Locked up in a Kenyan jail

Friday 3:45 pm: my phone beeped with a new text: “Ben, can u get in touch with Kivanguli [NEGST’s Dean of Community Life]. I am being held at Karen Police station as an excess passenger.” Samy

Samy Tioye - Happier DaysSamy Tioye, one of my closest friends, is from Burkina Faso and is working on a PhD in translation: אכל דּם Eating Blood’ in the Old Testament: Its Meaning, Theological Implications and Translation into Lobiri. Among ourselves, we call him “the rabbi” for his background in Hebrew and his love of all things Israeli, a place he has already visited for study three different times.

Friday afternoon, Samy made a quick trip into the shopping center at Karen (about 3 kms away), and was on his way home in one of Kenya’s infamous matatus (minivans used for public transportation). By way of background, Kenyan law says that a matatu can only carry a maximum of fourteen people that it has seats for. A few years ago, the government cracked down, but somehow the route coming past our school has been neglected and these matatus almost always carry excess passengers. It’s rare to find one that isn’t totally overcrowded; just about everyone I know – including me – has been forced to squat in the aisle or even hang out the open door of a matatu. It’s the rare matatu on this route that isn’t overloaded. But Friday, the police apparently decided to enforce the law, and poor Samy was one of those who hadn’t gotten a seat. (In Kenya, the passenger shares culpability along with the driver and conductor.)

This is what Samy had to say,

I had just run into town for a quick errand and was rushing back to finish a section of my dissertation to hand into my supervisor before the end of the day. As usual, the conductor was packing as many of us into the matatu as possible. Just before we got to the school gate, a policeman stopped the matatu and forced everyone out. After some long discussions in Kishahili (which neither of us speak), they put the four of us who hadn’t gotten a seat back into the matatu and headed back for Karen. On the way, we stopped and picked up three more people from another matatu that had been stopped; there were now nine of us total, including the driver and conductor.

At first, I thought we were just being taken back to the matatu stop and forced to start our journey over again. But we drove right past the stop and into the police station parking lot. I still didn’t realize how serious things were until they paraded us all back behind the desk and herded us into a dark, barren concrete cell that was still wet from the most recent washing. I was kind of shocked into reality when the large iron door slammed shut and the deadbolt locked behind the nine of us. All the men around me started dialing frantically and shouting into their cell phones. The only word I could understand was “Cash bail!! Cash bail!!” I kept expecting someone to come back so we could talk, but as the hours dragged on, I realized that they had no intention of coming back, and that my cell phone battery was dying. I’d better get help before I’m stuck here overnight and no one knows where to find me. [Samy has four small kids ages 7 years to 7 months.]

As soon as I [Ben] got the text, I dropped everything in the library and rushed across campus to the Dean of Community Life’s office. I had no idea what needed to happen next, but after a few consultations we decided to send K., in charge of campus development, because he knows the commanding officer at this police station. K was on leave, but just happened to be home that afternoon – car problems led him to cancel an outing. As he and I headed down to the station, a couple of other PhD cohort members were waiting in the wings just in case things got bogged down and we needed more cavalry.

When we arrived, I expected to see Samy sitting calmly by a police officers desk, but he was nowhere to be found. When we asked for him, they shook their heads, “No one by that name is here.” When we insisted, they flipped through the book a few more times and still shook their heads. We kept insisting, and finally they found his name, and escorted him out of the cell. After he explained everything, they locked him up again, and we began to work our way up the chain of command. Finally, we found ourselves in the commander’s office.

K: I’m very sorry, we know we are in the wrong, as a whole community; but we appeal to you. I promise, I’ll send an announcement out to the entire community warning them never to step into an overcrowded matatu.

CO: You know this puts me in a tight spot. On the one hand, you guys stand up in the pulpit and preach how the police are corrupt. Yet when one of your own is arrested, you come and plead forgiveness.

The CO looks right at me; I just smile knowingly and nod my head. I’m happy to use my white privilege on behalf of my friend, but I’m not about to open my mouth and jeopardize the cause. Finally, he sighs and hands K. a sheet of paper to write out Samy’s full name and nationality. Then he ushers us out, and locks his office door. It’s after five pm and business done for the weekend. Whew!! That was close!!

In an informal debriefing afterwards, here is what another close PhD friend and Kenyan mentor Richard Mutura (midnight rescue) had to say:

They love to arrest people on Friday, because they know that once the offices close for the day, you are stuck in there until the courts open on Monday. Richard MuturaEven if you want to post bail [usually the equivalent of about $30], they find reasons to frustrate the process: the officer that needs to sign you out can’t be found; the bail book is at a different station, etc. They hope that you get so desperate that you will just beg them to let you out and will throw all the money you have at them.

You are lucky it was Karen. If they had taken you to one of the other stations near the slums, you would have lost everything, including your shoes. Back in my university days, I wrote an article that wasn’t entirely supportive of the gov’t (a previous regime). Officers tracked me down, and threw me into a standing-room-only cell. It was packed so tight, that the officer had to put his boot in my back and shove me in. If your arms were up, they stayed up. If you had to go (“long or short call” – #1 or #2) you just went. Your pinned arms went numb, and then you’d pass out. Eventually, you’d come to your senses still standing propped against those next to you. There are no kitchens in prison. If you are lucky, one of your family members figures out where you are and brings you some food. (Sometimes they ship you across town.) You might be allowed to sit outside the cell for a couple of minutes to eat it. One guy in my packed cell was lucky enough to have food delivered to him. Unfortunately, he was pinned on the opposite end of the cell. The guard just handed it to the closest inmate and said, “Pass it on.” Needless to say, he never saw even a crumb.

Lucky for me, the next day, one of the prison guards (from back home) recognized me. He didn’t have the authority to release me, but he rounded up a couple of detectives, and moved me out of the cell into the “investigative” phase. The interrogation was no picnic, but seeing as it was inevitable, better sooner than later.

The gravity of Samy’s experience sank in even deeper; we all just thanked God that he had been released. It could have been any of us. Saturday, Samy was so appreciative of his freedom that he took food back to the remaining inmates.

I felt so bad for those guys the when I left on Friday. When the guard called me out for the final time, he walked away and just told me to close the door. So I was the one who had to clang the deadbolt shut on those poor men. I also needed to go back just to prove to myself that I could walk in and out as a freeman. When I brought the food on Saturday, the same young lady officer who had locked me up was at the desk. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I came to bring food for the men in the cell.” “Which one?” “All of them.” [Look of shock.] “Wow! That’s extremely kind.”

Samy walked out of the police station breathing deeply the free air.

Just another day at the library.

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4 thoughts on “Locked up in a Kenyan jail

  1. Eddie says:

    Great to find your site Ben. I know Samy from Burkina (and saw him recently in the UK too). Greetings to all at NEGST.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for stopping in. Samy is a great guy. He says hi.

  3. […] for you – a midnight rescue. To read about his jail experience from his more youthful days, see here. Nelson and […]

  4. […] even unbelievible, . . . . personal story.  He can also tell you more details about being locked up in a Kenyan jail, but he’s got lots of other more interesting […]

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