African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.
The recent killings of two brothers—Benson Njiru Ndwiga, 22, and Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga, 19, who had been on their way back home from the first day of their new business selling pork in Kianjokoma, Embu County—has further emphasized to Kenyans that the police will use any reason to kill young people in this country.
Even the principal secretary of the State Department for Interior and Citizen Services, when questioned about the bludgeoning of these two young Kenyans by police batons—ostensibly in response to them violating the COVID-19-prompted 10 p.m.-4 a.m. curfew—said that the problem is not the police, but “us, who cannot obey basic things like being home at 10 pm.”
But is it really us?
A recent exhibition, As We Lose Our Fear, hosted by members of the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network at the Circle Art Agency in Nairobi, used photos of family members of victims of police killings to viscerally and visually point to where the problem lies.
It is not with the network. It is not with (most of) us.
In this collection of sixteen black-and-white photos accompanied by a report, each piece represents a close family member—mother, wife, father, brother—whose kin was shot, often by multiple bullets, at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., 7 p.m., as they ate, built water tanks, came home from fetching water, or even as they took their little wages to their families.
Composed mainly of mothers who have lost their sons to extrajudicial executions, as well as widows whose husbands were killed by police, the network was formed in late 2017 at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC); it now has more than 50 members. As an urgent gendered front to stop extrajudicial killings and demand justice, this association builds on the extensive work of grassroots activists across the country to highlight police executions and disappearances. It also responds to documentation by MSJC in 2017 that detailed roughly 803 killings of Kenyans by the police between 2013 and 2015.
While the exhibition was located in an upper-middle-class area far from where the victims of police killings died or where their families live, this distance is intentional; it is part of a “soft power” strategy designed by the network to cross and blur the divided geographies of Nairobi. Here, the goal is to use photos, exhibited in fancy spaces, to imprint the reality of police executions in mouths and areas where it often does not appear. Spaces with genealogies that contain what Fanon referred to as the “colonist’s sector . . . built to last, all stone and steel.” Sections of the city, in other words, with light and paved roads, food, bread, and, often, justice.
As one of the organizers expressed, “this year we are in Lavington—next year, Runda, Muthaiga.” These are ambassadorial neighborhoods in Nairobi targeted because they are a far cry, spatially and socially, from where police gunspeak is most pronounced.
These geographies are chosen so that when Runda residents see a picture of Mama Nura, they will be forced to grapple with the fact that her 17-year-old son was killed on his knees, early in the morning in a goat abattoir where he worked, less than ten kilometers from where they stand. And they will hear that the same killer cops who executed her 17-year-old son have made it hard for her to live in her home as the trial to charge these police officers continues.
On seeing the picture of Wambui, the network wants you to read that her husband, 22-year-old Maina, was killed by notorious killer cop Ahmed Rashid when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Two months later, this same cop executed two young men in broad daylight on a public street, and a year later killed a witness to his execution of Maina. Despite the many killings attributed to him, Rashid has never been charged or dismissed from the police force, and he continues to terrorize Wambui and her community.
These are just two experiences amid thousands captured within and beyond the 16 photos of the exhibition. And beyond the statistics, beyond the normalized descriptions of their kin as thugs and criminals, the network uses the exhibition as just one way for us to confront not only their and their children’s humanity and pain, but also their movement from victims to community defenders.
Animated by—and named after—the mantra, “when we lose our fear they lose their power,” As We Lose Our Fear guides viewers to register the renunciation of terror in Kayole, Mathare, Embu. It illustrates the retirement from the shadows of the many mothers, wives, brothers, uncles, and sisters who had been suspended in fear, unable and unknowing how to demand justice for their families.
Before you know it, say the faces in the photos, the network will be coming to imprint their realities—to demand your attention—in Lavington, Runda, Muthaiga, and beyond.
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