Found: the boy caught in Kenya’s bloody hell

UPDATE: 28 February 2008.

If after you have read this and you feel compelled to help please go to VUMA Kenya where you will be able to leave a donation for Jeremiah Mungai and his baby Brian. Joseph Karoki and Lilian Muthoni were able to trace Jeremiah and I am pleased to say that so far money has been raised to help Jeremiah with the mortuary, post-mortem and funeral costs. However, donations to help with the care of Brian will be most appreciated at this time.

A reporter for the Guardian traced the toddler who was photographed screaming as his mother lay on the floor of their home, murdered. Tracy McVeigh discovers that the culprits responsible for killing her were police officers who moments before had ordered all the women and children in the Komokomo slum of Naivasha to go indoors before they sprayed their homes with bullets! This was a cold-blooded and calculated murder of innocent women and children by Kenya’s uniformed police.

The woman was called Grace Mungai. She was a Luhya who had married a Kikuyu named Jeremiah and they had a baby who they named Brian. The officer who shot Grace Mungai was also Luhya. She was killed by a single bullet to the head.

This report exposes so many wrongs – the police official who laughs heartlessly on hearing about Grace’s death being caused by a bullet, the bribes that must pass hands, the financial poverty that prevents the aggrieved from seeking justice, all these things stick in the throat.

It is heartbreaking to think that the policeman who caused the death of baby Brian’s mother might never be punished for this crime.

‘My wife was dead on the ground and the two officers came and looked at the body. Then they went and picked up their bullet cartridges all around. They told everyone to leave the house but we didn’t want to leave my wife’s body there, so we refused.’ The officer told his sister-in-law to shut up the four screaming children and then muttered an apology. ‘The Swahili word he used was not a sincere version of apology, it was the word for sorry you use when you burn a pot.’


Baby Brian with his father Jeremiah Mungai

There are no photographs of Grace Mungai in life. A slightly built, shy 19-year-old, she wasn’t wealthy or particularly successful, but everyone says she was happy and doted on her 15-month-old first-born baby, Brian.

For the past four months she had lived in a rented room in the Komokomo slum in Naivasha, an hour’s drive out of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Made of corrugated sheeting and oil drum bases battered on to a wooden frame, the house is directly across from some cooking stove makers who clang and hammer all day. But it was her own four walls, with a lock on the door, a dirt floor but a proper wooden bed, two chairs, a few scraps of white nylon lace to spruce them up, and magazine pictures stuck up.

Her husband adored her. True, he had another wife elsewhere in Naivasha, but he was a kind man; he had just bought her some pretty sandals. She had plans for the future. She was of the Luyha tribe, and her husband Jeremiah was a Kikuyu – in an ethnically diverse Kenya neither gave it a second thought.

She was by all accounts pretty. But in death her face is disfigured and swollen with none of the quiet dignity her name suggests. The photograph of her final moments, shot behind the ear and lying in a bloody sprawl in front of her screaming baby, made the pages of newspapers she had never heard of. Even the photographer did not know her name. ‘A woman lies dead during ethnic clashes in Kenya’ was how Reuters photographer George Phicipas captioned his shot .

It took some time to discover Grace’s identity – and what became of Grace and Jeremiah’s son, Brian Shfutu Mungai. Her body – labelled number 33 – was among 36 of 45 victims of the violence whose corpses are still in white zip-up bags piled four high on the blood-puddled concrete floor of the Naivasha hospital mortuary. It was her skirt that first identified her as the woman in Phicipas’ photo. Though just one of more than 1,000 people who have died since 27 December when the Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki claimed victory in a rigged election, opening long-dormant tribal divides in the teeming towns of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Grace’s death, and Jeremiah’s pain, are especially symbolic.

Even as African and UN mediators this weekend suggested that the deadlock in the political crisis had been breached with Kibaki meeting opposition ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) leader Raila Odinga for face-to-face talks on Friday, it is too late for Grace, just as it is already too late for the 300,000 Kenyans directly affected by the bloodletting. It’s too late to return to their homes, or to reclaim burnt houses and businesses.Tens of thousands have already fled and more are still on the move back to ‘ancestral’ lands – outlying places many will never even have visited, in an ethnic shift that will have dramatic consequences that cannot be undone by a handshake between politicians.

The makeshift refugee camps dotted all over Nairobi’s outskirts and up into the Rift Valley are emptying. The population of one camp of Luo people from Naivasha which sprung up around the town’s police station has in the past five days been reduced from 7,000 people to about 600 as families opt to abandon 20 or 25 years of life here, chased off to far-flung regions only their grandparents knew. How these desperate people will fend for themselves in areas which are unprepared for such an influx and far poorer than the fertile lands of the Rift Valley is unclear. What is certain is that while these often dazed refugees have left their land, homes and possessions behind, they carry their anger and bitterness with them.

Grace Mungai was killed on 28 January, not by a gang with a thirst for tribal retribution, but by a single bullet fired deliberately into her home by an officer supposed to be protecting innocent people like her from Kikuyu rioters who were moving through Naivasha’s six slum districts. He was even on the same tribal side as her – although not of her Kikuyu husband. ‘Perhaps it was mistaken identity,’ says Jeremiah. ‘Perhaps they wanted me.’

Jeremiah had gone for a stroll at the time. Grace, his sister-in-law – also called Grace – her three daughters and baby Brian were inside eating when two uniformed men came along the street in the early evening, shouting for people – it was mostly women and children who were around – to get inside. Then they started spraying the area with bursts from their AK47 assault guns.

‘I heard the screams and came running,’ said Jeremiah. ‘My wife was dead on the ground and the two officers came and looked at the body. Then they went and picked up their bullet cartridges all around. They told everyone to leave the house but we didn’t want to leave my wife’s body there, so we refused.’ The officer told his sister-in-law to shut up the four screaming children and then muttered an apology. ‘The Swahili word he used was not a sincere version of apology, it was the word for sorry you use when you burn a pot,’ said Jeremiah, who is too confused and hurt by this explosion of hate between fellow Kenyans to begin to contemplate forgiveness.

The hut is empty now, the bloodstain still visible on the floor. Jeremiah has taken Brian and his extended family and moved them all out to his mother’s smallholding, some 30km from Naivasha. It is, ironically, the very same type of small farm that the Kikuyu rioters were fighting to protect from people of other tribes who, short of work in the towns, are increasingly buying into the Rift Valley’s smallholdings in an effort to make a living. It was Odinga’s pre-election promises to share out such scarce resources among non-Kikuyu tribes that inspired so many impoverished people to vote for him, and left so many disenfranchised when their votes counted for nothing as Kibaki seized a second term.

Jeremiah hopes his family may have found some refuge. ‘They should be safer out there, there is no security in the town for anyone, for any tribe. I am Kikuyu, I am supposed to be the aggressor, but my wife is dead,’ he said. His former neighbours in Komokomo nod in agreement. One man shows a handful of cartridges he picked up from another spot in the County Council District slum. He and more than six unrelated witnesses we spoke to say that on the morning of the day Grace was shot 16 young Kikuyu men had been rounded up. They were taken out to a piece of wasteland, ordered to lie down and shot in the back by Naivasha prison guards drafted in to help overstretched police officers.

A 24-year-old survivor showed The Observer the bullet wound in his chest. The family of 22-year-old accountancy student Patrick Miriha produced a post-mortem certificate confirming he died in such a way. His father Robert, a retired schoolteacher, said: ‘My son was due to be in college on Monday, but on Tuesday we buried him. He was a good boy, not violent, scared of the violence.’

Leading the way to the waste ground, he pointed out the bloodstains in the dirt and said: ‘Seven boys died here and three later in the hospital. The rest are wounded except one Luo man in the group that the prison officers told to get up and walk away. If I had a gun, maybe we would go after these men, we know who they are. But only police and prison officers have guns. Our young men were simply trying to defend their sisters and mothers in their homes, they were standing outside their homes with just sticks in case the gangs came past.’

That was confirmed by the deputy police chief of the district, Grace Maiuashia, who said police at some point would investigate Jeremiah’s wife’s death, although she laughed when asked about the executions in County Council District. ‘If that is what you have been told, it is not true. There were no innocent people killed by gunshot. The rioters do not have guns, only primitive weapons, pangas or sticks. Only police and the prison officers who were assisting us had guns. People were unhappy about these prison officers, so maybe they make up these stories. We had only four or five people killed by gunshot in the commotion, but we are allowed to use our firearms if people are rioting. You can shoot one or two and the crowd will fall back, so it is a good way to control the situation,’ she said.

‘I know of this woman, Grace Mungai. Her husband says she was an innocent and has made a complaint and we sent police officers to take her body to the morgue, but until there is a post mortem we don’t know if she was shot. Maybe it occurred during the commotion.’

Maiuashia’s insistence on a post-mortem examination provides a get-out for any police investigation and an agony for Jeremiah. The hospital will only perform an autopsy if Jeremiah pays and will not release Grace’s body without one. He has been quoted 5,000 Kenyan shillings, about £40 -Jeremiah is a night watchman and does not have that kind of money. On Thursday, he had to give mortuary officials a bribe of 2,000 shillings to move her from the stacks of white bags in the hot storeroom into a space in one of the four refrigerated units. With 36 as yet unclaimed corpses here, relatives in a similar position to Jeremiah are coming in each day, and as money changes hands so bodies switch positions as everyone desperately tries to preserve the remains of their loved ones to buy time to raise cash for post mortems and funerals.

It’s a losing game. The authorities will give Jeremiah another week or so, and then his wife’s remains will be thrown into a communal grave, without any attempt to recover the government-issue bullet in her head – there are already five or so bodies in a not-so-deep hole that ensures the area smells as bad as the mortuary itself.

It’s likely that Jeremiah will just have to live with the injustice of Grace’s death, a young woman who never had a camera pointed at her when she was alive. In the midst of such turbulent times, the Kenyan police are unlikely to investigate a killing witnessed only by a handful of slum-dwellers.

The whole family think that Brian is too young to be affected by his mother’s murder in front of him, and he will now be brought up mostly by Jeremiah’s brother’s wife, who has three other daughters to support, in the cold, two-roomed shack on his elderly grandmother’s smallholding. Jeremiah will continue to work in Naivasha and travel out to see his son and work on the farm as often as he can.

‘She will love him,’ says Jeremiah of his sister-in-law. ‘But no one can love him like his late mother. She was proud, she would do anything for this boy, her first born, she named him, she spoilt him. Grace was beloved of me and my son.’

So Brian and the Mungai family now face an uncertain future – as does this deceptively beautiful, lush, green valley.


6 Responses to “Found: the boy caught in Kenya’s bloody hell”

  1. 1 kenyanobserver February 12, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    That child did not leave my mind ever since I saw that picture. I’m sure many people felt the same way. Thank you so much for following up on this story.

  2. 2 athenaeum February 13, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Like you I was haunted too by the image of Brian. If I could send Jeremiah the money for the post-mortem I would. Do you have any ideas how it could be done K.O?

  3. 3 Afromusing February 19, 2008 at 4:31 am

    hi, Joseph Karoki is organizing a fund for the little one, more information he will update it once plans are set.


  4. 4 Ethan February 20, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    My heart goes out to Brian, and all the other poor folk who are caught up in this foolish struggle. I wish people could ignore political differences, and exist peacefully together; or, at least the politicians should be doing the fighting between themselves, not slaughtering innocent civilians merely to take control.
    Control of what, I ask? Well, the country! What decent person could subject innocents to this brutality, in the name of “government?”

  1. 1 Operation Save Baby Brian « A Political Mugging in God’s Own Country Trackback on February 27, 2008 at 8:45 pm
  2. 2 More on Grace Mungai « A Political Mugging in God’s Own Country Trackback on March 5, 2008 at 10:03 pm

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