Kevin Omwenga was stabbed to death while putting up campaign posters

Alexander Owino, 22, holds pictures of his friend Kevin, who was killed while putting up campaign posters.  Kevin is dressed in the black suit. Photo by Jason Patinkin
Alexander Owino, 22, holds pictures of his friend Kevin, who was killed while putting up campaign posters. Kevin is dressed in the black suit. Photo by Jason Patinkin

Kevin Omwenga was stabbed to death on January 17 near Nairobi’s Kibera slum.  He was putting up campaign posters for a local candidate in Kenya’s primary elections, which began the same day.  Kevin was a college student and another casualty of the pre-election violence that continues across Kenya as the country heads toward national polls in March.

Kevin’s father, Kefa Omwenga, received the news of his son’s death three hours after the murder.  Kevin was his only son.

“At nine this morning, I was told, ‘your son was killed,’ ” he said.  “I collapsed when I heard it.”

Mr. Omwenga said he then walked in a daze for forty minutes to the crime scene.  He arrived to see the stab wound as police carried his son’s body to the mortuary.

“He was killed from behind,” he said.  “A deep hole.”

Over five hundred Kenyans have died in political violence in the past year, some in massacres, others like Kevin in isolated murders.  Five years ago, more than a thousand people were killed after disputed presidential elections.

A police spokesperson said they arrested two suspects in Kevin’s death and are exploring a motive.

Kenyan politics are so charged because many candidates know that working in the country’s notoriously corrupt government is a path to getting rich.  This year it’s especially intense in places like Kibera because Kenya’s new constitution puts more power in the hands of local politicians.  Since the big parties are based in ethnicity, the elections pit tribe against tribe.

But tribalism didn’t motivate Kevin, the stabbing victim, to do campaign work.  Alexander Owino, 22, who grew up with him, said his longtime friend put up posters for both of Kenya’s main political parties

Owino said unemployed youth in slums will work for any politician who pays, regardless of tribe.  He didn’t know who Kevin was working for when he was killed, and wouldn’t guess for fear of being targeted.

“You can even hate a politician, but if he gives you something small [you’ll work for him],” said Owino.  Nelson Kadiga, another friend of Kevin, said he too has accepted money from politicians in the past.

According to Kadiga, political foot soldiers receive as little as twenty shillings, less than twenty five cents, for a onetime campaign job.  In close races, even such smalltime political work can turn deadly.

“We know the danger of it,” said Kadiga.  “It’s not the first time.”

But after what happened to Kevin, Kadiga said he’ll never again take sides for money.  “I have decided I will only vote for someone who will not give me a single cent,” he said.

Besides Kevin’s killing, this week’s primaries were marked by long delays and chaotic skirmishes.  One voter was shot to death by a policeman in western Kenya.

Kevin’s two friends said they expect the violence to continue, partly because the people behind the violence are rarely brought to justice.  The young men claimed a losing candidate in 2008 hired people to kill campaign workers who he blamed for his failed bid.  This year, the same candidate is running again, his face plastered on Kibera’s wood and metal walls.

Dozens gathered to mourn at Kevin’s family home, a small hut with mud floors and iron-sheet roofing.  Four women sat inside on an old couch, singing from a black prayer book.  Kevin’s mother, Erin Maroko, sat on a cushioned chair, wailing “Why? Why?” in Swahili.  In Kevin’s room, there were posters of Manchester United, his favorite football team.

Kevin’s mother last saw her son the morning before.  “I was to go to the market and he told me he had some small work.  I told him to do it and come back.  Now I hear he is killed.”

She said Kevin was studying to be a teacher.  He took his final exams in December.  Besides Kevin, they have a teenage daughter in boarding school, but they were waiting until the funeral to tell her of her brother’s death.

Others in the family remembered Kevin for his work ethic and love of football.

Chrispine Odhiambo grew up two houses away from Kevin.  “He was clean, cool, smart, good with the ladies,” he said.  “He didn’t belong to that low class of gangs.”  When Odhiambo heard of Kevin’s death, he tore down all the campaign posters he saw.

Another neighbor, Isabelle Kemuma, 30, recalled talking with Kevin the day before.  “He was telling us to vote peacefully.  That’s the last words I heard from him.”

The family only had two pictures of Kevin—one on an old ID card, and the other a tiny print of him standing with his sister.  Owino and Odhiambo, Kevin’s friends, took the pictures to a print shop to make copies.  Across the street, hundreds waited in line to cast their primary ballots.  Some wore party t-shirts and pins.  When a candidate walked by, supporters blew whistles and cheered.  The two young men watched the crowd.

“In Swahili we say, ‘ndiyo fumeanza,’ ” said Owino.  “ ‘It has just started.’ ”

Soon, the print shop clerk gave them the copies of their dead friend’s picture.

Kevin Omwenga was 20 years old.

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