A few years ago, British actor Ross Kemp did a series on gangs across the world. The only reason Ross Kemp came to my attention is that in 2008, just as we were picking up the pieces from the post-election violence, the episode ‘Gangs in Kenya’ starring the Mungiki aired on Sky 1. Friends living in London at the time e-mailed and sent me a copy of the show.
Why Ross Kemp, why 2008 and why am I bringing this up now? Because before al Shabaab, before Dennis Okari’s Foul Winds, there was Mungiki. They terrorised people, beheading them with pangas. Fast forward to 2013/2014 and youth gangs are still terrorising us. However, they are not from one tribe or one community. While some still use knifes, by and large they are now using hand grenades, machine guns and pistols. As we watched and whispered and even ignored it, terror has evolved in Kenya.
Our story is not unique — we just seem to think it is and the sooner we learn to stare the devil in the face and call him by his name, the better. If you look through the entire documentary series that Kemp’s journey and investigations take him through, the story line is the same.
If you were to watch all the documentaries (Google Ross Kemp, Gangs) you'll see a very similar theme that arises again and again:
- social and political disenfranchisement
- the desire to belong
- the desire to have and exert power and control among people who are functionally powerless
- the ease of extremist ideology to gain a foothold under such conditions.
No one wants to address these real issues. But before you argue that what we are seeing today is not an evolution from the days of Kamjesh, Taliban etc, let’s be honest — we really didn’t care when Mungiki were butchering people in Central Kenya. Think about it, Mungiki specifically seemed to target “their own.” So the rest of us kept quiet because — it was a ‘family feud’. When al Shabaab emerged, we thought it was about “those Somalis” and their grudge with the western world. Pirates on the high seas —sawa, wacha waendelee huko. Then the drama came to our doorstep and we spat at the fact that we had refugees among us and they seemed to be the problem.
Today when a Luhya, Luo, Kamba, Kikuyu or Taita youth is among those arrested for either throwing grenades at churches or at bus stops, we make it about religion. When finally we watch Foul Winds and notice the nature of the brainwashing, we once again choose to hide behind the cloak of religion. For the sake of advancing this important conversation, walk with me through some of the gangs that were investigated by Ross Kemp.
In Rio de Janeiro, Ross examines the war waging not only between the authorities and the drugs trade, but the rival gangs that are locked in bitter feuds for control of the slums. Ross travels into troubled regions of the city to uncover how far things have gone and if there is any way back. In the process Ross discovers the extent of inequality in Brazil's society. Catalyst — poverty and social inequality.
In London, Kemp investigate the multicultural society that breeds international organised crime. Ross also speaks to ethnic minorities that feel they are alienated by society and the system. Catalyst — exclusion and social inequality.
Ross Kemp travels to Kingston, Jamaica, the murder capital of the world, where gangs historically aligned to Jamaica's two political parties. Ross discovers the gangs have moved away from their political roots and now engage in a bloody turf war, funded by drugs and driven by tit-for-tat reprisals, that has spawned a new generation of even more violent gangs.
In South Africa, Ross explored South Africa's ferocious Numbers Gang which thrives in the country's overcrowded prisons. Nowhere is their power more potent than Cape Town's Pollsmoor High Security Prison.
Here, Ross learns the fearsome power of the Numbers who subject new arrivals to violent attacks and gang rapes as part of their brutal initiations (Note: It was this episode which won the Bafta for Best Factual Series, 2008). I’m highlighting this particular one because we already have criminal gangs working in our prisons.
We laugh off the cell-phone con artists. Okay. I hope they won’t evolve, especially given that we tend to round-up young men and lock them up with seasoned thugs and terrorists. You don’t spend that much time in proximity with an infected person without catching a virus yourself #justsaying.
Then finally in 2008, Kemp aired a 90-minute special on Kenya. His mission when he came here was singular — to investigate the Mungiki, an outfit labelled as the most dangerous "gang" in Africa.
Not only are the outfits like the ones we are seeing emerging at the Coast found everywhere, but everywhere you find them you can see the same pattern. Clever, manipulative, fairly powerful people on the sidelines making the big dirty money while encouraging a generation of scared little kids into a lifestyle of hate, fear and death to further their greed.
These kids and their lives are a smokescreen, and while they’re busy shooting at each other and us, the real evil is elsewhere, working unchallenged. I have been told that the intelligence machinery in Kenya works and they do put out the necessary alerts and warnings. It is my hope that those they report to will pay attention and act.
However, for you and I, it’s time to stop living in denial and also acting like it’s not our problem. The security of our offices, homes, schools, malls, businesses, churches — our country — is down to each and every one of us. As Lynda Nyangweso said so aptly last week, “terrorism happens because someone lets it happen.”