A Letter to Njeri – a Kenyan Sister Who Received Death Threats After the Elections

by Philo Ikonya
- Kenya -

Dear Njeri,
Tonight, I am unable to sleep. You see, my country - our country - is on fire. It is almost the end of February: is it the end of Kenya as we knew it? Kenya beloved and full of potential. Kenya our country.

I have only heard one positive report from the BBC ever since the year began and I am not surprised; what positive things can one say at the moment? That children are not dying? They are. That many people are not being killed? They are. That our mothers are not being raped and little girls defiled? They are. That you have and are not the only one to receive death threats? You have. That houses are not burning? They are. That we have not fought these things all along? We have.

Before we had passed the years when we could only turn on BBC for trustworthy news even before we elected Kibaki on a reform platform in 2002, let me come back to how I feel and why I am unable to sleep. It is because of you Njeri, my sister in the struggle. It is because you told us how you have received persistent death threats because you believe in human rights and standing up for the truth. I have to write this letter to you tonight, even if it is an hour to midnight.

Remember when we had the Kenya Civil Society Congress near the ABC place above Westlands? I arrived late but wearing my sack on which I had emblazoned the words in red: “I Believe, Hope and Love Kenya.” I know you really liked this recent mode of my protest. I remember I had already spoken about the Sackcloth and Beads Movement and many said I moved their hearts. Before I got into the sack, we were choking and threatened with being silenced both in word and deed. I remember how we could not pass through Uhuru Park (Freedom Park) for many days, because it was, and still is, heavily guarded.

But what I remember most during my speech was your face and eyes full of encouragement, as I walked in this protest garb that I have now learnt to handle. It was empowering to see your intense look. Even in the face of threats you insist on examining again what went wrong with our social fabric. Then other people spoke and always we touched on principles, values, options, change - as we stared in the face of the darkest days we have ever known in Kenya.

As I finished speaking, the news of the death of the MP for Ainamoi, shot dead by a traffic policeman, was broken. We were all devastated. For the first time, I registered physical pain; I wanted to scream and cry and yell instead of observing a moment of silence. But we went on with the meeting and after adopting the resolutions, you spoke. Your words to Cyprian Nyamwamu, who has run the National Constitution Executive Council and is determined to bring change to Kenya, were simple: you said you could see that he had forgotten you, but you were convinced that it was important for you to speak up.

You said that perhaps you only had this time to speak, for none of us knows who will be silenced next. Many human rights activists have received many death threats and the matter is grave. If I discussed this with my mother in Central Province, I can see how pained she would be; her disapproving face would wrinkle and she would weep for Kenya. No words would console her. She is deeply humane and religious and used to welcome strangers and persons of other ethnic groups to our home. And she taught us to do the same. How then have we got to this as a country? I can see her shaking her head and saying pensively in Kikuyu, kai uuu ni uru i! (“this is great evil!”).

Three minutes into your heartrending speech we were looking for our handkerchiefs. I had to take a walk. Without telling us the details of the death threats you have received (later described by Cyprian), you told us that any of us could die anytime for having stood for the truth. You told us that the important thing would not be death, but what or how much we had done up to then. I looked at your fingers and thought all along they have been doing sacred work - watching over our various freedoms. All this time you have been engaged in the struggle, ever since you were a girl. In 1992 you were at Freedom Corner, a section of Uhuru Park, when Mothers in Action, old women whose children were held in prison by president Moi, undressed to curse him.

Njeri, as Abubakar Awadh said in his prayers after the meeting, Kenya has been blessed to have some strong women politicians and especially from Central Province. Women who, unlike most of the people there, refuse to blindly support one power versus the other just because they belong to a specific ethnic group.

Our leaders have failed in uniting this province with the rest of Kenya.

You told us to stay focused and frustrate the efforts to make us lose focus. You told us if you were to go, the important thing would be for all to continue struggling. It was so hard to hear that - so agonizing to look at your youthful self and hear you talk about being killed. The audience was hushed and weeping. How could we listen to talk of losing you? Your tears choked you, too; you said they were tears of courage - and that just like the MP who went down at 40 years old (and the second one even before we buried the first: David Were was only 39), we could all be next. You called on each of us to keep moving and fighting to the end rather than give in to injustice.

While some have fled Kenya, you and others have opted to stay in spite of the threats. You said that we would go on “inspired by Philo’s hope,” my hope. I now realize something beyond us is at work. These moments of utmost trial have brought us to the stark realization that the price we pay is eternal vigilance.

I wore the strong sack maybe as a symbol of how much strength I really felt I needed. Perhaps this is why you were looking at me that way when I spoke. And as you spoke, you added strength to me.

Next we heard Mumbi tell her story. She had only hours within which to pack, leave her home and also change her name. Mumbi means “one who creates” in Kikuyu; according to legend, Mumbi is the mother of the Kikuyu. Mumbi rose and spoke of the many internally displaced people whom she is trying to look after – 20,000 in Central Province. She is threatened because she was an Orange Democratic Movement coordinator - the main opposition party in Kenya and unacceptable in Central Province.

This experience of our country being torn in tatters over election results has been so terrible, so bad, that we have been to the place where all faith is tested. A place where prayer is not forthcoming though we are generally very prayerful. A place where singing spirituals is impossible, where songs of resistance fade on our tongues and we become truly tongue-tied. People have been dying daily, every hour, and nobody seems to have the will to stop it. Even our mourning songs desert us. Every day we see images of death and destruction, we see and hear fights over identity. We have seen so many people become refugees within our own country, the so-called IDPs. We have seen blood in many places - the blood of that woman, perhaps a single mother, her little one crying out, “Mama.” But Mummy lay in blood already clotted. What will that child live to re-live?

How shall we heal our nation of violence, how will we heal these deep wounds? How shall we do away with poverty and injustice overnight - the fuel of this violence? Do you remember the Millennium Development Goals? Do you remember ordinary Kenyans struggling over debt cancellation at Gleneagles, Scotland? The politicians, even some in opposition now but then in government, had no strategy on this. I remember more sharp than theirs was the voice of a Caucasian Latin American missionary priest from the slums of Nairobi.

I promise to stop these people who threaten you from killing their nation. I will take my sackcloth and stitch onto it messages, pleading for your lives. I know many other Central Province people in exile - they say these people betrayed your communities as much as the homeguards did during colonial times. I will stitch my messages calling out for your freedom and walk all the way to Mukurwe-ini Wa Nyagathanga, the original home, or so they say, of the Kikuyu. I will plead with the people to remember that they exist because of the nine daughters of Mumbi. That these nine daughters symbolize the salvation of a people who shall always be carried by the wombs of women! How can they choose to ignore that? I will ask them how they can terrorize their daughters and sons so. I will ask them why Central Province has been in this dark eclipse for so long. Would Gikuyu and Mumbi, our legendary parents, have approved of that?

I will ask them why they want their children to perish rather than flourish. I will demand that they give us back our rights and our children. I will.

I will stand there before the Mugumo tree and the famed trees of the Kikuyu home and sing dirges. I will ask them - where has all our wisdom gone? I will ask them why they keep you, Njeri, on deathrow - the kind where one is convicted in their absence, tried, judged and condemned in silence and relegated to watching one’s own back until who knows when. I will ask them hard questions, Njeri. You promise to fight till the end and you encourage us to do so -- still, they have questions to answer.

Why do they want to shed your blood? I do not believe it will happen. I believe we shall run together - until the children of the mountain hold hands with the children of the lake, and all the other children of Kenya, safely under the leadership of women.

Yet you had this disturbing message: the man who wrote from Rwanda, before the genocide that later claimed him. His letter starts, ‘tonight they are coming for me and my family.” And Njeri, you rightly said, now we only have the letter - this man and his family died. But let me tell you something - you are of the Kimathi hair knots (dreadlocks). You have refused to die kneeling and begging. And if you must die, you will die not thinking of death but of triumph. Courage, hope and love will live on because of you and your unflinching faithfulness to your call. I remember your mother describing to me, the only time I met her, how she checked your body when you had been beaten up by police in Nakuru over multiparty changes. I remember that. I remember our prayers for our victories. And our victory need never be getting elected, we know that now.

Njeri, I just wanted to put these words down before I make you a sackcloth in the morning. I will add some beads of victory because you deserve many medals. But beads will do to celebrate your heart burning with patriotism. Let the police wear dangling medals and medallions.

You stirred an essential dialogue in us today; you lit a fire and passed on to us your bravery and patriotism. Eternal vigilance is the price we will have to pay so that you stay. You and your son, mum and husband will not die. Neither will Kenya. We will never go to a meeting again and not feel you, Njeri, even a century from now. This is Kenya.

Philo Ikonya has decided to wear sacks instead of regular clothes to protest the current violence in Kenya. She has also helped organized a campaign urging other Kenyan women to wear sacks for clothes, too. Philo says, “The sack in itself has a biblical message. I think we Kenyans need to repent for certain things, especially our leaders. The biggest sin we are committing is that we are unable to face each other and speak when there is a lot of violence. I need to express myself through what I am wearing; to pass on that message, the sack cloth is very powerful. I shall continue dressing like this and urging other people to dress like this for as long as we do not have peace in Kenya; as long as we do not have justice and reform.”

In her series, Kenya Is Burning, Philo shares her thoughts and feelings as her country struggles with the devastating violence that has claimed so many lives and turned its people against each other. - Ed.

About the Author
Philo Ikonya is a Kenyan human rights activist, an ardent poet, writer and lecturer. She holds postgraduate degrees in the Arts and consults on gender, governance and media. In 2002 and again in 2007, she ran for parliament in Kiambaa, Kenya.

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9 comments on “A Letter to Njeri – a Kenyan Sister Who Received Death Threats After the Elections
  1. Shailja says:

    Thank you, Philo. You – and Njeri – are not alone.
    Readers can sign the Amnesty Petition for the safety of human rights defenders in Kenya at:

  2. Njeri Kabeberi says:

    Dearest Philo,
    Words cannot explain how I felt reading this letter this morning. The words in there are eternal and useful for all human rights defenders and patriots! Thank you Philo and God Bless you always.

  3. Susan Onyango says:

    Dear Philo,
    once a teacher always a teacher. you planted in me the first seeds for “critical thinking” many years ago as my high school literature teacher. the book was “man from Kafira” (a distortion of the word Afrika).i still learn from you in many ways.
    in the recent months, i have watched “man from Kafira” re-lived in kenya – only this time it is not pages from a literature book. it is real.
    in one of the classes, i remember you said – “man from kafira could be from any part of africa – including kenya”. then it sounded rather distant, but today, it is right at our doorsteps….
    long live our human rights defenders.

  4. Mweru Gatimu says:

    Dear Philo,
    Thank you for writing this letter to Njeri, for encouraging her and so many others and even the fact that you have the courage to protest against the injustices currently taking place in Kenya.
    We appreciate your spirit and effort and that of great women like Njeri.
    Ps. Suzie, thanks for including me. You have truly been inspired by commendable teachers.

  5. Sophie Dola says:

    Dear Philo,
    Your letter to Njeri is soft and touching, that it has left tears on my eyes.It is very soft, and yet very powerful.It is strong, and sends the message home. I beleive the letter has not only given Njeri more strenght, but encourangement and also a wide range of readers have been inspired. The people who have read this letter can atest to my sentiments.
    Philo and Njeri, you have been role models to us, and thanks so much for your inspirations. Njeri shaped us and thus the strong 5Cs group. Thanks so much Philo for encouraging our mentor.
    Mapmabano yaendelee !!! Aluta Continua!!
    Sophie Dola

  6. Yes the letter.it is so touching.we are indeed concerned about everyone’s life.we are victims of threats not just in politics but in ethnicity and many other forms wherever we are.i wish this monster escapes from all of us.take care educate now.people have learnt how to live now.

  7. sarah Muhoya says:

    you bring the point in such a simple but not simplistic,passionate but sharp and humane yet amazingly real style. Blessings. sara

  8. Ann Njogu says:

    This is so awesome! Your profound words are so inspiring and with the ability to re-energise us! That day when Njeri spoke, I felt so so helpless that I couldnt offer her any real security and yet I still felt that I owed it to her and others as a kenyan and then as a kikuyu….! and even as much as we too had received similar threats ( including to my old mother whose only crime was to give birth to this so called rebel and traitor) , I couldnt look Njeri in the eye- How could I when I couldnt tell her she would be O.K, when no one knew who would be next, when I had put my own mother into such terrible danger et al!
    Gosh now that we have some settlement, we need to remain vigilant until same is wholly secured as we are not out of the woods yet!
    keep more coming Philo and to Njeri and all others, our struggle REMAINS & CONTINUES!
    Ann Njogu

  9. My Dearest Gacerie Philo Ikonya,
    You are such a gifted writer, Gacerie. The words you wrote were like a portal to your soul..a window peering into the pain that you have witnessed and experienced first hand in the country you have loved and devoted so much of your time to. A place where your intention was to become a part of the government and help facilitate change. But that dream, that vision, that plan took a very abrupt detour. A detour filled with pain and agony and misunderstanding. However, it may be part of a greater plan that sees you and other strong, courageous women on a different path that can bring about bigger change along a different journey than planned. It sounds as if you are very aware of that and have been planting seeds of lasting peace along with other fellow soul sisters. My heart goes out to each and every one of you and I hold you all up in prayer that God guides and protects you as you seek peace, love and understanding in your beloved country. And Njeri, you have layers and layers of Divine white light surrounding you and protecting you so that you can continue with the work that you have been born to do. It s part of your gift to the world and I believe that you will be safe to continue on with that life purpose. Believe it…conceive it…achieve it.
    I have shed many tears since the election at the end of December. Tears of sorrow, tears of frustration, tears of strength…tears of courage…tears of hope and tears of support for my fellow global soul sisters who live in Kenya and have had to endure the terrible violence and bloodshed of your friends and family over this flawed election. Not a day has gone by since the end of December that I haven”t anxiously opened the newspaper or gone online on the Internet to read about the daily developments in Kenya. I have found myself in deep prayer for not only my beautiful soul sister, Philo, whom I lovingly and respectively call Gacerie, but for all the innocent children who are being driven from their homes and forced to witness the death and destruction of their villages and their loved ones. I ask that all women around the world join our hands, hearts and souls together and collectively pray for peaceful change in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. There is great power in the feminine divine.
    Bless Kofi Annan for building a brigde for Kibaki and Odinga to cross over onto a place where freedom and justice will hopefully prevail. Now I hope that they open their hearts and minds to you powerful women of Kenya who hold the best interests of the people at your core.
    Bless you, bless you, bless you all! I am your fellow global soul sister living in Saratoga, California, and I had the privelege of living with Gacerie Philo Ikonya for two weeks in the summer of 2006 while attending the Women Leaders of the World program held at Santa Clara University and sponsored by the Global Women’s Leadership Network. She and I instantly bonded and have remained close ever since. My son, Chase, and her son, Yusuf, became internet pen pals and look forward to meeting each other someday in the not so distant future.
    I also want you to know that when I started to write this, I stopped and went to my closet to find a hand painted burlap vest that I have had for over 25 years. I have been wearing it since I read about you women wearing sacks in Kenya. I will take a picture o me in it, Philo, and send it to you.
    I love you and will contact you soon. I now know what I want to do to help you and other women and children in Kenya fight for peace, love, unity, goodwill and joy.
    Keep shining your light. Others see it and feel it. And keep living inspired despite the hardships and fear. You are making a difference. We’ll talk soon. I love you.
    in His grip and shining on,
    Diane Carty Speicher

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