Jennifer Brass joins our Co-Editor Nic Cheeseman this fortnight in The Daily Nation. Their column is dedicated to the memory of those who died in Kenya this month, particularly Wanyama Wanyonyi, a lawyer and friend of both the authors, who was murdered outside his house in Western Kenya on 17th September 2013.
The horrific terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi represents a national tragedy. The shock felt in Kenya is shared by those who love the country around the world. We also share your grief and sense of loss. Ravindra ‘Ravi’ Ramrattan, a former student of the Saïd Business School of Oxford University, was one of those who died.
We are all Kenyans today.
Being outside of the country one cannot help but feel impotent, unable to make sure that friends are safe, unable to help ease the pain. But it has also been inspiring to see the strength and solidarity of Kenyans in these most desperate of circumstances. Like Londoners during the Blitz and New Yorkers after September 11th, Nairobians have shown that they are strongest when facing adversity. Those searching for signs of national identity following the ethnic tensions of the elections of 2007 and 2013 need look no further.
The terrorist attack has not weakened Kenyan unity but made it stronger, supporting a new sense of patriotic and civic pride. We understand that greater Kenyan unity may be of little comfort to those who have lost loved ones. Our sympathies go to all those who have suffered and will continue to struggle to come to terms with what has happened for years to come.
In the shadow of the terrorist attack, a smaller tragedy occurred in Western Province. As many of you will already have read in the newspapers, in the early hours of Tuesday 17 September Wanyama Wanyonyi, a lawyer in Western Province, was killed.
Wanyama was ambushed at the gate of his house and shot dead in what police have described as a premeditated murder. Coverage of his killing naturally faded following events in Nairobi, but Wanyama’s family and friends continue to mourn his death while standing in solidarity with the nation.
Like many of the readers of the Saturday Nation, we have heard and even written about the premature deaths of many Kenyans over the years. But reading about Wanyama’s death was different, because Wanyama was our friend. Feeling the consequences of Kenya’s culture of political violence so personally and so deeply, we hope that readers will understand why, amidst the incomprehensible loss of the last two weeks, we felt compelled to use this column to pay tribute to one man’s life and work on the day that he is buried.
We met Wanyama earlier this year in his hometown in Western Province. He was one of those people that are instantly likeable, with a contagious smile and a clever glint in his eye. In the short time that we spent together we shared stories, jokes, and confidences. As we drove from town to town, he taught us about variation in local culture and language.
Over a glass of red wine or a Tusker, Wanyama explained the politics of Western Province to us in great detail. He was extremely knowledgeable and a highly effective analyst. We came to like and respect him deeply. But we didn’t get to know of even a fraction of his talents and achievements. Wanyama was modest: he did not advertise the important work that he did. Indeed, most of what follows we have learned only after his passing.
Wanyama was only forty-three years of age when he was murdered. He used his short adult life in the service of others. A lawyer trained at the University of Nairobi and Kenya School of Law, he served as advocate for SACCO societies, municipal and town councils, and NGOs. Most famously, he represented the former Webuye MP, Musikari Kombo, whose petition contesting Moses Wetangula’s victory in the 2013 Bungoma Senate election is to be decided on Tuesday.
Wanyama also bravely served the families of people who disappeared during the Mt. Elgon violence of 2006-8, despite the known risks of such work in Kenya. As lead legal counsel for Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, he documented missing persons cases, provided legal advice to their relatives, and trained monitors through the region. At the time of his death, he was preparing to file cases with the High Court of Kenya on behalf of the missing. He was not paid for this work. He did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Somehow he also found time to support his community in other ways, acting as a board member for both development and human rights NGOs working in Western Kenya.
We do not yet know why Wanyama was killed. The history of similar murders in Kenya suggests that we may never know the full details. Few people doubt that he was assassinated for political reasons. But many people had a reason to want him out of the way.
If Wanyama died because of his determination to improve the lives of fellow Kenyans, he was not the first and he will likely not be the last. Pio Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki, Robert Ouko, and many others came before him. Kenya’s human rights community is currently looking over its shoulder, wondering who might be next.
Challenging those with access to power has always been a dangerous business. Defending human rights in Kenya is the preserve of the brave. Maina Kiai recently revealed that a number of death threats have been made against him and his family. His story is not an isolated one. Sadly, the culture of impunity lives on.
Wanyama was not a saint and we doubt that he would have wanted to be remembered that way. But he was a brave man – braver than we could ever have imagined when we shared a drink with him in Western. Kenya is worse off for his passing. Unlike Tom Mboya or J.M. Kariuki, Wanyama was not famous and so he is unlikely to be remembered in the history books. But his death was no less a tragedy for that. The fact that he conducted his work largely outside of the public eye, without the prospect of fame or fortune, makes his sacrifice all the more remarkable. His life and his death symbolize the struggle of many ordinary Kenyans to make their country a little more safe, a little more just, a little more free.
Wanyama is one of Kenya’s unsung heroes, who have worked without thanks to promote the rule of law in the way they conduct their everyday lives. Like those who tragically died in the Westgate mall, and the many Kenyans who bravely tried to help them, his life demonstrates the capacity for heroism in all of us.
We will make a small contribution to keeping Wanyama’s memory alive at the Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture 2014. The Fischer Lecture is held at Oxford University to honour the life of Bram Fischer, who helped to save Nelson Mandela from the death penalty during the Rivonia Trial in 1963-64. Like Fischer, Wanyama could have chosen an easy life, but instead turned his energy to protecting the vulnerable. It is therefore fitting that this year’s event will be dedicated to Wanyama’s life and work.
Wanyama will also live on in the memories of those who knew him. Following his death, friends have informed us that JKS Makokha’s poem “Curse songs of stone” was inspired by Wanyama’s work:
… and as the poet sits now under a canopy of pain
finding the right description for this oral tradition
his eyes on distant Elgon murmur-murmuring curses of stone.
Wanyama is gone, but he will not be forgotten.
Wanyama leaves behind a wife and three young children.
For information about how to make donations to the family please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 28th September 2013.