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Francis, documenting police brutality away from the spotlight

By Noah Wánebo
Photograph by Daniella van Bergen

Working under constant threats of arrest and violence, 30-year-old grassroots human rights defender Francis Sakwa has fought at the dangerous front line of human rights for over ten years in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya to document cases of police brutality and other political, economic, and social injustices.

Witnessing police violence in his community drove Francis to activism at an early age. In the densely packed and notoriously tough Mathare slum, police face little accountability. While Francis was in high school, he says police raided his village while looking for a lost gun, and the search quickly turned violent.

“There were a lot of atrocities—they were beating people, arresting, torturing people. We were teenagers, and we were told to look for the [missing] gun in the Mathare river,” Francis recalls. “Then, later, we were carrying dead bodies out.”

This particular case of police violence pushed Francis to become increasingly involved in community activism. He has since documented over 200 cases of police brutality in the slums of Nairobi. Following the election violence in 2017, Francis documented the extrajudicial police killings in the slums to keep record of the political violence.

“My main reason is to counter the narrative,” Francis told Justice and Peace. “The mainstream NGOs cannot access the slums and opposition zones because they have challenges in getting into them. They rely on second-hand information, so for us at the grassroots level, we make sure that when the interior cabinet secretary says ‘we have not killed anyone in the slums,’ we produce videos.”

Police have detained him more than 30 times since his work began, and death threats have forced him to move homes, yet he continues his work on the dangerous frontline of human rights.

Francis says his mission is fuelled by the injustices he sees in his community, in which high crime, unemployment, and poverty are rampant, while a high school education and access to basic amenities are luxuries few can afford. His activism reflects the range of challenges in his community; apart from documenting police violence, he has partaken in demonstrations over food prices, land-grabs, and political corruption, in many cases facing arrest and threats for his work.

“As I grow older, I tend to look at my pals, my age-mates who were born together in Mathare. They are missing in action—they don’t exist. I usually say that out of ten, five were killed by police, like three are in prison, and maybe two are surviving,” he told Justice and Peace.

“I realised, ok, we need to start keeping track of the other generation that is coming now and stopping them from disappearing, because my generation is already done. That’s what really motivated me.”

During a protest against a land grab in his community in April, 2015, he was abducted and held in the trunk of a car for several hours, and left in an area far away from his home. The hashtag #FindSakwa turned into one of the hottest trending topics on Twitter while the community searched for him. Despite his prominence—his work has been featured on Vice News and elsewhere — he says he does not feel safe.

“We are dealing with a state that has your file, that’s how we call it back in Kenya,” he says. “It’s put somewhere in the shelves, and whenever I punch harder, they bring out the file.” As other activists have been killed in Kenya, he notes that “you fight a very dangerous war on the grassroots level.”

He also underscores that many human rights defenders are not celebrity activists, and usually not employed by international organisations and NGOs. In Francis’s case, he has sacrificed a significant amount of personal safety and economic security to pursue justice.

Many interviewers never talk about the economic struggle and the well-being of activists. We really have to fight on paying our bills, so our kids can go to school,” he says. “People think an activist in Kenya is always working at Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, thinking he’s an employee. [Laughs]. I struggle with my eyesight, my health, paying my rent—daily survival. I’m unemployed. One of the questions [employers] ask is ‘do you have a criminal case?’ I say five. I can confirm to you that prominent activists at the grassroots level, but also at the national level, are dead because of health issues—they could not afford to go to the hospital. I have to give you that aspect.”

Yet his work has seen successes, and his mission propels him forward. “Because for them, in the committee level, it’s justified to shoot anyone throwing stones with a live bullet. So that narrative of people accepting the atrocity is one of the aspects that really pushes me on a daily basis.

Francis enjoyed temporary relocation to the Netherlands through the Shelter City programme. Find out more about his stay here.

In April 2015, tijdens een protest tegen landjepik in zijn gemeenschap, werd hij ontvoerd en een aantal uur lang in de achterbak van een auto vastgehouden. Hierna werd hij in een gebied ver van huis achtergelaten. De hashtag #FindSakwa werd één van de grootste trending topics op Twitter, terwijl de gemeenschap naar hem zocht. Ondanks zijn bekendheid – zijn werk is beschreven op Vice News en elders – zegt hij dat hij zich niet veilig voelt.

“We hebben te maken met een staat die je dossier heeft, zo noemen we dat in Kenia,” zegt hij. “Het wordt ergens in de kast gezet en wanneer ik harder vecht, halen zij het dossier erbij.” Omdat andere activisten zijn vermoord in Kenia, merkt hij op dat “je een heel gevaarlijke oorlog vecht op gemeenschapsniveau.”

Ook benadrukt hij dat veel mensenrechtenverdedigers geen beroemde activisten zijn, en vaak ook niet werkzaam zijn bij internationale organisaties en Ngo’s. Francis zelf heeft bijvoorbeeld veel persoonlijke vrijheid en economische zekerheid op moeten geven in zijn strijd voor gelijkheid en gerechtigheid.

Veel interviewers praten nooit over de economische worsteling en het welzijn van activisten. We moeten echt vechten om onze rekeningen te betalen en onze kinderen naar school te kunnen sturen,” zegt hij. “Mensen denken dat een activist in Kenia altijd bij Amnesty or Human Rights Watch werkt, denkend dat hij een werknemer is. [Lacht]. Ik worstel met mijn zicht, mijn gezondheid, het betalen van mijn huur – dagelijks overleven. Ik ben werkeloos. Een van de vragen die [werkgevers] stellen is ‘heb je een strafzaak?’ Ik zeg vijf. Ik kan je bevestigen dat vooraanstaande activisten op gemeenschapsniveau, maar ook op nationaal niveau, dood zijn door gezondheidsproblemen – zij konden het zich niet veroorloven om naar het ziekenhuis te gaan. Ik moet je die kant van het verhaal ook vertellen.”

Toch heeft zijn werk ook successen gekend, en zijn missie stuwt hem voort. “Want voor hen, op commissie niveau, is het geoorloofd om iedereen die met stenen gooit met een kogel te beschieten. Dus dat verhaal, van mensen die de wreedheid accepteren, is één van de aspecten die mij dagelijks motiveert.”

Francis is tijdelijk opgevangen in Nederland via het Shelter City-programma. Lees hier meer over zijn verblijf.