For Kenyan-Somalis, One Bridge Defines Their Belonging
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 town.
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 story.
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 best.
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 her go?
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!
Osman is a Kenyan journalist and a contributing writer for Sahan Journal.
Follow him on Twitter: @OsmanMOsman_