When Life Becomes Cheap

And we think one paid too little

I know it is already stale news — nothing stays fresh in today’s breathless 24-hour news cycle anyway — but the shooting of that young man in Eastleigh by a plain-clothes policeman in the sight of hundreds of people still haunts me. Don’t get me wrong; I know enough has already been said, enough discussions had, and you are now tired of this talk. But, allow me to say what I have nevertheless. Because I think we all missed the point in our passionate, invective-flinging, blow-trading internet tirades.

Let me preface my sentiments with a little background: The first phone I owned to the end of its usefulness was my fourth smartphone, which coughed out its last light in my brother’s hand around the beginning of this year. All my previous phones were stolen in one way or another. For the second one I was pummelled to a pulp — inside a matatu — on the eve of a journey I was to take back home to Kisumu.

When they were done with me, all that remained in my pockets was my rosary. The buggers even took my little Coast Bus ticket and I had to present a drastically altered face to claim my seat at the bus station the next day. My mum cried when she saw me step out into the Kisumu sun with an open hole on my cheek.

My first laptop was also robbed from me as I walked home in the evening. And I have been accosted by thieves countless times. On matatus on Juja Road. At bus stops in Kayole. I have literally run down darkened streets in the city centre at night with thieves on my tail. Nowadays I walk a wary man. When I have to go down to Gikosh I leave my phone and extra money at home; I just take my ID so I can be identified if any bad thing should happen. And when I take a matatu I scan all the passengers for any potential source of trouble before I sit down.

I have stopped trusting society with my own safety. Like many Kenyans, especially Nairobians, I am a bitter man. Luckily, I thank God that I have never stared down the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife. But I know people who have, and I know it might only be a matter of time before such misfortune befalls me; the testimonies following the Eastleigh incident all too clearly portray the gangland style in which this city operates.

It is small wonder therefore that many are the times I have cursed heaven and earth, and sworn to kill thieves if I ever get the chance. So, I will not sanctimoniously claim I wouldn’t have shot the young man if I had a loaded gun in hand, him in my sights and a grudge against him in my heart, if he had done to me what he allegedly did to those policemen. I don’t know what I would have done, but I would probably have shot him.

Which is why my opinion on this matter startles even me. I find it hard to condemn only one side of this story and exonerate the other, as so many of us have so easily done. Instead, I find myself asking funny questions of no one in particular. Did it really have to come to this? Couldn’t all this have been prevented? And even if this pass had to come, did life really have to be lost? And doesn’t the fact that a life was indeed lost condemn us all? Doesn’t it just go on to prove that we, as a society, have come to have a very low regard for the value of human life?

Because, believe me, this was just the most dramatic manifestation of our disregard for the sanctity of human life. There are numerous subtle — and not so subtle — manifestations of this attitude that permeate our daily lives in this city, this country. They are sometimes hard to notice, because we are part of the system. But if you would just take a step back and observe, you would see it clear as day.

The man running across the road within sight of a footbridge; the matatu bearing down on him as if he is a maggot; the Subaru driver stepping on the gas as pedestrians walk across the zebra crossing, causing them to scamper like chicks under the shadow of a hawk; the creaky matatu tucked behind a speeding truck as it approaches a bend in the road; your drunk boyfriend driving you home after a night out; your cousin bedding all the girls in the neighbourhood as if HIV were a flavour of sex… its everywhere. We live by the wire. We take inordinate risks with our lives, for thrills that do not last. All of us.

And so, we can afford to have the kind of discussions we had over this killing, where we pit the value of one life against that of another, where we call one kind of murder wrong and another right, where we justify one death on the basis of another. We end up forgetting that a human life was lost; at one point a young man was writhing in pain, like a little worm, and the next a bullet caused his soul to wrench itself free of his body, and his life was snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane.

I do not mean to say that he was worthier of life than the policeman he allegedly killed, nor that the thugs who stab, maim and kill have a greater right to bodily integrity and life than the rest of us. But precisely because they don’t, we cannot justify the converse. No argument can condemn one side and canonise the other. None.

So forgive me if I do not launch into another tirade against the thugs here. They are not the only agents of their own corruption. And forgive me for not condemning the police here either. I cannot claim to know exactly what the young man did to deserve the end he came to, the frustration to which he drove that policeman and his crew. Not by a long stretch do I mean, by this, to claim that I didn’t see evil. Of course I did. But that conversation has been had, and it will be had for as long as we talk about this. And it will not end if we are not willing to see our own complicity with the system.

As a result, in this article I will limit myself to drawing attention to the environment that has brought our society to this pass: a total disregard for human life. On the part of everyone. The thugs, for wantonly inflicting injury and death wherever they go. The cops, for inflicting the same on the thugs so casually. And us, you and I, for living so recklessly and then being so blind as to engage in the kind of debate we did, pitting one life against another as if we had even the slightest right to.

We all need take stock before our society completely breaks down.


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