Death by curfew

On the evening of Friday, March 27th 2020, Yassin Hussein Moyo was on the balcony of his parents’ house with other children, some of them neighbours. They were curiously following the goings-on on the street below. Police officers were clearing vendors and other members of the public, enforcing the new curfew instituted to slow the spread of Covid-19.

For the children, it must have been quite a sight. The police chased men and women, brandishing whips and batons. They beat the living daylights out of those they caught. Then, as the story goes, stones were thrown. Perhaps someone had had enough of the indignity of being treated like trash. The policemen, right on cue, shot in the air to show who was boss. One of them forgot to aim up.

A bullet hit Yassin in the stomach. The glee of the other children must have evaporated instantly as they realised their companion was checking out of the world. They must have watched in horror as his blood flowed out onto the balcony and stained their feet. One of them must have started the cry that’s probably still rocking their young bodies. Yassin was buried the next day, wrapped in a white sheet. He was only 13 years old.

At 13, I was in class eight, kicking my classmates’ asses in exams, showing off my grasp of English to fawning girls, practising backflips at the school dumpsite with friends. The notion that most of my life lay ahead was slowly dawning on me. Those aspirational “when I grow up I want to be…” statements were beginning to sound serious. Of course, the idea that I would die someday was also there, but it was at the peripheries of my consciousness.

I have now lived 13 years and two months since class eight, which means the future of that cocky boy has been longer than his past. But if this long future has shown me anything, it has convinced me that I am one of the lucky ones. I was born exactly 72 days before the start of the Rwandan Genocide, which robbed half a million children of their futures. The future that I took for granted was never guaranteed. It was an accident of geography and time.

I do not imagine that Yassin’s life was like mine in all ways. For one, I have never been a big city kid, and Nairobi hasn’t lost its power to freak me out. But I do not doubt that Yassin had dreams. Dreams for his next 13 years and two months, at the very least. And who knows what he would have done with them if the bullet had just gone up. Or if it hadn’t been fired at all. But it was fired.

It was fired because we have a police force that has never served its stated purpose. It was fired because officers sworn to protect the people of Kenya routinely distinguish themselves more for their brutality against the same people than for their awareness of their calling. It was fired because our police force thinks of itself as our overlord, our master, our ruler, and not as our servants.

Yassin died at the altar of the state’s efforts to ostensibly take care of the public’s health. It is as if the officials who run the state forgot that the public is made up of individuals. Of old people like my grandfather who have spent their lives for the country. Of mature adults like my parents, whose daily toil keeps the roof up. Of young people like me, still wondering what’s ahead. Of kids like Yassin, whose turn to give a push has not yet come.

I know that to condemn the police force is to paint with a broad brush. For sure, many of us know one good policeman who takes his job seriously and does it with nobility. Heck, maybe you know two. But a public institution that routinely does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do is the definition of corruption. And our police force, like our state, was created to subdue people during the colonial era. It was never meant to serve the people.

Despite all the good policemen we know, we would all run out of fingers if we started counting the incidents of police brutality we are familiar with. In illustrating this situation, however, I cannot think of a more poignant example than that of Baby Pendo. On the night of 15th August 2017, a policeman bashed the head of the six-month-old girl with a club, while she slept in her mother’s arms in their house in Nyalenda, Kisumu. She never woke up.

Her death was absolutely pointless. And that made it all the sadder. Her only mistake was to be a baby in a community that police had marked out as particularly difficult, because her neighbours weren’t happy with the declaration that Uhuru Kenyatta had won the presidential election. So the policemen tossed tear gas into her house, broke down the door, and beat up everyone they could. And they killed Baby Pendo.

The same Uhuru, whose new term came at the cost of the baby’s life, to say nothing of the many other people who were dispatched by the police because they stood in the way, offered an apology for the death of Yassin the day after he was killed. But I found his apology hard to believe. It was too qualified to count.

He couldn’t even muster the civility to call the sin by its name. After saying “I want to apologise to all Kenyans for… some excesses that were conducted,” he went on to sing the praises of unity, declaring “… I want to assure you that if we work together, if we all understand that this problem needs all of us, and if we pull in the same direction, we will overcome.”

When you apologise for the killing of a child by one of your agents, the only other thing you should do is to offer some form of reparation. You ought to say what you will do to make sure every other child who should have used the school tablets you promised, which never materialised, can at least have the chance to complete his education and buy himself a proper tablet. If that is too hard, then you should say nothing at all, because nothing is better than insensitive, entitled words in moments like this.

But you don’t, for the all that is decent under the sun, try to lecture us on how we should be united. Such a call to arms rings hollow. It is the gloating of an oppressor, the cackling of a master taunting his slaves about the amount of cotton they can pick if they pull in the same direction. Unity means nothing when our police have hurt and killed more people in the effort to save them from coronavirus than the disease itself. The police are the virus.

As some pundits like to say, our government and elites treat us as the children of lesser gods. We cannot play this game much longer. Because if we do, we will be admitting that that’s what we are indeed. The time to demand more was yesterday.

Feature image: Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

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