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The burden of the wrong tribe

6 May 2019 - 13:05

By Omwa Ombara
Feverish debates about justice for post-election violence crimes in Kenya ended in a cold trail three years ago when the judges at the International Criminal Court discharged William Ruto and Joshua arap Sang from accusations facing them. Notably, one judge wrote that the case – like the one facing President Uhuru Kenyatta before the ICC – had experienced “intolerable levels of witness interference and tampering”. Journalist Omwa Ombara, who fled into exile in connection to fears about her safety because of contact with the ICC has published a fictionalized account of experiences of almost being a witness in the book God’s Child on the Run.

The first installment of a three-part serialization of her book starts on a rainy May 2, 2012. Omwa is going about her routine business when she receives a call from Donata (not her real name)who claims to be working as an ICC investigator based in The Hague. She wants to discuss four Kenyan suspects indicted at the ICC on crimes against humanity charges. ICC investigators believe Omwa may have crucial information they could use in the coming trials. She is a potential witness. But who is Donata? Is Donata a real ICC investigator, or is this a ploy by one of the suspects to kill her?

As a journalist, Omwa is thrust into the maelstrom of ethical and safety questions: Can a journalist become a witness and quote her sources? Can a journalist change roles, stop covering a story, and become the story?

Purchase Omwa Ombara’s God's Child on the Run here: https://tinyurl.com/y67ok6f3
** *

I was not a witness at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. I was considered a potential witness. By a sudden twist of fate, Donata turned my whole life upside down like a blind bat sleeping under an old mango tree. Every human effort I made to contact the mysterious Donata, the alleged Hague-based investigator, hit a snag. She had initially called my personal mobile and asked to meet me to hold certain “conversations” regarding the now infamous Kenyan 2007/2008 post-election violence case. Who was this mysterious woman? Why was it impossible to meet her? Did this Donata truly exist?

After several in-depth consultations with my lawyers in which they cross-examined me, jogged my memory, and scrutinized whatever documents I had relating to my past coverage, publications, or utterances on the December 2007 elections and the violence [thereafter], they advised me to keep off. They did not think I had strong enough evidence to be a prosecution witness. “What you have is just your word against the suspects’.

Besides, being a witness is a full-time job, you know. Are you ready to put your life on hold and be a witness? Remember, some of those international cases have taken up to 10 years to complete,” they advised. Whoever I confided in seemed terrified of The Hague. The Hague seemed to instill deep fear among many Kenyans. It was as if contact with The Hague was an ill omen, like the visit of an owl during the day. It was contact with the devil himself, with death. My long-term classmate, friend, managing editor and confidant Nyaigoti Mwita* warned me, “My dear friend, if The Hague has really called you, I do not envy you at all.

Remember, Luis Moreno Ocampo’s promise to make the Kenyan case an example to the rest of the world? The best thing to do is to go underground. Disappear for 10 years if that is what you must do. Why make a date with the devil?” Atrocities were committed in 60 days of madness in which the devil took over and chaos got out of control. Forty individuals, among them mostly women and children who sought refuge, were burned in a church in Kiambaa. Others were forcibly circumcised. Human and animal heads were chopped off. Children and women were raped. Police shot indiscriminately at [crowds] in a spate of politically instigated violence. Even those who did not vote became victims. They had to pay the price of being born into a wrong tribe.

Wrong tribe meant different things to different people. It meant you did not share a language or physical territory with a person, and therefore, you held different beliefs and embraced different values. For those who were circumcised, wrong tribe meant you were not circumcised and therefore too weak and cowardly to lead them. For the uncircumcised, wrong tribe meant you were circumcised and therefore too arrogant and reckless to lead them. Coast Province was on fire with skirmishes, deadly riots, and attacks on different communities, especially those that did not [support] to the Orange Democratic Movement Party.

Mombasa streets that were usually vibrant with international and local tourists, different popular loud taarab music [sounds] streaming from every store, as if in competition to attract customers bore a deathly silence. Vendors, dressed in white robes and long muslin gowns, should have been selling mshikaki, biriani, spiced iliki tea, and kahawa tungu (harsh coffee) served in metal baby cups on every corner as they defied the hot sun. Yet they were nowhere to be seen. What struck one were the remnants of burnt food, pots, and molten and charred ashes of plastic chairs, dishes, and cutlery.

The air was pungent with thick carbon monoxide and burning wood from tyres and from the tourist kiosks that sold wooden carvings of local Kenyan animals (rhinos, lions, giraffes, elephants, leopards, crocodiles) and locally woven baskets (chondo). This was the result of chaos of a bungled election. In the midst of all this chaos, I got a call from my Mama in Kisumu, asking me to go home urgently. When I called her back, her phone was off. The automated machine responded with a rather unpleasant rough female voice which kept repeating, “Mteja wa nambari uliopiga hapatikani kwa sasa [Sorry, the mobile subscriber cannot be reached]”. I panicked. Had a crazy mob attacked her? Was our home on fire? Had they killed my beloved Mama?

I got on to the next Kenya Airways flight from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, but failed to connect to Kisumu. The flights were held up and could not land in Kisumu or Eldoret due to the riots. Along with other passengers, I spent two nights at the airport before I got home. Kisumu city was shrouded in teargas and smoke from burning houses, vehicles, and tires when I arrived. All the water in the vast Lake Victoria would not have cleansed my stinging eyes. My Mama was holed up in the house and could hardly breathe. It was easier for me to move around with my press card.

Angry youth robbing residents along the road in front of Nightingale Hospital in Kondele, Kibos Road, summoned me but, on seeing my press card, let me off with a warning, “Report good things about us!” They blocked ambulances dropping in emergency patients and would not allow any vehicles to leave the hospital gate. Nurses in blue and white tunics came out of the wards and stood outside the hospital compounds. They held themselves, arms crossed against their chests, and their faces looked terrified.

In the madness of the moment, some irate youth threatened to burn down the hospital together with the patients and the bodies in the mortuary. An angry Dr. Chek, gynaecologist and proprietor of the hospital, came to the gate in his white overcoat and stethoscope hanging on his chest. “You will burn the hospital over my dead body!” he warned the crowd. “Onyango, get out of here!” he singled out a former patient at the hospital, now red-eyed, whom he had just discharged from the ward a few weeks back. “Sorry, Daktari! We are just upset by our stolen election. These people have messed up with Jakom [pet name for Raila by supporters]! We are good people. We don’t mean you any harm,” he said, laughing a little ashamedly and urging his fellow rioters to leave the scene. He seemed to command the group … and they all followed him into the dingy corridors of the adjacent Manyatta area. Kondele in Kisumu city was a pathetic ghost town.

The boda-boda cyclists that operated their transport business were gone. Hundreds of women selling fried fish by the roadsides seemed to have vanished into thin air. Thousands of rotten, smelly fish lay scattered all over the ground. They were once fresh but seemed to have been abandoned by owners in a hurry. Everything smelt burnt. Secondhand clothes that once hang neatly by the roadsides along Kibuye market were now burnt rags having consumed the fires of chaos of a bungled election. I could not recognize my home at all. The neighbors were gone. A lone, terrified pregnant goat bleated hoarsely as it walked around in circles, confused. Burnt shops, houses, and vehicles were a sorry sight to behold.

My Mama’s tenant, Mwangi from Nakuru, the cheerful hunchback who had rented the premises for 10 years and become a close family friend, was gone. His house was raided by strangers, his goods plundered, the house completely vandalized. Some residents, mostly Kikuyu and Kisii traders, stayed in tents at the Kondele Police Station. They had been flushed out of their homes as they were believed to have supported the rival Party of National Unity (PNU) headed by President Mwai Kibaki, while over 95 per cent of the locals supported ODM headed by Raila Odinga. Kibaki was running for a second term as the president of Kenya. Raila Odinga, son of Kenya’s former vice president Oginga Odinga, was running as president for the second time.

On my return journey from Kisumu to Mombasa by Kenya Airways, a young lady, whom I later learned was called Jane Kamau*, a mass communication student at the Mombasa Polytechnic, confronted me at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi. Our flight was delayed, and we were having lunch at Simba Restaurant on the fifth floor in the transit area, courtesy of the airlines. “Where are you from?” she asked casually as we munched our meal. “Kisumu!” I responded. Before I could speak further, her mouth burst into verbal diarrhea. “You must be a Luo. You are the people who threw my sister Mary out of her house in Kisumu and burned her property! You are very stupid. You plus the whole lot of you! But we’re going to show you what we are made of. When we carry out our revenge mission, you will know your place.” Her angry voice spoilt for a fight, and I happened to be her first casualty.

Taken aback, I responded softly, “What do you mean? What are we quarreling about now?” I asked her, “We don’t even know each other. Why are you attacking me, my sister?” “You wait. You just wait until we revenge. You will have nowhere to hide.” “Now, what have I done to this lady?” I asked as I threw my hands up in the air. The other passengers watched the drama in discomfort. They shifted nervously in their seats. It was obvious they were uncomfortable with what was going on but did not want to take any sides. It was that dark moment in the history of Kenya when no one wanted their tribe known for fear of being attacked, that dark fearful season when Kenyans spoke in whispers as if every wall had ears.

Post-election violence was on and exposing one’s tribe was anathema; it could cost you your life! “Shut up and go to hell, you uncircumcised people! I am not your sister. I am a Kikuyu, and you are Luo! You will know what it means to play around with circumcised people, you piece of rubbish. Why did you burn my sister’s house? Why did you make her suffer? Why did you throw stones at her? Do you know that she is injured?” She got up and charged at me with her knife and fork like an angry buffalo at the foot of God Jope hills in Migori, Nyanza. “You will pay for what you have done to my sister!” she shouted.

Words hurt more painfully than sticks, says Lawino, the protagonist in Ugandan writer Okot P’Bitek’s book Song of Lawino. Jane’s words hurt me deeply. I did not like to be judged by my culture. Luos do not circumcise their people; I was not circumcised. I was a unique individual created in the image of God. I had talents or gifts I had been created with or acquired, which I dreamt would make a better world whenever I had a chance to use them. Yet in Jane’s eyes and that of a lot of other Kenyans with whom I did not share a tribe, a skin, or customs, I was useless. I was from the wrong tribe. Jane made me feel as if a sharp knife had been dug deep inside my self-esteem. I got on the defensive.

As I jumped backward to evade her attack, three male Asian passengers with turbans, sitting on either side of us dashed and surrounded her, blocking her from me. One held up her hand in midair and blocked her from striking me with a blow. I do not know how deadly Jane’s blow would have been or how many teeth I would have lost because she never got to do it. I was disturbed, disoriented, disillusioned. Meanwhile, one other passenger dashed for the manager of the restaurant. “I am a journalist, and I just went to check on my mother, who is ill. I don’t live in Kisumu, and I did not burn your sister’s house! I don’t know why you are attacking me for nothing,” I raised my voice at her, now really furious. “Please, please, madam, cool down only! There is no need to fight. You are all sisters, Kenyans. Just be friends, you know!” the intervening passengers all pleaded at the same time.

“What a shameless creature! How can you even dare say you are a journalism student? You lack the qualities of a journalist. How will you make it as a reporter when you are so emotional, biased, temperamental, and so grossly tribal? What if you ever show up at The Standard newspapers and found I was your boss? Think far ahead, my dear sister. Take a grip of yourself! We are both Kenyans, please!” I told her, trying to restrain my anger.

She was young, about 23, and I looked at her like a younger incorrigible sister. Jane looked down, slightly ashamed. She mumbled something under her breath in her mother tongue, picked her knife and fork, and started eating again. The manager arrived a few minutes after the drama. After listening to both sides of the story, he asked us to keep cool. He did not want to take sides. I could not tell from his accent whether he was from my tribe or Jane’s tribe. “If you two continue with your altercation, then I will have to drop you from the passenger list to Mombasa and replace you with other passengers!” he warned.

The flight from Nairobi to Mombasa was about 40 minutes. While up in the cloudy sky, Jane Kamau walked down the aisle and shyly smiled at me. “I am sorry, my sister, I got carried away, but you see, I am very angry with your people!” she explained as she apologized. “I really didn’t mean to hurt you, but I am really upset with your people.” “It’s okay,” I said, eager to make up with her. “I am sorry I was rude to you, too. I love you!” I apologized. I understood her pain.

The atrocities that were committed against her sister and many other Kenyans were horrendous and should not have happened to anyone, irrespective of their tribe or lot in society. Still, when we alighted, I avoided Jane like the plague and did not look back. I jumped into a taxi and headed off to my house in Ganjoni — just a five-minute drive from my office. But the incident left a bad taste in my mouth and when the revenge finally came a few days later, it was just as Jane had promised and prophesied — heartless, deathly, devastating. Kenya was on fire. Emotions prevailed over reason. Acts of lawlessness and impunity prevailed.

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Very well captured, Kenya's darkest hour.
What makes this story compelling is the rawness of the accounts as told by Omwa. She witnessed hate first hand -and what hate can turn normal human beings into. Never Again should we allow Kenya to descend into such anarchy. Such hate! I can't wait to read the book.
This is story has chilled me. Very insightful and exposes how tribalism has kept the future this beautiful at stake. Who will liberate us from the shackles of tribalism?
Brilliant, informing.
A good piece, Very informative. Where and how can i get a copy?
I like the story
This brilliant Omwa!!! Is the book out and available in NBO?
Humans can be animals. In fact they are.