheap alcohol. I had just driven home from work that night, and when I opened my car to get out, I was confronted by a shadow with a loud whisper. And a gun. In that moment, it was not the life I have lived that flashed before my eyes, but the life I wanted to live. I saw it all. The kids. The adventures. The book (s). The crows eyes. The bittersweet. The joyful. The falling. The getting up. The mundane. Each not-yet-memory tumbling out with a pang of disappointment at hopes that may never be realised.
I have always thought it extraordinary how your life can change in seconds and at that moment I thought, this is it. This is the moment my life changes forever. After all, any Nairobian knows, the experience of violent robbery is more a matter of when, than a matter of if.
I thought maybe he had come in behind me. Or got into my car at the parking lot at work and been with me the whole way home. He was so young. The horror of what was happening was accompanied with an extraordinary clarity of thought. He wanted money. I had money. I would give him money. He would leave. As he whispered to me to keep quiet, I gave him everything I had. Then he told me to get out and dragged me to the other side of the car, where he told me to get into the passenger seat. At that moment, I thought he was going to rape me. It felt like my luck had finally run out. How ironic, I thought. Just half an hour ago, I had posted this. Just. Half. An. Hour. Ago.
‘I think about it when I am driving home at night, my eyes darting to the rear view mirror always aware, always looking, wondering if it ever happens, how will I numb my mind to protect my soul.’
I screamed. But it was mute. The horror of knowing something terrible is going to happen to you, and there are people around who could help, if only there was a way to let them know. But you can’t. You are silent. And you think about your family sat at the dinner table steps away, completely unaware that their daughter’s soul is about to be shred into pieces.
I don’t know what changed his mind. He ordered me to walk into the house, and as I walked towards the door, I wondered how I would alert my family to the fact that I was not alone. In a moment of sheer stupidity, I opened the door, shut it on the man with the gun and reached for the keys in the door to lock him out. My hand was met with emptiness. There were no keys. As I turned around, I almost vomited in fear. Five men with various weapons stood in the living room. My granny was sat in her wheelchair at the dining table, looking straight ahead, completely silent. The rest of my family were tied up on the dining room floor. They had been there for two hours already.
I don’t think I would have been so calm if I had known what had gone on in those two hours. How they had dragged my 87 year old grandfather up the stairs, beat him up, tied his hands and feet and forced him to lie down on the floor. How they had gone to fetch the iron, plugged it in, waited for it to get hot and then burnt my mum’s arm. Plugged it back in. Waited for it to get hotter and burnt her other arm. But I didn’t know. So I was calm. They had ransacked the house. Taken whatever they wanted. And when it was time to leave, they untied me and told me that I was going to drive them to where I was going. I knew if I got into that car, I would never be the same again. As I walked to the door, I prayed harder than I have ever prayed before.
It is funny the things you think and say in times of extreme stress. I asked them if I could get my driving license. The answer was no. I asked them if I could at least wear my shoes. This seemed to puzzle them. Perhaps I bought time, or maybe they thought I was more trouble than was worth, and so they ordered me to show them how the cut out switch of my car worked, before they tied my hands and feet again and pushed me to the ground.
When they left, I asked my mum….had they….? She said no. And you know what. You know what is so fucked up. I felt grateful to them. I felt almost indebted to these 6 armed men who stormed into our home for not raping us.
This is where we are.
In the days that followed, there was an incredible outpouring of love, support, warmth, prayers. As if people wrapped us in a warm embrace to prove that humanity is inherently good. To defy the ugliness. It came in a plethora of messages online from friends and strangers alike. In huge sufurias of food brought over by friends and family to nurture our bodies as their words soothed our hearts. In beautiful pink carnations that lit up the room. In company during mealtimes so we wouldn’t have to eat alone. In little envelopes of money so we could at least buy milk and bread. In spare phones. In coffee and croissants, because yes, if ever there was a time for chocolate pastry, that was the time. And each person that came had their own story, their own horrific experiences. And through it all, we truly felt blessed that it wasn’t worse. Because it is. For so many people. My mum is healing. She is an incredibly strong woman. And in the truly Kenyan way of forcing laughter to avoid tears, my dad has already nicknamed her ‘The Iron Lady’
That it was an inside job is indisputable. Perhaps I should be angry. But I’m not. I am sad. Our askari had been with us for seven years. My mum took dinner to him every night. He ate what we ate. That he would do something like this means that either he was threatened, and was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. Because, let’s face the reality, men like him are disappeared everyday without even a bleep on the radar. Or he felt so trapped in this life, that the only way he knew how to get a better life for himself was to steal. Which let’s face it, is also a reality. It reminds me of a tweet I saw today by @kenyanpundit
‘The poor are up at night wondering how they will survive; the rich are up all night wondering how they will protect themselves from the poor’
But the brutality. We have unhumaned each other.
This is where we are.
I was going to write this piece as a letter to our President, because that same day, he had made a grand speech about security. A speech that dripped with such contempt for Kenyans, that he may as well have spat on us and walked away, middle finger in the air. (Also the fact that I am terrified as I write this is testament to the fact that we seem to have gone to sleep and woken up in the 90s). But I am pretty sure he wouldn’t care about my story. After all, 28 families lost their loved ones in Mandera and the President posted a selfie. But that’s old news. We have moved on. Or at least he has. Celebrating his ICC triumph, and yet there is this. And my horror grows as I realise more and more, we live in a country of no consequence.
That’s why 6 unmasked men could come into my home, stay for a leisurely 3 hours and drive away, completely comfortable in the knowledge that they were protected in some way. I suspect my President would tell me I am lucky to have my life. And it is true, I feel unbelievably blessed that I am alive. That we weren’t hurt more. That I have my family. He would probably sneer at me, tell me to stop complaining.
This is where we are.
In a place where you should feel lucky that you will never forget the smell of flesh burning as an iron sears into your skin. Because you still have your life. Which is more than can be said for the 36 mothers/fathers/daughters/sons/sisters/brothers/friends/Kenyans who lost their lives later that week in Mandera. How low we have set the bar.
As Wandiya Njoya says in this powerful piece:
‘Ever since Kenyans found a way to rationalize that suspects of crimes against humanity were acceptable presidential candidates, I have been saying that something bigger has happened to us other than having a cool president: we have declared that Kenyan life isn’t valuable.‘
This is where we are.
Look in the mirror Kenya.