The story behind a horrific picture

I hesitate to post this for a number of reasons, and I may reconsider and take it down later.

  1. With the signing of the peace agreement, this is a time of great rejoicing in Kenya.
  2. Media tends to focus on the bad news, and there are so many great stories here in Kenya of people who daily sacrifice their own lives for others such as orphans or HIV patients, and many more. (For a different perspective, I sometimes have to remind myself that the number of violent deaths in the US overall is still far higher than it is in here in Kenya.)
  3. The picture is haunting.

Every violent death is a tragedy that leaves loved ones behind with only their grief. This woman’s story deserves to be told, so we can grieve along with her husband and with the thousands of others that have lost love ones. I still cry every time I see this picture. It’s a clear reminder of why we are so relieved with the peace agreement.


Daily Nation Story by CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO [NOTE: This link no longer works.]
Publication Date: 2/28/2008

AT THE HEIGHT OF THE post-election violence, a photograph that has become the symbol of the crisis facing Kenya was shot by a Reuters photographer in Naivasha. It was published by newspapers in Uganda, Tanzania and many newspapers in the world. It then did the rounds on the Internet so much so that I was getting a copy of it in my in-box every hour from all sorts of people.

It showed a woman lying dead in a humble living room, with a screaming baby sitting next to her in a chair. Even if you have a heart of stone, you can’t help but be horrified by the photograph. [woman-killed-child-watches.jpg ]

The photo was published nearly everywhere, except the mainstream press in Kenya. Editors argued that, among other things, it was likely to inflame passions and fuel the violence, and also further traumatise a nation that was already in shock at the genocidal brutality that had beset it.

It’s a month later, and one hardly hears any more reference to that photograph. But there are certain moments in a nation’s history that should never be brushed aside quickly, and there are victims of national tragedies who should never be forgotten.

That dead woman, and the child are among them.

The real story of the photo is very poignant, and the circumstances of the woman’s death more complicated than most people first thought.

“A woman lies dead during ethnic clashes in Kenya” was how Reuters captioned the photograph. In the Naivasha Hospital mortuary, her body was labelled number 33.

It was among 36 victims of the violence whose corpses were still in white zip-up bags piled four high on the concrete floor. The Observer reporter says she first recognised her as the woman in the Reuters photograph from her skirt.

The woman in the photograph was 19-year-old Grace Mungai. She didn’t have much, but everyone, reported the paper, says she was happy and doted on her 15-month-old first-born baby, Brian Shfutu Mungai.

For the past four months, she had lived in a rented room in the Komokomo slum.

Her husband, Jeremiah Mungai, adored her. A “true” African man, Jeremiah had another wife elsewhere in Naivasha, but he was a kind man, according to friends and neighbours.

Grace, to use the politically correct but disembowelled language of the day, was from “a certain community in Western Kenya”. And Jeremiah, is from “a certain community in Central Kenya”.

Grace was killed on January 28, not by a gang thirsty for tribal retribution as many people who viewed the photograph might have thought, but by a police officer’s bullet that was fired into the house.

THE OFFICERS WERE FIRING TO scare away looting and murderous mobs, but Jeremiah thinks it was deliberate. The bullet struck Grace behind the ear.

The offending officer offered some kind of apology, but Jeremiah is in no forgiving mood. As The Observer put it; “Jeremiah will just have to live with the injustice of Grace’s death, a young woman who never had a camera pointed at her when she was alive”.

Jeremiah (who is pictured with Brian) took his son and his extended family to his mother’s home, 30 kilometres from Naivasha and returned to work in the town. He can only hope that Naivasha, and the village where he took Brian will not be swept by violence again if, as pessimists now fear, the Kofi Annan-mediated talks between the Government and ODM end in deadlock.

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