Police harassment of photographers taking pictures in Nairobi needs to stop

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You’ve been up since 4 am. The construction estimate you’ve been working on for the past 2 days needs to go out by 4:30pm and you’re not even halfway through the bills of quantities (for those who don’t know, that’s part of the work of a Quantity Surveyor. Yes, please go right ahead and google what a QS does.I am tired of explaining why we do not “pima mashamba”) And so, for the better part of the day, you shuffle between the excel workbook, Archicad ; punching rapidly on your calculator, sketching a few things here and there and scribbling on your take-off sheets. You have never been one to not deliver and this shall not be the first. Your eyes are just as tired as your back; your mind has literally stopped functioning. But that gratifying feeling that comes with beating deadlines placates your soul; the struggle was worth it. Then you remember you had booked an appointment to see a lawyer with some friends at 5:30pm and you can’t cancel. So again you dash off for a quick shower, throw something and rush out. The meeting ends earlier than expected, and since you’ve got your camera and your photographer mentor with you; you decide to head over to Uhuru Park to learn a few things. Besides, you’ve had a long day and you need to unwind.

It’s about 6:30pm. The darkness is just creeping in and the view at the bridge near the water is amazing. The photography class is going pretty well and you’re elated. Stephen Ouma stands aside as I practice the techniques he just showed me.

View from the bridge where we got arrested
View from the bridge where we got arrested

Then out of nowhere a random guy dressed in a beaten sky blue shirt, material trousers and some old sports shoes rudely asks “Kijana, mnafanya nini hapa; mbona mnazuia watu?”

At first we were thinking it’s a curious passerby judging from the various characters we have met while doing “Uhuru Park Stories” a couple of weeks back. So I casually answer “Tunapiga tu picha”.

“Hamngepiga picha mchana yote sahii ndio mnaona mkuje, eeh?”

“Ni shots za moon tunataka. Kwani kuna shida?”

“Moon kitu gani! You’re obstructing people from passing and that’s an offense!” (Mind you we are 2 skinny fellas occupying less than a square meter of space)

“Kwani kuna shida mzee? Tunapiga picha tu” Steve asks

That’s when the whole drama started. The guy starts telling us that us young people think we know everything (I do not know where that came from) and he was going to show us that “yeye ni mjuaji kutushinda”. At first we thought it was a joke gone bad till he called for back-up from his colleagues saying he’d gotten “other suspects”. The guy grabs Steve roughly by the shoulder and one hand and proceeds to frog-match us to the place near the public toilets at Uhuru Park. Due to the panic we started asking why we were being “arrested” for nothing. The guy, now joined by his colleagues, start roughing Steve up some more for speaking up.

“Kijana sisi ni sheria! Tutakufanyia vile tunataka na hakuna mahali utatupeleka” This is followed by a couple of slaps and further roughing. I half-run, half-walk after them trying to plead with them not to hurt him.

We arrive at the detention grounds where we find a couple of other suspects who had been rounded up as well and get handed over to the officer in charge who identifies himself as David.

Wewe ndio unataka ma-officer wa polisi wakushike ni kama wanakubembeleza, eeh? Kijana hatuko hapa kukutongoza! Mbwa!” All this is being said punctuated with slaps meted on Steve. Things are happening so fast; I do not know what to do so I burst into tears (I guess I am a wuss after-all).

The David guy goes into an endless babble of why we shouldn’t question officers of the law and the fact that they can arrest us however way they feel like. All this is being very vulgarly aired of course. A few other guys are brought in and the harassment shifts to them. Steve is handcuffed to some other guy and I’m told to sit next to them. At this point I send out a few tweets; well I am in shock and that’s the first thing I think about. I am deeply regretting the decision to come here in the first place, the devil is a liar.

*****

Yes, I have seen a couple of videos and heard dozens of stories about infamous Kenyan cops and the Kanjo but I didn’t know it was this bad. I always gave them that benefit of doubt; they surely weren’t as bad as people portrayed them; but alas, I was wrong. Majority of the city council officers and men in uniform are a bunch of mindless and unreasonable individuals who know seem to not fathom what ethics are. Try argue your case with them and you will be labelled mjuaji and get served a thorough beating.

Our case is not unique. Several photographers are harassed on a daily by City County askaris and cops for simply wanting to showcase the streets of Nairobi to the world. Friends have had their cameras confiscated and have had to part with hefty bribes to get them back. More still have been roughed up for doing the “evil crime” of simply taking pictures. My question is, why can’t photographers practice their art in peace? Why must the law in this country trample upon genuinely hardworking individuals trying to chase their dreams and earn an honest living? For some of us who take to photography as a hobby or as a means of escape from our hectic lives; the case is not any different. Instead of fighting real criminals out there; the police and other law enforcers are busy arresting people for petty to non-existent crimes. The camera is neither a bomb nor a gun that is out to harm anyone! I have never seen a camera kill someone nor rob someone of their possessions.

We need a Nairobi where we can create art without the fear of harassment or having our equipment damaged. This unwarranted harassment on photographers needs to stop! Somebody tell Kidero to tame his boys!

[Republished with permission from canduh.wordpress.com]

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