«As We Lose Our Fear”: Fighting state violence in Mathare, Kenya

NHRF’s only grantee in Kenya, Mathare Social Justice Centre, is a community-led organisation that works to fight state violence and extrajudicial killings in Mathare, Kenya.

Mathare is a group of slums in Nairobi, Kenya, housing approximately 250 000 inhabitants living in informal settlements. The slums have for decades been affected by high-scale violence and police brutality. The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) came together in late 2014 through a group of young members of the Mathare community to improve the safety and security of Mathare residents and pursue justice for the widespread human rights violations occurring within the community. MSJC has taken the lead in initiating strong, impactful social justice campaigns and programs within the community, and is making advances in bringing awareness to the community on how to access justice and in challenging the business-as-usual approach by authorities and politicians when addressing human rights violations. They have built a network of human rights defenders to monitor and document violations within the community, and of mothers of the victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings who have created a community of solidarity, support, and barrier-breaking for justice and to end such practices. MSJC is rooted in the community to create substantive change for the security and well-being of all community members.

“We work in all wards of Mathare to fulfil our core mandates: Social justice advocacy and the documentation of human rights violations. These objectives are captured in both our vision and mission which are: Our Vision: To have a Mathare free of human rights violations” From MSJC’s website

There are many extrajudicial killings in Kenya committed by the police, who often act with impunity. Between April 2018 and June 2021, MSJC identified 99 people who were killed by the police in Mathare and the area around, but there are likely dozens of other killings that remain undocumented.

"AS WE LOSE OUR FEAR"

A photography exhibition on police brutality

In July 2021, MSJC organized their first photography exhibition, named “As We Lose Our Fear”. The exhibition shows portraits of survivors of police brutality, and accounts from family members of victims of extrajudicial killings by the police in Mathare.

“The exhibition consists of photographic portraits and a book containing interviews with people who have been victims of police brutality and have had family members killed by Kenyan police officers. In some of the portraits the subjects hold up a piece of paper with the name of the loved one who was killed by police.” – MSJC

Read more about the exhibition here, and see some excepts from the interviews below:

Esther Wambui, mother of Martin Ndungu

"One day in 2014, Esther was at home preparing to cook some food for her son who was staying in Joyline in Dandora. Her son was a matatu [bus] conductor, and his wife used to wash clothes in Komarock for a living. And since his wife woke up very early to go wash clothes, she prepared breakfast to take to his house. As she was preparing herself to cook, a Kamande, a friend of Martin, went to her house and told her that Martin had been arrested by a certain policeman: Martin had left the house with his child, and he went to a restaurant close by to buy tea for his son, this is where he was arrested. Esther and Kamande then went immediately to where Martin had been arrested, but they did not find him. But some witness, who had tried to catch up with the police vehicle that had taken Martin, said that they knew the police officer who had arrested him. When he was arrested, he left his child with the owner of the small restaurant, and Esther was given the child when she got there.

Esther was advised to go to Buruburu police station after searching at Kinyago police station and not finding him there. They initially told her that he was released, while another officer told her: "mum you are late." She did not know what that meant at the time. Instead of helping her they took her around in circles: when she went back with support, they told her Martin had had an epileptic attack and so he was taken to Mama Lucy hospital, but he had never had epilepsy. When she went to check at Mama Lucy hospital, she learned he was never checked in. When she went back to tell the OCS that he was not at the hospital, he beat her. And when she asked for the documentation to report him as a missing person, she was chased away from the police station. Her and her family then started visiting mortuaries, as far away as Naivasha and Narok [neighbouring countries] but he has never been found seven year later."

Francisca Monthe, mother of Paul Munyoki

Paul was 19 years old when he was taken by the police and shot in broad daylight. Franscica Monthe was very ill that day, and was waiting for her son to return with medications. When he did not return, she went to the chemist herself. "On the way to the chemist, I noticed several people on the road staring at me with sorrowful eyes. I got curious and asked one woman what was wrong, and her response was: “Mama Paul sorry for your son’s death. The police have murdered him the way they always do but one day we shall overcome.”

Halima Diramo Malicha, mother of Nura Malicha

"Nura Malicha was 17 years old at the time he was executed by the police. (...) Before his death, Nura had complained to his mother that the police had been threatening to execute him since they claimed he had a girlfriend that one of the officers fell in love with, yet he wasn’t willing to stop seeing this girl. MSJC and the Network helped Mama Nura get a lawyer for her son’s case – they are like her family now. The case has been in the courts over the last two years – the only case MSJC has documented that has been forwarded to the courts by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP). We await judgment in early 2021."

Sarah Wangari, mother of Alex

Sarah's son Alex was killed by the police in Mathare. One day when she was going to the shop to buy milk, she saw two men lying dead on the ground, and was told by the police officers to leave the scene. Sarah left, feeling worried, as one of the dead men wore a similar jacket to the son. "'The next morning, I went to City Mortuary to ask about them, and I was shown my son’s body: he had ten bullets - some in his chest, and others in the hands and legs. I asked the attendants what his charges were, and he told me that he was accused of being one of the most wanted thieves in Mathare, and that he had a small gun. I was so shocked that my son could be accused of things that he had never done.' Sarah is part of the Network, and is very grateful that ever since she lost her son, MSJC has been with her and supported her, and it is also through the network that she was able to get psychosocial support."

Monica Nduku, grandmother of Simon

Monica's grandson Simon was playing with a friend when he was hit by a stray bullet: "'The lady who left with Simon said that she heard a gunshot and unfortunately saw that a bullet had hit Simon who fell into the river. The gun was fired by a certain policeman whom they didn’t know. The case was reported to the Pangani police station, but they were not given an OB number.' Ever since she joined the Network, it has been of help to her. She has been trained on security measures, and through the trainings, at least, she gets foods that boosts her when things are tough."

Read more stories and see more portraits in this book, which was published along with the exhibition.

All photos by: Ed Ram/Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC)

Some of MSJC's key results

Through the support from the NHRF, the MSJC has grown its network from 30 to more than 70 women human rights defenders from across Nairobi.

Together, and supported by this project, the defenders have come together often to offer court solidarity to each other, to learn and support each other during other life crises, and this has strengthened their network significantly over the past 12 months of the project. In addition, they have undergone security training, which has made them able to amplify the protection of individuals and community. Read more about the NHRF-supported report detailing the experiences of the members of their network here.