I have always wanted to write about what I face, about what we — Somalis travelling from north eastern Kenya — face when coming to the capital Nairobi.
In August this year, I travelled from Nairobi to Garissa to visit my
family for a week. The journey from the capital to Garissa in north
eastern Kenya was smooth. After my visit ended, it was time for me to
bid them goodbye and travel back to Nairobi.
If you have visited Garissa town at any one time of your life, there
is a bridge just before you enter the main town. That is the first
police roadblock in a series of police checkpoints when exiting the
It has become a routine for Somalis in this part of the country that
every time, before entry and exit into the town, they must prove their
“Kenyanness” to the men in blue staffing the area.
The bridge is not far away from Garissa. Here, you do not wait for
the law enforcers to shout that you get out of the bus. It is normal for
everyone to get off.
When we left Garissa and reached the bridge, we all get off,
everybody clutching their identity cards in their hands. Sometimes
though, for a Somali, a Kenyan identification card is not enough of a
proof that he or she is a Kenyan.
We line up to show our IDs to an officer. Sometimes your own ID card
can betray you. The officer might judge that the picture on the ID card
does not resemble you at all. Only a moment of prayer can help you.
After almost half an hour of proving that we are indeed
Kenyans, born and bred in this country, the driver hits the road again.
The bus conductor then starts going round confirming everyone’s bus
ticket. Some travelers start making stories, while some like me are dead
silent, observing everybody else just to get more content for this
Through one of the bus windows, the heads of hardworking herdsmen
catch my eye, accompanied by young boys with frail bodies. The sight of
them working very hard in this hot climate, walking miles in search of
water, pulls humility deep inside my heart. It reminds me to be thankful
for all the things that I have.
The journey goes on.
Less than two kilometers later, we arrive at the next roadblock. The
police signal the bus to stop for a quick inspection. I look at the
faces of my fellow commuters. They are not amused.
This time, though, we do not have to get out of our seats. The “good”
officers were gentle enough to climb up the bus and do what they do
They shout, “ID mkononi,” IDs in your hands, as they enter the bus. They go round confirming everyone has an ID.
An old man expresses his dissatisfaction with the cops. He mutters to
his fellow passenger that the cops would do anything to get money from
you. They can even proclaim that you have not given them an ID even if
you have. He gets quiet as the police approach where we are seated.
The officer takes an ID belonging to an old woman sitting three seats
away from mine. “Is this your ID?” the officer asks the woman who
looked like she was in her 50s. She did not know Swahili and a young man
volunteered to act as a translator.
“Off course it is mine. I cannot hand you an ID which is not mine,”
the man told the officer after he listened to the woman. The officer was
not satisfied with her response and so he called her outside.
Once outside, they talked for a while before letting her go. What
transpired between the two? What was the officer told or given to let
She came back furious with dozens of complaints. They took 2,000
Kenyan shillings (about 20 dollars) from me, and I have an ID, she said.
Everyone joined the conversation as the bus started to accelerate.
Some of the passengers started forcing out similar ordeals they
encountered while travelling. The look on their faces shows the anger
and level of tiredness they have against the men and women tasked to
guide and protect them.
The conductor too chimes into the exchange and airs his views on the
matter. If you weigh the options, he said, it is better for you to give
out the cash to avoid unnecessary delays.
Whoa! That statement makes me indignant. Why should I pay a trained law enforcement official to show that I am innocent?
This statement, shared by the bus conductor, buries me into deep
thought. Should one have to bribe a police officer every time they come
into contact in a bus on the Nairobi-Garissa road? Do the officers know
that it is a crime to demand bribes?
By now, we are approaching the dry Ukambani area. Mud houses and poor
residents carrying jerry cans looking for water welcome us.
Everyone is quiet in the bus. A kid who was crying when the journey started is now dead asleep.
After an hour or so, another roadblock is mounted in the middle of
nowhere. This time the police do not come in. Instead, the conductor
goes out to talk to them. In less than two minutes, the officer signals
the driver to continue.
Remember the earlier incident of the old woman? When the conductor
told us it is better to slap them with a bribe to save time? I judged
that the bus conductor walked the talk. He dished out a small amount of
money to do away with the problem.
Since I started travelling in and out of the town of Garissa, I have
never seen a police officer doubt the ID card of a non-Somali. Every
time they enter the bus, they emphasize on the Somali commuters. For
Somalis, you are guilty until proven innocent.
A non-Somali man who was sitting next to me whispers to me that the
police are useless nowadays. They do not protect us, he says, we protect
them by giving them money every day.
We encounter another police checkpoint just near the town of Thika,
which is located just over 40 kilometers out of Nairobi. The officers do
not enter inside the bus, but the same routine continues: the conductor
exits the bus, shakes hands with one of the officers, and we are
allowed to continue.
This act of give-take-go makes me angry. The Kenyan Police’s motto,
“Utumishi Kwa Wote,” or “Service to All”, clearly has a different
meaning to those who wear the uniforms emblazoned with those words.
As we enter Thika, we are stopped yet at another roadblock. One would
think they have been there the whole day, waiting for aliens who are
entering a well-guarded territory.
I have been to other towns in Kenya, but the experience is very
different. Those of us from the north eastern part of this nation are
treated less equal through roadblocks situated in strategic places. The
experience is humiliating. They make you feel that you do not belong, a
second-class citizen who illegally migrated to this country.
A journey, which normally takes less than seven hours, took us close
to 10 hours because of numerous roadblocks, which are there to give us a
reminder that we, Kenyan-Somalis, are still not yet Kenyans.
As we entered Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, where the Garissa booking
offices are located, I felt degraded by the same men and women working
for a government that has manifested repeatedly to unite all Kenyans and
do away with tribalism.
For now, I am left with nothing but with the words to express my
frustration. I dream of a Kenya where the feeling of traveling to Kiambu
is the same feeling I feel when commuting to and from Garissa.
The days of bigotry and cheap stereotypes are long gone. After all,
we all hold the same IDs, work in the same country and pay the same
taxes. Let’s put an end to this injustice!