Most of the friends I grew up with are dead

How poor urban youth in Nairobi are criminalized by systemic violence that denies them jobs, justice, and freedoms.

Image credit Mathare Social Justice Centre.

I, Minoo, was born and raised in Mukuru slums and witnessed all sorts of police brutality and criminalization of young people by the state. It wasn’t just the criminalization of youths but the criminalization of poverty too. I have interacted with youths that come from rich backgrounds, and they cannot relate to a thing when we talk about how youths have been criminalized, and that proves to me that poverty is criminalized. Yet, the capitalists and the state that criminalizes is the same one that pushes us to poverty, so that when we beg them for food, they exploit our labor and give us peanuts in return.

While growing up in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, I decided to grow dreadlocks, but had a lot of fear in me. I had seen how my friends got arrested for simply having dreadlocks: they were framed for possessing bhang (marijuana) or wrongfully accused of being criminals. The negative profiling by police was so bad that even the community started to believe that if you have dreadlocks you were using drugs or were a dangerous criminal. I witnessed my friend Kaparo get his dreadlocks shaved off by police at the police station using a piece of iron sheet. He had been brought there by police informants for fighting with the son of a police informant. My cousin is also a victim of this type of police brutality. He and seven of his friends were found with bhang and five of them, including my cousin, had their head shaved using a blunt razor that was shared among all of them. They were also framed for meeting to organize a robbery, and their parents had to pay a bribe for their innocent sons to be freed. Still in Mukuru, eight young men were shot in 2019 by the police while having a meeting about garbage collection. They were between 16 and 24 years old.

I attended Mukuru Kwa Njenga primary school, which was near my home. It had a very big field where young men loved to go to practice football. At night, however, the field would turn into a slaughter place. A young man I knew who used to sell bhang but stopped was shot there around 8 pm going to buy bhang from another peddler. To justify the inhumane action, the police framed him as a robber by placing many phone sim cards at the crime scene, and a fake gun—a bonoko.

Every night and sometimes during the day, I would hear a lot of gunshots coming from the field. I didn’t experience much police brutality as I am a woman, but I watched my male friends suffer every day. I even heard my dad thank God that he didn’t have a son because he didn’t how he would protect him from the criminalization that happens when you grow up in a slum.

It’s even dangerous to have an expensive gadget here as it puts your life in danger. You will be accused of stealing it and be brutally beaten. I know some of my friends who can’t dress well because they were once in crime, stayed in prison for years, and when they came out they reformed but the police will not give them peace: they are always harassing them, brutally beating them so that they can say where they “stole” their clothes from.

I survived in this ghetto watching the state making a living out of extorting us, turning our lives into a living hell. The state installs a lot of fear in us using violence and prisons. We even feel unsafe in a place we call home. I have innocent friends who rot behind bars for the crime of being poor and living in a slum. We didn’t choose this life.

I, Maryanne Kasina, was born and raised in Kayole, a poor area in Nairobi. I have grown-up in a society full of injustices, and I know poverty is violence. During my primary school years, I could not understand why the violence was rampant in Kayole. When I was in high school, my parents separated, and it became hard to raise us. My mother had ten children, so things had to change. We were transferred from a public school to the cheapest private school she could afford. Private schools in the ghetto are cheap due to the lack of qualified teachers and the lack of school equipment such as laboratories and libraries.

After I completed my secondary schooling, things were worse at home. I knew we couldn’t afford school fees to continue with my studies: we slept many days on an empty stomach, and since I am the second born in a family of ten, I had to look for something to do which could put food on the table.

A friend of mine told me about an agency that would take me abroad to work. I knew the risks: I used to hear and could see in the media how workers were mistreated, tortured, and sometimes killed. It gave me a lot of fear, but I had to go. The agency told me they had gotten me a waitressing job in Dubai starting on December 13, 2013; a contract of two years, a visa and a plane ticket. The funny thing is that everything I was told to sign was in Arabic; I asked the agency if I was going to work in a hotel because what I feared most was to work as a domestic worker because of the violations they face. They told me I was going to work in a hotel. On December 15, 2013 I left for Dubai, and when I got there, the agency briefed me that what was expected of me was to work in a private house. I froze and wished I had wings to fly and go back to my country. I wished the world could break apart and swallow the whole me, but all was in vain. I ended up staying for two years. The working conditions were excruciating.

When I came back in 2015, I did not know where to begin since every young person I knew felt I was a savior and wanted me to help them go abroad not knowing how hellish it was. Because of no alternatives and the frustrations of survival, we decided to seek the alternative for ourselves through youth groups.

Gaza group was a dancing crew when we were in high school. We used to compete with other neighborhoods in friendly dance competitions. It helped us come together. After completing high school, we broke up and some of us joined existing youth groups. These groups started to do community development and ecological justice work. Their organizing threatened the system and so the system infiltrated them.

How did they do this? By giving them weapons,”bunduki,” to fight over a tycoon’s land. This time they felt life would be different as they would have housing and a plot of land to do farming. Because this was their hope, they fought for the land and won the war but because it was a war instigated by the system, the system started to shoot them one by one. The land which they fought for was sold to millionaires.

I have lost my friends through police executions. Most of the friends I grew up with are 6 feet under. It reached a point we feared sitting together because the police would storm anywhere youths were gathered and either shoot all of you or arrest you and accuse you of criminal activity.

In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave a “shoot to kill” order. I wondered who was to be killed? Was it us the youth who had been criminalized by police and society, then armed by politicians for selfish interests? Was it us, the youth, who had been turned into walking ATM machines for the police, squeezing from us the little that we toil to earn? Was it us, the youth, who are serving prison sentences for possession of bhang because they failed to give the police a bribe?

There are more police stations than public hospitals in the informal settlement. It is to brutalize us and kill us because it has failed to provide basic need to all humans. Since the capitalist system is a system to benefit a few, what the system does is when youths organize themselves, they infiltrate their organizations.

Some of those from the Gaza crew who reformed have to pay police to stay alive. Most of us are victims or survivors of system impunity, and those who cannot afford to give the bribe have no peace: the police vigilantes profile them on social media and kill them.

When we give birth that’s labor but the system is eating our children. It’s time we all arise, it is time women stop giving birth until the environment becomes conducive for all of us. The world is not safe until we make it safe.

I met Minoo in 2018. I was helping her and other comrades set up Mukuru Community Justice Centre. During our groundings with other female comrades, we were able to consolidate our struggle and form the Women in Social Justice Centres movement, a feminist workers movement whose struggle is through political action. In this space, we want to create a safe space for all oppressed human beings. The fight against patriarchy and capitalism continues. We all need to embrace feminism as an ideology towards socialism, getting back to our roots and our humanity.

In our reflections on our lives and the unfolding world events, we realized we do not need police reforms but total change of the system. We are still colonized. It is not yet uhuru.

About the Author

Minoo Kyaa is a member of Mukuru Community Justice Centre and the coordinator of Reggae for Social Justice. She is also a member of the Women in Social Justice Centres movement. She is a writer and a poet. Her art documents struggle and resistance.

Maryanne Kasina is a writer and the convener of Women in Social Justice Centres movement in Kenya. She is the co-founder of Kayole Community Justice Centre which organizes against gender-based violence and police brutality.

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