Two years ago, an elderly Kenyan woman, back home from a visit to her children and grandchildren living in a European country, told eager relatives and friends her impressions of that first-time visit.
I was curious to hear what she would say because, being neither an academic, politician nor businessperson, she would see things through a prism not clouded by ideology.
She echoed the usual impressions of first-time visitors to Europe: The order and cleanliness of towns; the loneliness of old people sitting in parks; the lack of a sense of community. She was impressed by the quality of public services and amenities, and the efficiency of public transport.
But what had impressed her most was that the doors and windows of the houses did not have layers of burglar bars. She paused a little and glanced at the heavily fortified doors and windows of her house. Then she said of her nights in Europe: “I felt freedom from fear.”
I was reminded of those words a few days ago when I listened to a peasant woman from the killing fields of Matungu in western Kenya talking to a TV reporter. “When night approaches,” she said sadly, “we fear being killed or raped.”
The villagers around her voiced the same dread of night-time. At night in a slum in neighbouring Kisumu, gangs of rapists are on the prowl, preying on women, including grandmothers and babies.
Night-time in Kenya has always been a time of great terror. In Limuru where I grew up, we would be woken up by wailing from neighbouring homesteads. In the morning, villagers took stock of the terrible losses of limb or life or material. In outlying villages, stories of brutal killings and rapes would be whispered in marketplaces and village tea shops.
My short story, The Devil’s Dance, is a fictional remembrance of those nights of terror. “In our land,” the first person narrator in the story laments, “the moon and stars had become harbingers of death.”
What is now new is that night-time terror is ubiquitous in the country, and the acts of criminality, as Matungu and the Kisumu slum show, are more barbaric and senseless.
In Kerio Valley, being a resident is akin to being on death row. Bandits with a licence to pillage and kill roam the region.
In Samburu and Turkana, night brings a harvest of death. In Mombasa and Kilifi and other parts of the coastal region, criminal gangs are abroad during the day and night, leaving death and maiming in their wake.
Criminal gangs in Nairobi slums have turned life for residents and others from neighbouring estates into a nightmare. Even in the more affluent estates in towns across the country, residents live behind ever increasing layers of security. Across the country, femicide, child kidnapping for ransom (last week, a child was killed after ransom demands were not met), carjacking, contract killings, etc., have increased exponentially.
The police are underfunded and underpaid. They are also overstretched, because a huge portion of their number guards the homes of politicians and state officials. As revelations in the ongoing investigations into the gold scam prove, police also guard compounds where criminal syndicates operate.
Compounding the problem, policemen, politicians and government officials are now often part of the criminal syndicates. These officials offer protection in return for part of the proceeds of crime. Lawyers and corrupt judges make sure that gangsters, counterfeiters, corruption kingpins, drug lords and fraudsters never face justice.
Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia and other countries in Latin America are various stages of state capture by drug cartels. In these “narco-states,” judges, politicians and policemen are in the pay of the cartels. Alternatively, the politicians, police chiefs and state officials are themselves the cartels. The underworld, where the currency is money, drugs, sex and death, is now an integral part of the state.
Citizens of Honduras and the other narco-states have nowhere to run to, except north to the USA and Canada. These states got that way gradually. Now, the situation is irreversible. Are we getting there?
In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, thousands of Africans fled political violence unleashed by dictatorial regimes. For instance, a third of the Guinean population fled Sekou Toure’s hellhole. In the 1990s, thousands of Africans fled, and are fleeing, conditions of extreme poverty. The next exodus from Africa will be migrants fleeing criminal violence in countries where criminal gangs have become part of the state. Europe, brace yourself!
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.