Yesterday afternoon Barbara and I were surprised to find out that one of the young people we have been working with, Shakur, was arrested Sunday evening. We were especially surprised because we had tea with him at one of our student’s home just a few hours before his arrest.
Apparently Shakur was walking with some other guys around dusk to visit a friend in another slum. Along the way they were stopped by the police, which is not uncommon. Three of them, including Shakur, were arrested. Why those three and not the others? Shakur’s brother, who was with him at the time, claims that Shakur was singled out because his hair was unkept. The police later charged him with being drunk, although he was not. Again, this is very typical; young men are often arrested, for no real reason, and later charged with being intoxicated. They have no way to prove their innocence in these cases.
We found this out Monday afternoon, and both Barbara and I were ready storm the jail with video cameras to get Shakur and his friends out. We have heard that when young people get arrested here it can take months for the case to make it to court, and in the meantime they are stuck in jail. Shakur ended up being relatively lucky. He was actually formally charged on Monday and was fined 500 Kenyan shillings (about $6.67) or a day of service in the court. He did not have to spend months in prison waiting for a trial and we did not have to bust him out. Nevertheless, $6.67 is an enormous amount of money for someone like Shakur who can only work informally collecting garbage or washing cars.
Now, maybe if Shakur had had a bit of money on him when he was arrested, he would have been spared the trouble. At this point we have heard countless stories about people being harassed by the police for a bribe. And these young people living in the slums are easy targets because they do not know their rights and have no grounds to challenge the police. One of our students, Mwiti, used to run a small stall selling vegetables in Mathare until the police tore it down one day. The police demanded payment because he didn’t have the proper paperwork, but because he had no money to give them they destroyed his only means of supporting himself. You can check out his blog here.
Transparency International recently published that the Kenyan Police are the most corrupt institution in Eastern Africa. (link to report). I am no longer shocked when I see police officers beating matatu drivers with their batons. In fact, just the other day Barbara and I were in a matatu when a police officer stuck his baton through the window to jab the driver in the back of the head. Why did the police officer do this? Not sure. We may have been picking up passengers in an illegal pick up zone. But still, was the violence really necessary?
Nairobi is well know for the for its high crime rates and I question how much the police force has done to help the situation. Does harassing and incarcerating young men who were innocently walking down the street reduce the number of carjackings? Does shutting down vegetable stalls or car washes operated by young people in the slums do anything but encourage young people to turn to crime since they cannot make a living through peaceful means? Does beating matatu drivers do anything but make people distrust the police even more than they already do?
On Sunday Shakur’s friends told us a beautiful story about how the young people in their community had prevented the post-election violence from reaching their community. Unlike many slums in the area, different tribal groups did not fight each other in Mitumba; however, because of their proximity to Kibera, they were worried about other people coming in and setting fires. They recognized that no one else was going to protect them. So the young people in Mitumba got together and stayed up all night for a week keeping guard and preventing strangers from coming in. They guarded their community the way we would expect the police to at home. And it is these same young people who are being thrown in jail just for walking down the street. This makes no sense at all.
Posted By Alixa Sharkey
Posted Aug 4th, 2009