My Child, We Thought You Were Home
A Reporter’s Reflections on the Murder of Michael Okoth at anti-IEBC demonstrations in Kisumu
Monday, October 16 ended as all days do in Nyanza: with a Lake Sunset.
Where everything catches a golden warmness. The sky became, as it does each evening, a high continent unto itself, a complex of detail and liquid with its own valleys and rivers — sour pink, punchy details, milky swaths. It became pure and furious.
That particular sunset marked the end of that day’s heavy demonstrations throughout Nyanza. And cruelly ironic in its magnificence, it marked the end of another life taken by police brutality.
This time, his name was Michael Okoth. At approximately 2pm, the eighteen-year-old died near Kondele in Kisumu City with a gunshot to his neck.
At the mortuary, his grandmother wept and wailed, speaking to him over his body. “We thought you were home. My child, we thought you were home. We didn’t know you had gone out to see the protests.”
We all knew something was going to happen.
Momentum was strong but unclear. Green leaves, fastened to the front of almost every bicycle, motorcycle, and bus, were a good omen: change and activity, or perhaps protection like hyssop. Limber boughs of siala, oboke, even fluttering puffs of papyrus speeding through roundabouts.
But there were also bad omens: men banging on an empty billboard holder, which sounds like gunshots without the warmth. Men slapping large black PVC pipes on the ground, which sounds like gunshots without the chill.
“Ua! Ua! Ua!” they said. Kill, kill, kill.
The politicians must have known what was coming. Kisumu County Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o tried to allay fears: he’d spoken earlier to the “Kisumu Business Community,” assuring storeowners that the demonstrations would be done comfortably by noon. When he and his convoy arrived at the big roundabout at Kakamega Road bus stop at 11am to find the crowd waiting, his face was flat and closed. Silent, with an occasional wave; thinking on top of his black Land Cruiser.
He, his Deputy Governor, and the Speaker of the County Assembly roused the crowd. They sang. They said the right things. But then they told protestors that the demonstration was to remain here. That it was not to crawl into the town center and to the regional office of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the organization they were protesting.
They should have known it would not be easy to inject peacefulness into this crowd. They should have known this before the sun even rose, when there were already tyres set up to burn, with long sugarcane stalks bending into them like a dynamite wick. By 7am, already a black pillar of smoke rose from the bus stop.
The crowd soured. Protestors waved fingers at their politicians and tapped their watches. They turned and started towards the IEBC office anyways. Reluctantly, the Land Cruisers followed.
Hakuna maandamano bila tear gas.
It’s not a demonstration without tear gas.
The convoy of Kisumu politicians led two rallies: one in front of the IEBC offices, and another here, right under the highway overpass. Demonstrators circled the roundabout at Kondele, calling “No reforms!” and responding “No elections!”
After the results of the general election on August 8 were nullified by the Supreme Court of Kenya due to irregularities that cast doubt on the integrity of results transmission, the National Alliance (NASA), led by opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga, presented a set of preconditions necessary for a free, fair, and credible election: the “irreducible demands.”
It became clear there would be little give; no word from the IEBC. On October 10, Raila Odinga issued a public statement declaring his intent to withdraw his candidature from the fresh election scheduled for October 26. No reforms, no elections.
The IEBC finally responded on October 16, saying that they would be willing to accept certain changes but would not be able to accommodate others — like replacing commissioners, returning officers, and technology provider — due to time constraints and scope.
The day after Odinga withdrew his candidacy in protest, NASA called for demonstrations every single day until the day of the scheduled election.
And so it was.
Tumeshinda tear gas. Tunataka bomb.
We’ve overcome tear gas. We want bombs.
It became clear to me quickly at these NASA demonstrations how easily different kinds of hopes, angers, and mournings mix with one another when we walk with people of our own. Everything is shaken together and lit up.
Floating above it all, spoken from loudspeakers on Land Cruisers under a blue sky, is the electoral agitation of the political class — for things like personnel replacement and systematic transparency. With time, this settles down to rhetoric about inclusive democracy, which of course carries tribal undertones. “Kenya is not for only Kikuyus and Kalenjins.”
Then, down to words about the President and, attached to that, the sting of poverty from his work poorly done — suffering, dead relatives, hunger, unga.
Only at the deepest level, which is something I cannot pretend to understand, is the visceral indignity and disenfranchisement — and also belonging, loyalty — that propels young men to pelt the Kondele Police Station for almost a full working day with rocks, screaming crass insults, and taunting the police to come out and kill.
On the day that Michael Okoth died, they began throwing rocks in the morning and continued for hours. Some even jokingly complained that the police were late, having arrived before noon last time and still had not showed up. The first lonely, unlucky officers in riot gear came out once in a while. They shot one or two tear gas canisters at a time — TIBIM! TIBIM! — and retreated into the compound.
That day, demonstrators also lobbed tear gas back: veteran demonstrators had learned that if you soft-catch the canister before it hit the ground, or if you poured water on it after it did, it would not detonate. They launched these collected canisters into the police compound, provoking them to “Ua! Ua! Kill! Kill!” and hooting when white smoke emerged from the compound.
These angers were practiced and automatic, nothing new or unfamiliar. For demonstrators here in Kisumu, every small little political development trawled up along with it soreness of collective grievances over decades, as well as the sharp pain of individual, personal suffering.
They all get mixed up together when hurting people march in legions. Then they get lit up.
After hours of provocation, the time had reached. A few minutes to 2pm, they came for them.
It was brisk and well-rehearsed.
The giant police lorry tumbled out in a rush, crunching over lines of rocks barricading the roundabout, swerving a bit as it circled. With sharp, instant panic, an ocean of people pulled away from the main road into the marketplace, behind the empty stalls into dirt backroads. Hurried and full silence.
From the modest police compound gate, an endless file of green uniforms streamed out for a small eternity. Tear gas, AK-type rifles, wooden batons.
GSU police officers, in small groups, descended — running, pursuing — into the marketplace, after the people. White smoke billowing from afar. Tears, probably.
The lorry sat still on the roundabout. The driver’s arm rested on the open window like a highway trucker, relaxed. Work. Other police kicked limply at rocks barricading the road and removed brush and wire. A moment ago, terror; now, clean-up.
Beneath the overpass of the highway, it was so quiet, you could hear each turn in each officer’s sentence. This space which one minute ago was wet with shouting, screaming, and slurs, suddenly vacated.
It sounded familiar and mundane, like an empty office. Like business.
A cricket was chirping, a rather cruel irony. Within a few minutes after the lorry burst out of the police compound, we were alone in the center of the roundabout below the overpass, the police and journalists. The lorry revved up and headed south, towards Manyatta.
I remembered the green exodus of uniformed officers flowing earlier from the police compound, and I remembered their descent — in packs, in parallel, along that highway. I remember the bend of their knees as they shuffled together downhill, many legs, down into the screams. I remember the urgency.
I wanted to see what was left. I turned right and followed the sidewalk along the highway overpass, to one of those backstreets. Kondele Market had been reduced to its bones, its stalls bare and dry like scaffolding. The sun was heavy. I was out of earshot of the police at the roundabout, but did not walk far.
I heard them first: a group of men from inside, down one of these streets, waving me to them. Hands, but no stones. I looked around — the police had already gone. I ran in.
“Look at what they have done!”
“Show the world!”
“They killed him!”
He was a teenager.
That day, he had put on blue board shorts with dolphins on them. His hands were up, by his face, and his head cocked backwards at an irregular angle. His blood was fresh, shining like a glass pool on the dirt.
There were multiple gashes on his neck and even one on his chin, but there was no bullet. Eyewitnesses alleged that, after shooting Okoth, they slit his throat to remove the evidence.
What are these demonstrations really about?
Do we protest because we have everything to lose? Or because we have nothing to lose?
NASA called off demonstrations the following day to honor those who had been hurt or killed in maandamano and attend to their families.
But the next demonstrations are scheduled for this Friday, October 20, and then on October 26—when Kenya is supposed to return to polls and vote—the “Mother of All Demonstrations.” This morning, a convoy of almost twenty police lorries was seen making its way from Nairobi, headed towards western Kenya.
The day after he died, Okoth’s loved ones arrived at the mortuary to see their son. His grandmother, propped onto the shoulder of the pastor, wailed with dry, tired devastation that cut through the room. “I am the old one. They should have killed me and left the young one.”
The pastor’s prayer — in Dholuo — was not the first of its kind he had made. Okoth’s uncle, they said, was also shot and killed by police.
It was not a normal prayer. Lifted up among sobs and arms around shoulders, it was a prayer of trauma.
From a people of trauma.
“God, if you see the way You have given eyes to see,
God if you can hear the way You have given ears to hear,
Hear our prayer today:
That the officer who shot Okoth with a gun—
for us we do not know how to exact revenge—
God, You Yourself pay back.
Dear God, show us a sign, just the way they shot Okoth, and we saw it,
Make us also see that You have exacted Your revenge,
Because You say revenge belongs to You, God.
So that You may wipe the tears of Okoth’s mother.
Her hopes as a widow remain here in the mortuary.”
Another devastating sunset.