What does “security” mean in Kenya?

By Verena Brähler, September 2013

Security is a relative concept that can mean different things to different people. As part of my PhD research about human rights and organised crime in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I spent the last three years trying to figure out what the term “security” means. Coming to Kenya as part of the BALLOON KENYA programme for the first time in my life, I was thus very curious to know how security is understood and interpreted in an African context.

I started my little research project here in Kenya by asking my Balloon Kenya colleagues what security meant to them. They responded in categories that I expected to hear, i.e. financial security and feeling safe physically. ” Security means having a sense of comfort around your physical, social and economic relations”, someone told me. Other fellows told me it meant “to be safe from bodily harm and having financial security” or “to be care-free in your daily activities”.


This contrasts starkly with what interviewees told me in Brazil and Kenya. In Rio de Janeiro, the majority of my interview partners associated the term security with physical security (not being shot) and freedom of movement. This is understandable in a context of a city that encountered itself in an urban war between different drug trafficking factions and the state security forces. To my surprise, some of the people I talked to in Kenya responded in exactly the same way, especially those that were directly affected by the post-election violence in 2007/2008. “Security means to be free to go where I want to without being afraid”, a mobile clothes vendor from Elburgon Town told me. Jacob*, a 35-year old farmer, said security is the peaceful interaction of people from different tribes and neighbourhoods. He stated that “the livelihoods [between different tribes] have to be balanced, otherwise jealousy reigns and there can be no prospect for peace”. Jacob* who is a Kikuyu was fearful that his property could be stolen and thought there was a high likelihood that he could be killed by members of another tribe. Amina*, 35 years old, mother of three, also associated security with freedom of movement. She wished to be able to interact with anyone, regardless of their tribe: “I wish my country could be ruled by a person of any tribe, without tribalism, and that I could move around freely in my country at my one pace and without being afraid of stepping into another tribe’s territory”.

Concerns about tribalism and security dominate people’s daily conversations in Kenya. The newspapers are full of stories about ethnic violence and murder, cattle theft, corruption, bribery, road accidents, assaults, robberies and car-jacking. Molo Town – where we work with Balloon Kenya at the moment – has seen mob lynchings before, i.e. the murder or attempted murder of suspected thieves by an angry mob. Last week, our student Amina* witnessed a mob lynching in front of her house and two other people were killed by angry neighbours while trying to steal cattle. The social acceptance of violence and extra-judicial justice indicates a high mistrust in the police. In fact, some people even fear police officers, rather than seeing them as agents of protection. Some of our fellows have had the distinct displeasure, but a small bribe always does the trick.

Due to this rather negative image that I had of Kenya’s police until this moment, I figured it would be only fair to talk directly to the police and hear their view of things. I went to the nearest police station, flashed my fancy UCL research student ID and asked for an official interview. I was told I could come back another day to interview their superior, the OCPD (Officer Commanding Police Division). Of course until today I am still waiting to meet this mysterious person. However, by navigating my way through the complex hierarchical structures of the police, I have met a couple of nice police officers who were flattered to talk to me about their work (off the record of course).

They told me that police officers go through a 15-month long training and, once graduated, serve between three and five years in a given police station before they are transferred to another location. They usually live with their family in run-down houses on the police compound and earn a salary that their colleagues in Brazil would call a “salario de miseria” [misery salary]. I asked them how they evaluated their relationship with the community. Peter, originally from the Northeast of Kenya said: “Did you watch the news last night? Not a single day passes by without the police being assaulted by the public. Being a police officer is very risky. Yesterday an officer in Nakuru was almost stoned to death by two criminals resisting arrest”. I concluded that to expect the police to play their cards straight would mean to ignore the context in which they are embedded whereby government corruption and clientelism couples with poor police training, a miserable salary and outdated equipments and firearms.

Before I left the police station I was curious to know how the police evaluated the security risk for a “mzungu” working in Molo or Elburgon Town. They laughed and said there was no security risk for foreigners, “unless your hotel stages a robbery and is working together with criminals.” Fortunately, this view was shared by our Balloon Kenya fellows. Asked how satisfied they were with the security they had in the hotel and around town, most were satisfied and believed the worst that could happen was becoming the victim of opportunistic crime, like mugging, or being harassed by drunk men.

Back at our hotel at the end of a long, tiring day, I asked one of the barmen in our hotel how security could be translated to Swahili. He struggled to find an answer and called the hotel’s receptionist for help. After a heated debate, together they proposed to use the word “kusichunga” (to be wary) or “kua mwangalifu” (to be watchful). I thanked them politely and walked off wondering how it is possible that there was no word for something that I have spent three years of my life on. One hour later the receptionist came back to me: “I think I have found a good word for you”, he said proudly, “it is ‘kusalama’(to be peaceful)”.

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