Hakuna Matata? The Smell of Crime when carrying a Killer Rungu

Early this morning, shaken awake by noise from downstairs bringing me back from the Land of Nod where sweet dreams had not been forthcoming, I went downstairs with trepidation; as I had the last two mornings at strange strange hours. Why?

We live on the present outskirts of Nairobi, coffee plantation trying to revive next door as prices of decent beans rise to feed those rushing along platform 12 at Waterloo Station. Views good in some directions; but blighted by the unhindered urbanisation brought by opportunity and desperation in other directions. It is almost certainly from these settlements where four of my cast came to break into our home two nights ago. I forgot all security protocols, the security system had not activated and I came face to face with three of thugs in their ski masks and with the tools of thievery in Kenya. This is a story of a person who has been at the wrong of guns and gone through some strange situations in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola and on. Fragile states aplenty, but, somehow, this set of incidents is unnerving having read this just the day before – https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/terrorism-is-on-the-rise-but-there-s-a-bigger-threat-we-re-not-talking-about/

Let us digress and meet The Cast

Four men, three I came face to ski mask with and carrying heavy duty bolt cutters, chisels and their own weapons; luckily for me – no gun to hand; tools for intimidation with nothing to lose everything to gain. The fourth man? Inside our home, mud plastered on his boots that he layered across the floor, the carpet and curtains. In need of a bar of soap as the pungent smell of desperation and not caring hangs with me still now.

Me, an older man, still keeping as fit as Madonna and trying to be as outrageous only in terms of challenging all of us to think differently and have the spirit of the Millennials in shaking things (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/how-millennials-will-save-us-from-our-broken-economic-system/)

My wife, I never knew she could scream so loud and press buttons on phones so fast – Now we know why there are panic buttons

My trusted rungu. It has been the instrument of death when I killed an intruder three years ago.

Back in 2001, my rungu was made for me in a little village on the road between Berbera and Burao, Somaliland (https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Burao http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/11/economist-explains). My friend and colleague had it made for me after a previous set of incidents in Kenya. As we returned from Burao, a town riven through with violence in previous times, he said to me, ‘You need a heavy stick to keep beside the bed in Nairobi’.

Where we previously lived while I worked in Somalia, Somaliland, we had ‘incidents’. It is like the frog being boiled, you do not notice how ‘incidents’ escalate. A month after we left that house, the whole compound of a dozen plus houses was taken over by an armed gang. A baby had a gun put in his mouth and the mother threatened with killing the child if she did not give the thieves every last valuable in the house. The traumatising nature of the event must live on with mother and child and all the other people finding themselves at the wrong end of a gun.

This Tuesday morning, behind me, already in the house but possibly as surprised as me in finding himself with this guy wielding a heavy stick called a rungu in Swahili and a few other languages in East Africa. This morning, I knew I did not have the edge, no swinging the rungu, I left and returned to lock the internal security gate at the top of the stairs and wait for the security company to arrive. This gave the thieves 5 minutes minimum, ten minutes maximum to pick what they could get out of the 25centimetre square they had cut through security grills on a window. They did just this going with my trusted old computer and a new IPad, in such a hurry they took no chargers or other accessories. Leaving me only mud all over the living room and that pungent smell of old unwashed clothes mixed with the adrenalin of being on the run, of being outside the law and in the wrong place.

Supporting Cast

My neighbours – worked as fast as any security company in ensuring response happened. Knew my family would be stressed and supported us all. The sense of community is there.

The police. The officers at the station just rising at 7 as we arrived to report the crime. Tired, perhaps despondent as they write the report knowing they are impotent. I felt sorry and ashamed looking at the Land Rover with its two flat tyres. It would not appear as the rescue vehicle in this story.

A detective arrived at the house, phlegmatic and extremely pragmatic; more than a little shocking in saying, off the record, what I knew to be the reality of things when inequity means needs must drive reactions to those who do not want to have some order.

‘Crook, see across there’ pointing across to the informal settlement

‘We don’t go there. Do not rely on us. We can only respond after things happen. We do not have the resources to take those people on’

‘It is for you, as a community, to make sure you are secure’

‘What do we do?’ ‘We can take actions after if we know who is a criminal’

I waited. He looked around and said:

‘We choma them’

Choma in Swahili is roast, burn. Lynching. I have seen, smelt, necklacing when I worked with the informal sector and they saw little or no engagement from the state apparatus so they did what they thought was the needful to protect their livelihoods from those who felt no compunction to have social order. Times were different then; but it seems the faith in judicial process remains fractured if not broken. Whether this time the police officer spoke with bravado or real action is not for me to determine. However, I do know a gentleman, known for over a decade, was murdered in this particular informal settlement the detective was pointing to. Killed, shot dead, stone dead, in some botched robbery. Reaction by his community? Swift justice, no bothering the busy state apparatus or the under resourced officers feeling a sense of duty but unable to truly make a difference.

So we come to the smell. This morning, when the cats knocked over a book-end (given to me as a thank you for my service in Somalia in a previous job), I went down. The security system is working fully and functional so the only reticence in my decent was from the memory of Tuesday morning. I opened the living room door. Then it hit me. The pungent smell of desperation and lack of care for other people. The smell still there despite the copious efforts to clean and remove all vestiges of our entanglement with men driven by different motivations from the vast, vast majority of us.

I have worked in places where the majority of people will never tread. I remember the smells of villages in Bakool, southern Somalia, where women and children had awful scabies because there was no water let alone soap. Yes, I saw desperation and witnessed a riot as women went mob crazy taking second hand clothes we were trying to distribute. They had not changed clothes for months, literally. But it was something we tackled together and when I returned a month later, I was welcomed and people apologised for the manner of behaving – driven by desperation, despondency, by people forgotten by the rest of us. We did not forget them and as we respected them, then people responded.

I have smelled burning flesh as retribution and ‘swift justice’ being undertaken. It is gruesome but understandable when you place yourself in situ and feel the sense of people having lost any faith in all the grandness of state process. Human Rights? Yes, of course we must continue to build toward this but ideals do not place food on the table and water in the cup – you, no matter how rich, comfortable and principled, are dead in eight, 8, days without the cup of water.

We are cleaning again, polishing floors and making the necessary improvements to ensure air quality as the only ‘guests’ will be those good neighbours and friends who have supported us and with whom we go forward positively.

I think back to many of the times and a few of the places I have been. Poignant just now, the Rwanda genocide commemorations — acts of atrocious brutality carried out in the same mindset as these violent thugs. Somalia? I doubt these thugs will be volunteering for the Kenya Defence Force. 

My rungu? Still there, next to the bed waiting for the tale to be told of when he was used in anger. Better than a cricket or baseball bat, but no rival to a gun and an uncaring conscience of thugs living in violence.