Ten years since the chaos that erupted after the 2007 elections, Kenya goes to the polls again on Tuesday, August 7. Over the years there appear to have been attempts, some even official, to erase the memory of the 2007/08 post-election violence from public consciousness. Yet, each time reality has found a way to impose itself. Victims still cry for justice and many Kenyans, scared by the possibility of a recurrence of violence, are fleeing towns and cities for their rural homes.
The shadow of what happened in 2007/8 looms large over the August 8, 2017 elections. Repetition is only possible if Kenyans forget that dark episode in their lives.
As Kenya votes in its twelfth general election, Kenyan man Mr. Okello* will not be on the queue of voters waiting to cast his vote for the next leaders. He does not want to vote, ever again.
Okello is not sure about many things: he is not certain about tomorrow or if his new wife will abandon him.
Two toddlers, aged two and one-year-old, enter the four-bedroom brick house in Nyatike, Migori, playfully. One settles on Okello’s lap while the other crawls up his trousers, trying to climb up the seat. Okello doesn’t seem to notice them. He instead summons an older child to come and get the toddlers, as they are interrupting the interview. There is a dearth of warmth in this house.
Outside the house is a flurry of gold mining activity. Since gold deposits were discovered in the area a few years ago, villagers are all part of the gold rush in different capacities. Nearby, a woman is pounding stones with a hammer in the hope of sieving gold from the dust, while a group of women and men a step ahead are cleaning gold. Further down the line, a noisy machine is grinding stone.
Amid the noise, Okello wallows in solitude.
Okello’s new wife, a tall, slender and extremely shy 27-year-old, returns from cleaning gold. Today she has earned Ksh 900 (9 USD). Here, gold is sold in points with a single point going for Ksh300. Upon seeing her mother, the toddler runs towards her and deposits herself on her left breast.
“He is a very worried man. Most of the time, you will find him alone in deep thought,” says his wife. Okello buries himself in his work, digging in the tunnels to earn anywhere between Ksh600 and Ksh1,200 a day. Wages are always paid on the spot. It is tiring work, but it pays well enough. On a good day, Okello takes home Ksh10,000 (96 USD).
Sometimes, they even get a windfall. Okello once got gold worth Ksh200,000 which helped him build the four-room house they now occupy. The earnings also go to his children’s education. But they are dwindling by the day.
At first, she only talks about the usual challenges in life before opening up.
Okello, a father of six, was living and working in Sotik, Bomet District, in the Rift Valley on a tea plantation owned by a Kalenjin. The Kalenjin are the predominant community in the Rift Valley, and had cast their political lot with Raila Odinga in the disputed 2007 elections. As a Luo, Okello believed he was not in any danger as members of his tribe had been in a political alliance with the Kalenjin to defeat the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.
On January 27, 2008, violence over the election dispute had spread across the country for close to a month with attacks being avenged. That evening, an unknown armed gang confronted Okello and his four Luo colleagues at the local shopping center.
“They beat us senseless, all the time demanding to know what tribe we were,” as he narrates his experience, he subconsciously inches to the edge of his seat. “Ah, Nyasaye!” he calls upon his God as his calloused fingers pat his lips rhythmically.
“They held my legs apart and cut me by force,” Okello tells us it was a forced circumcision.
Okello was among those who were ferried to Kisumu when tribal tensions in the Rift Valley reached fever pitch. By then, he had lost so much blood that it is a wonder that he survived. Two men who suffered similar experiences did not survive; they hemorrhaged to death. Upon reaching Kisumu, he was taken to hospital and would spend seven months nursing his injuries.
His wife of 12 years and five children were unharmed in the violence as they were already away in the safe haven of Rongo.
“Initially I couldn’t tell my wife what the Mungiki had done to me. I feared she would not understand.” He was hospitalised for so long that he couldn’t walk for three years. When he returned home, there would be no conjugal relations between him and his wife. She began to complain, loudly.
When she got to know of her husband’s condition, she slipped into a depression, then a coma, and died after several unsuccessful suicide attempts.
“She only stayed because of the kids,” he says as tears roll down from his cheeks.
From his poorly lit living room, Okello* pours out his anguish. His journey is a litany of nightmares and dark visions. He is disillusioned. He lost everything in Sotik: property worth Ksh100,000, a sewing machine – and his foreskin.
In the sweltering afternoon heat, Okello reaches for a jacket and drapes around his shoulders. It appears that he is shivering. Forcible circumcision is the new euphemism for what men endured at the hands of Mungiki – penile amputation.
“These two children are not his,” his young, new wife says, downcast. “He agreed that I get someone else to have children with. It is very disturbing for him that these children will never be his but they give him an identity as a father.”
Her husband cannot perform his conjugal roles. Discreetly, has tried every herb in the village to try and restore his former self, but nothing seems to work. The woman holds up her pinkie to give an indication of what is left of her husband’s manhood since it was amputated in the violence.
The couple agreed to this arrangement in order to enlarge his family and so that no one would notice his shortcomings as a man. Although Okello says that the forcible circumcision doesn’t bother him much as he takes as just circumcision, he is greatly troubled.
Relieving the ugly past ignites bouts of depression and self-pity, only momentarily interrupted by the consolation of a daily wage from the gold business, but Okello immediately sinks back into his usual self.
“Every day I know, she has to be intimate with another and I must look the other way; cry in darkness and embrace her in the morning,” Okello says as his eyes well up with tears. He shakes his head, pats his lips and calls out Nyasaye! Before continuing. “Every day I die another death, I die in my heart because the duty God gave me I can no longer perform. The children called by my name, belong to another”.
He says he has no strength to do anything. Everyday his psychological strength is tested.
“Mwanaume mwenye hata hana fimbo ya kuchunga boma.” (A man who has no weapon with which to guard the homestead.)
“I have accepted it,” he says with a tired shrug. But the psychological pain papers all over his face and body. Okello’s un-manning made his wife very angry.
Few of the men who grapple with such distressing realities seek psycho social support. Like them, Okello fears being labelled weak or emotional. He says a man would rather die than admit he has a problem. But he quickly adds,
“If I could get someone who can encourage me or even drugs that can help me hold an erection that would be my dream come true.”
Okello’s situation is a dark secret only shared with his wife. Still, he is defiant and says that he feels no shame about what happened to him because he was not a willing participant.
“It was being forced. It was done in a gruesome manner. I don’t feel part of it.”
The incident instilled so much fear in him that he doesn’t travel anywhere. He cannot be comfortable anywhere other than in the vicinity of his home and his people.
“Gira ema nega … What I have is killing me … My vote is killing me. It is this vote that killed me as a man. Yes, this vote.”
*A pseudonym has been used to protect the subject’s privacy.
Credits: STAR/Joyce Wangui