Donatella Lorch Headshot

Law and Order: Special Kenya Unit

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Flickr: Gizmo Bunny
Flickr: Gizmo Bunny

The news was delivered in hushed tones: "Do you know who was killed last night?" I was chatting with friends at the supermarket. In Nairobi, crime is seasonal. With Christmas approaching, violent crime spikes. But this holiday season, the atmosphere is especially tense, as national elections scheduled for March may trigger major unrest. In 2008, after the last national elections, more that 1,300 Kenyans were killed and 350,000 displaced. All the elements are in place: political incitement, high unemployment, poverty, ethnic inequality and a corrupt and poorly equipped police.

At first shocked, then curious, I instinctively wanted to know more. In Nairobi, we talk incessantly about security -- armed home invasions, a neighbor whose guard dogs were poisoned, a shoot-out at somebody's front gate, a hold-up at an ATM machine, or an armed bank robbery in broad daylight. And the crimes in Nairobi's 40 slums accumulate, often unsolved. On his day off, Jeff, our night guard, was last seen alive mounting a motorcycle at 11 p.m. to go home. A week later, his wife identified his body in a morgue. He had been hacked to death and dumped naked into a ditch. No arrests have been made.

I have found myself analyzing car-jacker chutzpah: gangs attacking vehicles in neighborhoods abutting both the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy and the massive UN compound. A friend was car-jacked at midday in the middle of a traffic jam on Nairobi's central avenue. The thugs stole all his valuables and then, before (generously) giving him back his car, they ripped off his side mirrors -- a stone's throw from a major police station and as passengers in nearby cars watched.

The UN and most embassies send out security updates reminding employees to be vigilant, to vary travel routes and timings, drive cars with doors locked and windows closed, check whether you are being followed and of course be aware that terrorist attacks are not an "if" but a "when." I also receive live-time text messages notifying me of explosions, rioting, road blocks and striking protesters.

I have lived in Nairobi for almost four years and have adapted to the heightened need for security. Vigilance, though sometimes exhausting, becomes second nature. I love it here. It is a dream place to live and work, a country at the forefront of Africa's technological revolution, a land on the brink of massive change as it goes to polls in March in its most critical elections since independence. Daily existence is exciting, intense, fascinating. My work and travels have taken me across large swaths of Kenya, from its densely populated agricultural heartland and crowded cities to the pastoralist semi-arid lands. My husband and I dream of retiring here.

So why did the news of a murder leave me so troubled? As a journalist, I have covered dozens of wars and conflicts. My sister says that I have crocodile skin. Yet this shooting made me scared and angry. Crime is not a secret here and all my Kenyan friends and colleagues complain that their government is either unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Security companies are among the best businesses in town, largely because the government has not handled violent outbreaks promptly or professionally. From church groups to businesses and international agencies, everyone is making plans to prepare for violence in the next months.

Security measures are second nature at my house and in my car. My 7-year-old is the first to remind us to lock the car doors. He wages Lego battles against Al-Shabaab. He knows the difference between an armored or a lightly armored vehicle. He knows how to push the large bolts in the steel-reinforced doors that separate our bedrooms from the rest of the house at night. He jokes that police just want "kitu kidogo" (Kiswahili for bribes) when they stop you. He is also keen to tell visitors (in Kikuyu-accented English) that Kenya is the most beautiful country he has seen (pointing out that he has been to 18 countries) and that he wants to live here for the rest of his life. Recently, when a teller at the National Museum refused to give him discounted resident rates for his ticket, believing that a blond kid must be a tourist, he was so indignant that he belted out the Kenyan national anthem in Kiswahili. The Kenyans on line cheered him on and he got his discounted ticket.

I didn't know the man who was shot and killed. He and his wife were driving home after a late gathering and were followed soon after leaving the reception. The carjackers shot him at their house gate. He died before his wife made it to the hospital. Nairobi has over three million people, but in many ways it is a small town. There is always a connection that can be made. The victim was a cousin of one of my son's friends at school.

I was sad for the family. Driving at night in Nairobi is like running the gauntlet. In Nairobi's suburbs, police security is limited. Police are often accused of corruption, but they are also poorly paid, with no life or health insurance. They don't have enough vehicles and often hitchhike to work and crime scenes. Recently, large scale inter-tribal violence in the north left 42 policemen dead and their families destitute. The newest ingredient in this violence recipe is Al-Shabaab. Frequent grenade attacks this year have unsettled Nairobi residents. This month, terrorists expanded their targets by blowing up a commuter bus in Nairobi and killing more than 10 Kenyans. I heard the blast from my bedroom on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

At the end of the day, the political elite are unlikely to address the growing instability here effectively anytime soon. But Kenyans have a golden opportunity to vote for a better future in March, and to tell the many candidates who enjoy massive police protection at their daily rallies that security is what they need and want, and not just for their wealthy politicians.