1,133 is not just a number


“If you were lucky, they cut off your penis”: Otieno’s story

5 August 2017 - 09:08

Ten years since the chaos that erupted after the 2007 elections, Kenya goes to the polls again on Tuesday, August 8. Over the years there have been attempts, some even official, to erase the memory of the 2007/08 post-election violence from public consciousness. Yet, each time reality has found a way to impose itself. Victims still cry for justice and many Kenyans, scared by the possibility of a recurrence of violence, are fleeing towns and cities for their rural homes.

The shadow of what happened in 2007/8 looms large over the August 8, 2017, elections. Repetition is only possible if Kenyans forget from where they have come. Never Again, just as it did in its former iteration as The Hague Trials Kenya, continues to keep the tragic events of 2007 at the fore lobe of public discourse. This piece is part of a multi-installment series that Never Again is rolling out to peel the veil of secrecy from some of the cruellest crimes committed against men in the post-election violence in Kenya, and the effects they continue to live with today.


Show us … or we will kill you!

Otieno* shrugged off the demand as a bad joke. How could he show fellow men his private parts?

But he also didn’t want to die. He fidgeted briefly with the zip of his trousers, weighing the options before him. They were five; he was alone when they came for him at his carpentry workshop in Nakuru town.

Now, one of the five hooded men broke off from the motley group, gingerly stepped forward and tore down his trousers. Then he glanced back over his shoulder at the others, past the evening light glinting off their sharpened machetes, motioning them to step forward and see.
“Giki ni kihii,”a transfixed youth sealed what everyone had observed with the Kikuyu words for a man who was not circumcised.

They dragged him out of his shop and led him to a location he had never visited before as dusk began to set in. All the while, the gang kept asking him if he was Luo. When he didn’t answer, they beat him with clubs and machetes.

Otieno chokes on his words: “What the Mungiki did to us was very dehumanising.”

He looks down at the earthen floor of his two-roomed house in Miwani, Muhoroni, 150 kilometres from the site of his horrifying nightmare, and shakes his head. When he looks up, his eyes are red and tears are welling in them. Dark veins crease the sides of his face.

His slight physique and lean frame disguises his 52 years by two decades. His frail frame hangs inside his clothes. Then he looks down again and begins to speak.

Obscenities were being hurled at him as he was dragged to a place he did not know: “You uncircumcised idiots! We are going to show you what it means to be men.” Others remarked, “We cannot allow an uncircumcised small boy to lead this nation,” in reference to the presidential contender Raila Odinga who at the time was leading protests against what he termed a stolen victory at the election. In the run up to the December 2007 election, Raila’s circumcision had become a major campaign issue, especially among the Kikuyu who saw him as a child not fit to lead the country. In Kenya, most communities circumcise their boys at puberty as a rite of passage into adulthood but many Luo, save for a few, do not. Raila is a Luo, so it was assumed that he would not be circumcised.

Otieno remembers the men shouting, “If we don't kill you, we'll cut your private parts.” They soon made good of that threat. Every meter of ground they covered together, he could see bodies, most of them headless. The orgy of killings had become a permanent fixture of daily life in Naivasha as Mungiki tore down households in the search for Luos.

Anyone attempting to flee faced insurmountable hurdles, including a demand to show one’s identity card, which would have their legal name – a dead giveaway of one’s ethnicity in Kenya.

“It meant life or death,” he says.

Non-Luos were let to go, but those left were confronted by tormentors whose voices rent the air with shouts of “Kill, chop all of them”.

Then Otieno’s turn came.

He stops talking, his body doubled up so his face is parallel to the earthen floor. He shakes his head in distress. “It was bad. It was very bad.” He tells us he is not ready to share those ugly moments. Then he mumbles in Dholuo: “Nyangegithuon.”

“He is saying that they circumcised him by force,” the trauma counselor, Lynette Odidi, who had accompanied me, translates.

They first cut the tip of his penis then brutally removed the foreskin. By the time they reached his testicles, to probably squash them, Otieno had fainted. They left him for dead. When he came to, he was in a makeshift clinic run the Kenya Red Cross Society. He was heavily bandaged and could neither stand, sit nor pass urine. A majority of the men there had suffered a similar fate. “The bleeding was too much. Everywhere, there was blood. Men were losing a lot of blood. It was a shameful sight.”

By mid-January of 2008, tales of gangs of Kikuyu forcibly circumcising men from rival tribes were spreading like bushfire in Naivasha and Nakuru, creating a wave of anxiety among the Luo, who were seen as the main targets of the attacks.

Leaflets had started circulating in Nakuru warning non-Kikuyus to leave the area especially after the January 1 incident in which some 35 men, women and children were burnt alive in a church in Kiambaa, Eldoret. Nakuru and Naivasha towns in the Rift Valley had witnessed some of the worst attacks led by the outlawed Mungiki militia group. Those who heeded the warnings and fled from the area escaped; others never reached their destination -- they were killed on the way.

Word hit the grapevine that members of the Mungiki militia were looking for anyone who was not Kikuyu, or anyone that didn’t support the Party of National Unity of the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, himself a Kikuyu.

Otieno* had not been deterred. After all, the Kikuyu were his friends. He had lived with them in Nakuru for 10 years. They were his customers at the carpentry workshop. They couldn’t turn their backs on him.

“If you were lucky, they cut off your penis,” says the father of five.

His voice grows faint, almost inaudible. Most people who refused to be circumcised met a brutal death. Otieno’s attackers used broken glass to forcibly circumcise him, bringing with it a myriad of infections. He tells us that he feels deeply ashamed of his body, but is also weighed down by the loss of his manly essence.

Slightly past 2pm, two of Otieno’s youngest children return home from a nearby school. Their uniform is threadbare. One is barefoot. The hearth is cold: there will be no lunch for the young ones. “Most of the times we stay hungry. We have nothing to feed our children.” Large teardrops melt into his cupped palms.

“Of what use am I if I cannot even feed my family?” he asks no one in particular.

The two children, are not really his. Otieno re-married but the conjugal act is beyond his ability. He tells the trauma counselor in Dholuo that the two children belong to another man, his voice wilting into a soft whisper.

Otieno remarried to save face after his wife, who had been suffering from depression, died in August 2009.

While he was still nursing his injuries, he and his wife hid in their house in Naivasha, waiting for transport back to the bosom of their ancestral community in Kisumu. It was here that Otieno’s wife was gang-raped as he and their children watched helplessly. Hundreds of women were raped, he says.

A few days later, they found transport to Kisumu, travelling in the company of many other Luos, Luyias and Kisiis. They were put up in a makeshift tented camp and thus became internally displaced persons.

Life in the camp was unbearable. Besides the usual oddities, Otieno rued the lack of privacy. “I couldn’t get a safe space to wash my wounds as I feared people would know what had happened to me.”

His wife, who had survived the gang rape in Naivasha, started developing complications from her ordeal. Just like her husband, she kept quiet about her violation, fearing the stigma that disclosure would attract.

Soon her condition would deteriorate, gradually leading to depression.

When the government began the “Operation Rudi Nyumbani”, Otieno received Ksh10,000 alongside thousands of displaced persons. It would be the last assistance he would receive from the government. He moved his wife and children to Miwani area where they were reintegrated with members of his extended family.

Their youngest child who had been diagnosed with epilepsy would later succumb to it.
Life in Miwani was anything but normal. The Ksh10,000 government payout went to buying building materials for a home as his relatives soon got tired of hosting them. Each passing day increased the emotional distance between him and his wife, with each nursing their private wounds.

“I couldn’t be with her after rape. She always resisted,” he says as he draws in a long sigh. Like his wife, Otieno too was wary of intimacy. Though they both found comfort in each other as they had endured a near similar violation, it did not make it any easier to bear.

“For the man, it’s really bad, just knowing that today you are normal and the next day, you are stripped of that very thing that defines your masculinity.”

“Just because a man wears trousers does not make him a man. Today, I am useless. I cannot fend for my family. I feel ashamed borrowing all the time. I cannot talk where men are talking. I am worse than a woman.”

Otieno was at his wife’s bedside when she died of depression in August 2009, but their married life had died long before.

He, too, had been diagnosed with acute depression. He resolved to stay strong at least for his eldest son. He has tried his hand at sugar cane farming, which is the economic mainstay of Miwani, but he is a late comer and hardly breaks even. He also hopes to restart his carpentry business.

All he seeks, for now, is government financial assistance to enable him to complete his house, so that his family can live in a decent home.

*A pseudonym has been used to protect the subject’s privacy.

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