‘My stay in Kenya made me see violence as a routine happening’

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A series on true experiences

VIOLENCE

WHEN PEOPLE advice me to be careful while coming home late or going out at night, I almost chuckle inside. There is no way I can forget how suddenly and without warning violence can erupt, having lived under the constant dread of hijacking, robbery and mugging in Nairobi, Kenya in early 2000.

Illustration: Samia Singh

Everyone knew they had to roll up their windows when the car stopped at a red light. Or that they couldn’t wear gold jewellery in the street because someone would rip it off their neck and ears. I remember that sometimes the household staff would sleep at our home at night, because some young man would have acquired a gun in the infamous Kibera slum and would have wanted others to know about it. The driver kept a heavy lead club in the car near the gear shift just in case. Private security services were an industry. Violence happened in that country because of frustration. Frustration from the British colonisation, of the lack of opportunities for the young men and women, of corruption, of poverty. I was only a child then but very much aware of what could happen. It wasn’t a case of mass paranoia; it was the fact that everyone you knew had something happen to them. My mother’s friend, a wealthy Lebanese woman, had her jewellery snatched so many times that her ears were permanently damaged. Various houses were broken into regularly. A school counsellor hijacked and shot. A schoolteacher mugged. Security at the airports was a joke. It was common for expatriate families to demand relocation. Let’s not forget the American embassy bombings in 1998.

The first time I saw bullets flying was when I was 12. My family had gone to the Race Course for lunch on a warm lazy Sunday. Driving back, all of a sudden we heard loud sirens coming from up the road. A small white car speeded towards us and then turned upside down, crashing into the small kiosks and food-stalls on the side of the road, stirring up red earth. A few seconds later, the police arrived, blindly shooting everywhere. My mother started shrieking wildly at my sister and I had to duck behind the car seats. My father stopped the car, got out and quickly slid underneath the hot vehicle. I just remember my mother screaming and screaming; she did not understand why dad had got out. The police kept shooting, they brandished their sticks and shouted. The women, children and men from the stalls ran into the roadside slum.

I know all this because I was actually peeping regularly to see what was happening. I couldn’t believe there were bullets whizzing past us and that they could pierce the windshield and kill one of us. I just couldn’t accept that it was real. It was like being in a news flash. Minutes later, the men were beaten up and caught, and my father climbed back into the car. He drove home tensely and quickly, keeping silent while my mother was still panicking, demanding to know why he had made her worry. It had all taken five minutes. It was on the news later that a robbery had taken place and the police had quickly reacted and arrested them near the Race Course. My father shook his head at the heroic description of the seizure.

As children, we knew about violence, but didn’t understand what it represented. We were conditioned to be aware that violence existed without explaining how loss felt, how the police, who were supposed to protect and help us, could do nothing about it. What is grotesque about growing up with violence is that you begin to regard it as a normal happening in everyday life. You grow up desensitised. I am not saying that children should be kept in the dark about brutal happenings. I only wish their humanity could be preserved as much as possible.

Cecile Nicod is 20. She is a student of political science at the University of Leeds

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