Beyond survivors: A writer’s story


Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya

“I was a candidate in the [2008] elections for parliament. I ran because change has to come. I am also a human rights activist. I have appeared many times on TV debate shows, so I am quite well-known to the public. A top priority for me as an MP would be to provide opportunities for the youth. Lots of youths in Kenya are disenfranchised, poor and without hope after finishing their education.

Second, I would focus on improving our health system. Because the big violence here in Kenya is poverty.

My third priority would be women. We form 52% of this country’s population. But even trying to get into a position of leadership here is very difficult.

The arrest

In February 2009 I was in a small demonstration outside our parliament building. We were protesting that the government wasn’t doing anything about the food shortage. At some point a female policeman comes up to me and says: “You know I can arrest you?”. I said: “I know you can, but what have I done wrong? I am here to complain about the price of maize, and why can’t I?”

Anyway, I went to the other side of the street. Now there was only me and a young man. Suddenly the cops arrived in a small car. They got out, grabbed us and said: “Keep quiet!”.  One of them was a senior policeman. He said: “Look, you keep quiet, I know you.”

I replied “I’m just talking to people. I mean, why should…” Then he hit the young man who was with me and threw him to the ground. My first thought was “I gotta run away”. Then “but if I run away he will finish this guy – he is not a public figure like me”

He beat him with his fists and with a stick. Then he came over to me and pushed me towards the car. I fell; he pulled my arm and ripped my clothes. Cameras arrived; before long there were lots of cameras. Still, the damned fellow put his arm inside my dress and pinched my breasts.

We were both thrown into the car. I was in the backseat with my companion and another policeman. The senior guy was in the front seat. He said: “Now there are no cameras here.” Then he started hitting us. On the throat, on the chin, he really punched us both. We were screaming “Stop it! Why are you doing this?? Stop it!” I thought: “My God, he is going to kill us”. He was telling the policeman next to me to beat us, but he was paralysed with fear – he didn’t touch us.

“…until you are silent…”

The window was down, so I started yelling “They are going to kill us – help! help!“. He hit me again – he kept beating us all the way to the police station. He said “I will beat you until you can’t speak anymore, until you are silent and you are under…”

“This can’t be happening to me”, I thought. I told him: “I’ve never ever been hit by a man – stop it!” But he hit me again and I yelled: “Are you going to stop when you break my jaw? What do you want? What have we done?” …But he kept on hitting us, repeating “Now the cameras are not here…” I thought he was going to finish us between here and the cells – because that’s what he was really saying.

When we got to the police station my lip was swollen and my clothes were torn. He pulled out the young man and slapped him and dragged him upstairs. I was left there. Then some of his colleagues put me in a cell.

There are horrible things going on in the cells. Every few minutes they were throwing in someone else. The few women that came in were speechless because of previous torture or harassment. One was pregnant. She couldn’t talk because women police officers had tortured her upstairs – they had threatened to put pepper in her private parts, even when she told them she was pregnant. And they beat her badly.

In the evening, they took us to another police station. They drove very fast. Three minutes down the road the cop behind me said: “You are going to die and you are going to go to hell.”

  “I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people.”

I thought “no, they cannot do it”. And then “yes, they can do it – these things are happening in Kenya.” I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people. They spoke about death all the time. And they kept getting calls on their radios, always answering: “Yeah, we are very near the forest. We are taking them to the forest” and “When we get there, they will never talk again.” So I thought they were taking us somewhere else to see how much more information we had. And I thought: “What do you say when they are beating you for information but you don’t have the information they are after?”

When we got to the second police station I had no idea where we were. The station was totally deserted. I was locked up again, not knowing what was happening.

Going home

I was released sometime during the night. I found out later that IMLU had paid the bond. I don’t know how they got to know about my case. My friend Ann drove me home. I went to bed – I was in a daze, my head was zooming. My son Yusuf – he’s 13 – was sleeping. In the morning he came to my bed and was quiet. Ann had told him about my arrest. I had very dark bruises, which he saw. He was shocked. He said: “Why does it have to be you?”. In the following weeks he was very angry, traumatised.

He feels so helpless – angry at me that I put myself at risk. I tell him: “Look, I do it for you.” I try to tell him it’s not like he comes second and the country comes first. But he is very sharp – he tells me: “What really matters to you is the rest of the world, huh? And your country, not me. Where do you think I am in all this?” It is a very difficult balance.

Some time ago a friend said to me: “How can you keep on? You have a child!” Many people think like this. And it can be very painful, especially when your child is also protesting your engagement. But I tell them: “I’m in it because I have a child and my child will have children! If no one fights it, it may be my son who is picked up next time”. If all those who are afraid for their children’s safety actually did something, that would take us a long way.

I had been summoned to court at 8 am the morning after my arrest. At 3.30 the night before, I woke up and wrote the whole experience down. It was like my head was gonna burst. So many things happened so suddenly.

During the court hearings I had these very strong convulsions. All of a sudden it was as if my body needed to get rid of that had happened in the past two days. I felt like I was gonna throw up, I was gasping for air for a long time until I was able to compose myself.

After going to court I spent the whole day in the cells even though the bond had been paid. That’s because of the slow procedure, which gives many an opportunity to bribe their way out, just to get the bond papers signed. If you do not bribe, it takes much longer – even longer than it took me.

Weeks and months later

Then I was transferred to a hospital. They said I needed trauma counselling and had soft-tissue injuries. I was there for one and a half day. It was nowhere near enough. I was very affected, very traumatised. Later they would pick up the fact that my hand needed six months to heal.. much later… First I didn’t realise it, because I am very strong. But in the weeks and months after I was often teary. I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue. I still remember it and sometimes cry. I feel, you know, ‘why on earth…?

“I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue.”

When I woke up in the morning at the hospital I cried and cried and cried. All the time I thought there were policemen under the bed. I told them: “Look, I feel there is somebody under the bed, somebody dressed in blue, policemen.” And I felt so stupid afterwards. I am this person who goes on TV talking about human rights, a very strong woman, and there I am, sobbing away, claiming there are policemen under the bed!

How else has it affected me? It has made it more difficult for me to cope with all sorts of problems. And I have started becoming more cautious about what I can say. I HATE the feeling that I’ve begun to censor myself to some extent. I’m still outspoken. But I’m more cautious.

The first three nights I was out of Nairobi after my arrest I dreamt three consecutive nights of police arresting me. First, it was just the arrest. The third night it was many of us, activists, being arrested and put in one set of handcuffs. It was nightmarish. I woke up frozen, like: “My God, we’ve been arrested again, they are coming again in their blue uniforms.”

“A substantial part of you has gone.”

The thing about torture – and poverty – is that it steals a place in your mind that is meant for your development, your growth, your enjoyment. All that space is taken. It’s like you are imprisoning that space. If you are a writer, it’s your imagination. First you don’t realise it. But after some time you begin to realise it does matter. A substantial part of you has gone. There’s this gap in your creativity. You are struggling to find that space. Even just to sit down to read a book peacefully. You are reading, and then after 15 minutes you are thinking about that chap who was arrested – are they torturing him? Then your own arrest comes to play. After some time you have no space…

The future

Where would I like to be in 10 years’ time? Well, I really want recognition for my writing. I would love to look back at a series of writings that made sense to people; that tried to bring reason at a very dark time. Things that continue speaking to people in the world.

In a completely different political system I would like to have a strong political position. In this system I don’t even want to hear about the elections in 2012. I don’t believe in this representation by 222 people who hold the country at ransom. I would like to see myself as a powerful person within a different system – a powerful position, which would still allow me to exude moral courage.

And then, it is a dream to see a torture-free society. I can’t live without freedom. Giving up freedom is like giving up being. It is everything. That’s what I would like. So that my son can look back at my life and say: “It made sense!”

Kenya, June 2009
Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya. She blogs at



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