A few years ago, I asked a departing French diplomat what his impressions were about Kenya. I expected him to say how beautiful the country was, how nice the weather was and how much he would miss the country and its people. To my surprise, he told me that his experience of the country convinced him that Kenya is a violent society.
I didn’t quite understand what he meant because Kenya is not known for the kind of violence that occurs in the United States, for example, where gun violence is becoming increasingly common in schools and other public places. Nor has the country been in a constant state of civil war, as have Somalia and South Sudan. The streets are not full of armed militia or gangs, as in Haiti. One does not expect to be violently assaulted on every other street corner, much as there are cases of muggers who beat up and maim their victims – a friend of a friend’s son lost an eye when being beaten up by thugs who stole his laptop as he was walking to work.
But it turns out the French diplomat saw something inherently violent in Kenyan society that is not so obvious to everyone. Kenyans may not experience violence on the streets as do people in conflict zones (though police violence is a major concern). But they do experience high levels of violence in the places that should ideally be the safest – homes and schools.
Data from the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey issued by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that 34% of women in Kenya have experienced physical violence compared to 27% of men. The home is apparently the most dangerous place for women. Women are more likely to experience physical violence at the hands of a husband or intimate partner than any other person, according to the survey. Bungoma is the most dangerous place for women in Kenya; 62% of women there say they have experienced physical violence. Mandera, according to the survey, is the safest place for women; only 9% of women there reported that they had experienced physical violence.
Of course, Kenya is not unique in this. Domestic violence is a global scourge, and happens even in the most developed countries where women have more rights and freedoms. However, one of the most surprising results from the survey in Kenya was that more women (43%) than men (35%) believe that a man is justified in beating his wife. The justifications for a man assaulting his wife ranged from when she burns food to when she denies him sex. The other surprising result from the survey was that of the men who have experienced physical violence. 20% of men living with women reported that the violence was meted out by their wife or intimate partner. This shows that domestic violence is not just something experienced by women in Kenya but by men too.
But the violence extends beyond the home; it is also prevalent in schools. Nearly half (46%) men in the survey said they had been beaten by teachers compared to 33% of women. The results also showed that bullying is common in Kenyan schools. 22% of the men who reported physical violence said the perpetrators were schoolmates. This shows that violence is rampant in schools and often the perpetrators are those entrusted to keep school children safe – teachers.
All these forms of violence can and do lead to more violence and trauma. Violence begets violence. Trauma can become intergenerational. Studies have shown that boys who witnessed their mothers being beaten or who were beaten themselves when they were children often end up beating or abusing their own wives and children.
Is it, therefore, surprising when police officers (who probably also experienced violence at home or in schools) kill innocent people without flinching? Is the violence meted out by police an extension of the violence that goes on in our homes and schools?
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 20 people were killed by police on 12 July during nationwide protests. Neither the police nor the Cabinet Secretary in charge of internal security have expressed any regret for these deaths. On the contrary, President William Ruto and his deputy have threatened to use even more force to quell future protests against the rising cost of living, despite the fact that soon after he took office, Ruto said extrajudicial killings by police must end. This endorsement of police excesses is very alarming because it is construed as normalising police violence, making the police believe they have carte blanche powers to murder innocent Kenyans. That could take us to a very dangerous place.
I therefore wouldn’t be surprised if in the ensuing state of violence begetting violence protesters respond to police violence by becoming violent themselves. That is the nature of violence – it is self-perpetuating. With so much violence around, in our homes and schools, and now on our streets courtesy of the police, there is a great risk that at some point the violence will become unstoppable. It has happened in other countries. Somalia plunged into civil war after President Siad Barre declared war against his own people by bombing Hargeisa and massacring thousands of people in the north of the country. That country has not recovered fully since then.
We cannot allow that to happen here.