I went to great lengths to avoid the GSU during my 4 years at the University of Nairobi’s Lower Kabete Campus. We called them the ‘fanya fujo uone’ squad because of the damage they could inflict on your body, and the enthusiasm with which they went about their task of breaking up demonstrations, leaving broken and bloody bodies in their wake.
While many students prepared for demonstrations by collecting stones and other missives to hurl at the cops, my preparations were of an entirely different sort – to facilitate immediate flight should the need arise, by the shortest and most direct route out of the campus.
The official policy was that the police engage rioting students outside the gate with the primary goal of driving them back into the school compound and clear the road to facilitate traffic flow. The first responders, the Administration (APs) and regular police, usually adhered to this rule. But after a few hours of battle on the road, the GSU would be called in and then all bets were off. The fanya fujo uone squad chased their quarry right into the university hostels, determined to beat them to a pulp. The administration couldn’t stop the GSU from entering the premises and everyone knew it.
Well not everyone. A few geeks who spent most of their time in the library clearly never got the memo. They were always caught napping when the mayhem found them. I’m all for chopping, but for Pete’s sake, books never protected anyone against teargas.
For the rest of us, the minute we got wind of a riot – half the time we didn’t even know what it was about, having been decided by the student leaders at the main campus – we started by dressing appropriately. T-shirt, jeans, ngomas. Comfortable for running and with no laces to get entangled in weeds or trip us up if they got loose. No handbag. Your national ID and some cash in the back pocket. A handkerchief or tissue went into the other back pocket. A tube of lip gloss or Vaseline tucked into the front pocket. Hey, a girl needs to maintain her appearance. Getting caught in the middle of a riot is no excuse for chapped lips. Hair wrapped securely in a ponytail. Perhaps a light sweater tied around the waist in case it got cold.
Preparations complete, it was now just a matter of monitoring the situation on the front line and getting ready to flee at a moment’s notice. We called it kukaa radar, chonjo. We passed time playing cards or just horsing around in the dorms. Then a war cry would rent the air. “GSU wameingia. Run!”
The light hearted play ended instantly and the exodus began. Like rats from a sinking ship, everyone headed for the exits and from there, the quickest route out of the campus. Those on the ground floor didn’t bother using the door, just jumped out of the window and took off like a rocket. The main gate was a no go zone at this point. As any university student will tell you, one of the first things you must do when you join campus is find the panya routes out of the premises should the need arise.
My friends and I just followed Moses Mbugua, who was raised in Wangige and knew all the back routes out of the campus. We fanned out like grasshoppers into the maize fields of the surrounding farmers, making a bee line to Mwimuto, the nearest road where we could catch a mathree to the city centre and safety.
Once my university days were over, I got a job at the Centre for Law and Research International (CLARION) in 1996, which was spearheaded by some of the leading lights in the civil society movement – Kivutha Kibwana, Smokin Wanjala, Winnie Mitullah, Lawrence Gumbe and Lawrence Mute among others. Roughly a year into the job, the change the constitution movement had gained momentum and civil society had taken its campaign to the streets.
The movement would pick a day to hold a rally at Uhuru Park and urge all employers to give their staff the day off. Of course few outside civil society heeded this call and it was business as usual in Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD). For CLARION employees, it was a holiday because no one was forced to go to the rally – that was purely a personal choice.
I skipped the first rally but was curious to see what it was like and so when another rally was called, I headed for Uhuru Park. Remembering my university days, I dressed appropriately in a t-shirt, jeans and ngomas, plus a bottle of water. Not to quench my thirst later although it was a blistering hot day, but to wash teargas out of my eyes.
GSU (with their distinctive red berets) manning a road block
Being my first time at a public rally, I felt a bit of a fraud mingling with these battle hardened folks who were veterans at taking on the government in their quest for a better Kenya and so hung around the fringes of the sizeable crowd, numbering several hundred. There was lots of singing, camaraderie and backslapping and everyone was in high spirits. The speeches began amid chants as people waved flags and twigs. Most were young, in their 20s.
Then out of nowhere, a teargas canister was lobbied, straight into the makeshift dais, interrupting the speech. As white smoke billowed upwards sending the nearest into fits of coughing and choking, APs waded into the crowd wielding batons left and right to disperse the crowd. I had already started retreating when two cops headed towards me and I started to run, towards Uhuru Highway.
They caught up with a guy next to me and he went down as they rained blows on him. Another cop intercepted me and I braced for the blow. When it came, surprisingly it was light, not the thud I expected. “Enda nyumbani,” he thundered, but made no attempt to hit me again. I quickly resumed running and it wasn’t until I reached Kenyatta Avenue that I stopped to catch my breath. Afterwards I realised something profound. The APs really went to work on the male protesters but were quite lenient with the women, unless of course one became a jeuri (defiant).
A woman walks past a line of GSU in full combat gear
That was a light bulb moment for me. Aha, perhaps this rally business would be okay after all. I can handle it. I was extremely confident at the next rally, so much so that I stood with Kivutha and the others, right in the thick of the action. We were fired up. The energy was electric and charged with excitement. The turnout was much bigger, almost double the last time and this time we even had matching t-shirts. Those t-shirts gave us a sense of identity and belonging. We were brothers and sisters fighting for a cause we believed in and proud to be part of the movement.
The speeches began amidst chants and cheers which rose to a roar, sweeping over the charged crowd and swelling up into the heavens every time a speaker made a really good point. I was so caught up in the moment that when the first teargas canister was hurled into the crowd, I wasn’t prepared and inhaled a huge mouthful mid-song.
That shit scrambles your brain. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to wash my eyes and in the ensuing confusion, someone kicked the water bottle out of my hand. Adrenaline kicked in and all rational thought vanished, replaced with only a primal instinct – fight or flee.
To this day I really admire people like Kivutha Kibwana and Boniface Mwangi who are able to stand their ground in the midst of teargas. Like most, I fled. I was still blinded by the smoke and my eyeballs and throat were on fire. I couldn’t see where I was going but ran, not knowing in which direction I was heading. I stopped after a few hundred metres to rub my eyes and try and get my bearings. My vision cleared a little although my eyeballs were still stinging and my cheeks wet from tears.
I looked up and froze in horror. A line of around 10 cops were sprinting towards me. Not the friendly blue uniform of the regular police or slightly more scary camouflage uniforms of the APs with their black berets. These were battle hardened GSU in full combat gear, ready to go to war with the enemy. In that frightful moment I realised the enemy was me. Little helpless me.
I wanted to get on my knees and beg for mercy but knew none would be forthcoming. The fact that I was a woman would not help me in this situation. The GSU are trained to hit and subdue anything that moves. A baby would probably not make a difference to them and they would hit the pram, sending the baby tumbling to the ground.
My mouth was already dry but I swallowed nervously trying to get a grip on reality. For one split second, I was rooted to the spot in fear. They were huge. And only seemed to get bigger as they got closer. Six foot tall. Muscular thighs. Arms the size of a tree trunk. Bloodshot eyes filled with loathing. Okay I couldn’t see their eyes, but I could imagine how they’d look. I knew if they got close enough for me to see their eyes, I was a goner for sure. That encounter would end in one of two ways – me in the hospital or worse, in the morgue.
That last thought finally uprooted my feet and I turned my back and started sprinting away from them only to see another group headed straight towards me. Running purely on instinct now, my eyes darted right and left trying to find an escape route. I spotted a gap near the fountain and dove for it, went around the corner in full flight, heading towards Uhuru Highway with the GSU in pursuit.
We were a small group of perhaps 20-30 people. At the highway, I risked a quick glance behind and saw the GSU steadily gaining on us. Several people plunged into the highway, heedless of oncoming traffic and I followed blindly. A driver had brakes and a steering wheel and would do his best not to hit a pedestrian. The GSU behind us would not stop.
Our plunge into the traffic was accompanied by screeching brakes, hooting and flashing lights as drivers swerved to avoid hitting us. We crossed the highway in seconds. I vaguely noticed panicked motorists hastily reversing at full speed once they spotted the GSU chasing us. Then a quick about turn to head back the way they had come.
The GSU stopped when they reached the highway, making no attempt to cross the road. I heaved a sigh of relief and paused to catch my breath, arms on my waist, bent almost double. A cry of alarm interrupted my brief moment of rest. I looked up to see another group of GSU heading straight towards us from GPO.
We took off down the highway then plunged into a side street heading to Koinange Street. Halfway there we met another group of GSU who had been leisurely walking but on spotting us, broke into a run, heading straight for us.
In a split second I realised just how diabolical and organised the GSU was. The group in Uhuru Park had chased us straight into the welcoming arms of their colleagues in the CBD patrolling the streets. Every corner we turned, we encountered a new group, forcing us to keep changing direction. They would chase us down one street and just when we thought we had lost them, another group would emerge ahead.
Every time that happened, we would panic and scatter in different directions. Now we were a small tight group of about 10 people. The busy city bustling with life had become a ghost town. Shopkeepers hurriedly barricaded their premises when they saw us coming and no amount of pleading would get them to open for us.
It must be the t-shirts, I realised. The garment which we’d worn so proudly that morning as a mark of solidarity now identified us clearly to the GSU and the public as the people involved in the rally. It was like having a target painted on your back. When I was young I loved Tom and Jerry. Now I felt like a mouse being hunted by cats. But this wasn’t like the cartoon where Jerry always made a fool of Tom. These cats were big, armed to the teeth, mean, crafty, well organised and clearly toying with us. We were getting tired and it was just a matter of time before they caught up with us. We needed a hole to bolt into and we needed it now.
But Nairobi had turned its back on us. The warm, bright welcoming city I knew with lots of friendly folk had shut down, as a computer does when it senses a virus threatening its programming. We had become a virus and Nairobi had shut its doors to us. If Kenya had winter it would look like this. A cold hard Siberia. People peered at us from behind thick metal grills as we ran and shook their heads, staring in suspicion at our t-shirts as we pleaded with them to open the door and give us refuge. Nobody budged.
A leader of sorts had emerged in the group. I forget his name now but I will never forget his face. Tall and lean, dark complexion, eyes that drew you in with their warmth, rounded face and lips set in determination. He wore khaki trousers and canvas shoes. Let’s call him Peter for the purpose of this story. Peter was the kind of guy who even in full flight spared a few precious seconds to assist a member of the group who fell as we fled from the GSU. He was doing most of the talking during the various stops we made to try and get refuge in shops and when he got no joy, urged the rest of us to keep moving, constantly encouraging those who fell behind.
We had just turned again, into Koinange Street from one of the lanes that separate it from Loita Street. I was glad to stop and grab a few minutes rest but it was not to be. A group of GSU emerged from City Market and headed straight for us.
“Come on,” urged Peter, breaking into a sprint.
But I was too tired and didn’t think I could take another step. I was just about to give up when a miracle happened.
“Ingia hapa. Haraka.” The shouted exhortation came from a few metres ahead where a security guard poked his head out of Chester House and waved frantically. We dashed to where he was and found a small opening in the grill door covering the entrance. I was the last to get in and the guard gave me an impatient shove to get me to move faster, then pulled the grill shut and started securing it with a heavy chain.
I was standing in a big open space that extended all the way into the middle of the building and could see stairs leading to the floors above on the right side. Other than our group, a few people stood in the hallway and I noticed several white people. The GSU were mere seconds behind me and they stopped at the door, panting as they glared at us in anger at being thwarted. In frustration, one took out a tear gas canister and tossed it inside the hallway.
We scattered. The thought of another helping of that awful gas gave me renewed energy and I leapt for the stairs to get away from the smoke. In a classic illustration of the saying that no good deed goes unpunished, the security guard got the worst of it as he struggled to lock the heavy chain with a padlock. Peter and another guy helped him up the stairs and we all went to an office upstairs, which turned out to be the base for several foreign correspondents representing various media agencies from around the world.
The reporters were all out covering the rally and its aftermath and had left a skeleton staff to coordinate communications between the reporters in the field and the television studios which would report the story. I garnered all this from the conversations Peter was having with the people who had kindly asked the security guard to help us. I was just glad to finally sit down and get water to drink. After all the teargas and running, I was parched.
The afternoon wound down slowly as we followed the updates on walkie talkies as the international correspondents provided periodic updates on what was going on. It soon became clear that the CBD was almost completely deserted but the GSU were still patrolling the streets and were likely to continue doing so into the night.
“We have to get out of the city. Night cannot find us here,” I declared at around 5pm. I was exhausted, hunger had set in and all I wanted was to go home and enjoy a nice cup of tea. The group debated the issue for around half an hour. Some in favour of leaving, others saying it was too risky. “If it gets dark and we’re still here, we’ll be stranded here all night. There are very few matatus operating as of now and you can be sure by 7pm, there won’t be any. I’m going to risk it,” I reiterated.
In the end only three of us left. Peter, another gentleman and myself. We all lived in Eastlands. Me in Buru Buru and Peter somewhere on Jogoo Road. Incidentally, we had not introduced ourselves before, being too consumed with trying to escape the clutches of the GSU. We finally got to know each other’s names and which organisations we worked for at Chester House.
On the way downstairs, Peter suggested we go to University Way and wait for a matatu from Westlands heading to Ngara. It was safer than attempting to get across the city to Moi Avenue to take a No23 to Buru Buru, which would create too many opportunities for the GSU to catch up with us. I had no idea how to get to Buru Buru from Thika Road. But it made sense to get on the first matatu out of town before darkness fell so I agreed to the plan.
We got to University Way without incident but the first matatu that came was charging Ksh100. In those days fares rarely went above Ksh30. The tout wasn’t interested in bargaining and on seeing our shocked faces, shouted to the driver to move along. The next one was charging even more, Ksh120. Typical matatu behaviour, capitalising on the mayhem to charge exorbitant prices. The third came and quoted Ksh100. “Let’s just go. It will be dark soon,” I urged the others.
The matatu was already packed but in true Kenyan fashion, space was created for 3 more passengers. I sensed immediate hostility the moment we pushed our way in. Passengers were clearly angry about being packed like potatoes in a sack inside the hot, stuffy vehicle and paying such exorbitant fares. One middle aged guy, with a beard, moustache and protruding belly glared balefully at my t-shirt and I tensed, feeling like an insect under a microscope about to be dissected. I could just imagine what he was thinking.
Why do these people keep creating trouble for us with their rallies when they should just get on with their lives like everyone else? Kwani a new constitution will put food on my table or educate my kids? I have so little as it is and now my bus fare for the entire week has been used on this ride home. GSU should beat them up properly and teach them to mind their own business.
I have never felt as uncomfortable in a vehicle as I did that evening. Every time the matatu stopped, I would tense, imagining it was the GSU looking for us. I feared that these people would happily hand us over to be beaten and thrown in a police cell for the inconvenience we had caused them. In that moment I wished I could remove that infernal t-shirt and burn it.
I only started to breathe normally after we reached Ngara and after that, relaxed a little more with each kilometre out of the city. I had no idea where I was and could not see outside as the vehicle was so full. Eventually we slowed down and stopped. The tout banged on the sides of the matatu and shouted, “Mwisho wa gari.”
“Where are we?” I asked Peter after alighting the vehicle. Darkness had set in by then.
“Baba Dogo. We’ll take a mathree to Kariobangi South through Outer Ring Road and then connect to Buru,” he replied, leading us to a long line of matatus parked along the road.
I have never been so happy to see the red roofs of Buru Buru estate. I was safe. We were on the Jogoo Road side and I lived in Phase 5 Extension on the other side of the estate, but I was on home ground and knew where I was. What a relief. Peter suggested a drink before we parted and we agreed, heading to a popular club that played rhumba music in the estate.
On arrival, we found other people who had been at the rally. The atmosphere revived me and it became a celebration as we exchanged war stories about how we’d escaped the GSU. I nursed my Kingfisher Cider in both hands as we watched the news at 9pm on TV. Seeing pictures of people being clobbered at the rally and many ending up seriously injured in hospital was sobering. But it gave many at the club a new sense of respect as they looked at us afresh with eyes full of wonder. “You guys were there and you made it out?”
We nodded and grinned widely, feeling like conquering heroes back from battle. We had the scars to prove it and the t-shirt. I wore the garment with pride once more. The t-shirt was a representation of something good, my contribution to something important to help my country. We drank to that.
The story should have ended on that triumphant note but the universe has a way of throwing us curve balls.
Around midnight I announced that I was going to take a taxi home and wished everyone goodnight. No one else was in a hurry to get home as most wouldn’t go to work the following day. The day after the rallies was usually spent tracing missing people, attending to the injured in hospital, getting bail for those who had been arrested and generally making sure everyone was accounted for.
Peter followed me outside and said he was also bushed. “Mind sharing a cab?” he asked.
“No.” I was dropped off first. I reached into my jeans pocket to pay for the cab ride.
“I’ll do it,” he said stopping me.
“Thank you for all your help. Goodnight.” I alighted and waved then went to my door. I lived in a one-bedroom extension accessed through a private entrance at the back of the main house. A few minutes after I closed the door, I heard a knock. I opened it to find Peter on the doorstep.
“What’s up?” I asked in surprise.
“May I come in?”
I frowned in puzzlement. “Why?” He hesitated. “Look, it’s late. Shouldn’t you get going? The cab will charge you extra for keeping him waiting.”
“I let the taxi go.”
“What!” In complete disbelief I went outside to check. Sure enough, the cab had left. “You can’t stay here,” I announced after I turned back to find him inside my living room seated comfortably on the sofa.
“Why not? I had a good time tonight.” A smile curved his lips.
“I barely know you.” It sounded pretty lame but in my defence, my brain had shut down for the night in preparation for sleep and was still struggling to wake up to deal with this fresh challenge. “You have to leave.”
“How? There are no taxis at this time of night.”
“I don’t care how you get home but you’re not staying here. Get out of my house,” I snapped losing patience with him. How dare he talk about no cabs when he had let a perfectly good one go?
I was beyond pissed. It had been a really long day and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Dealing with a horny man at 1am was the last thing I needed. I watched as he leaned back and gave me that come hither look. Did I actually think this guy was heroic before? In mere seconds he had become a clueless, insensitive idiot with no manners or class. How dare he ambush me like this and expect that I would be okay with it?
I sighed deeply and suddenly every bone in my body was aching from exhaustion. Turns out my knight in shining khaki had feet of clay. I wasn’t prepared for this. Usually I can see them coming from miles away but this advance by Peter took me completely by surprise. I needed to get him out of my house now.
It took another hour of reasoning, cajoling, tears and when all those tactics failed, a threat to wake my landlord and have him physically thrown out of the house before Peter realised I was serious and agreed to leave.
It was a horrible way to end the day and it left a really bad taste in my mouth. Are there no heroes anymore? People who can help someone without expecting something in return?
Photos: Fredrick Omondi and Pixabay.