Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was struggling to create a villain for her new novel until she encountered the brutality of City County askaris.
The author of Dust describes the seven-hour ordeal that left her nursing wounds as “dehumanising”.
Owuor, however, finds a literary light-bulb in the experience, saying her upcoming book titled The Long Decay at the moment only has a protagonist.
The novel is “deeply Nairobi” and is the story of a man who has to make peace with his own demons and part of that is to understand the place where he lives and that is Nairobi, she says.
She is convinced that she has found the most “profound encounter” with Nairobi that a city resident can have.
“Now I know. It is right at City Hall,” says the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing winner.
“I’m not blinking about this … I thank the Nairobi City Council; I had needed a villain for the new novel. They have provided me with not only experiential research but the ideal villain,” she says.
Owuor says the villain could be an askari, an official or the whole “system.”
“I will now personalise the system,” she says.
However, her experience was more than art interacting with reality – it details a crooked criminal justice system set to “punish the poor”.
“It is one thing to hear it in the life of others but another to experience it directly,” she says.
The writer had been waiting for a taxi outside Lavington Mall last Thursday morning when she got caught up in a wave of ongoing demolitions sanctioned by City Hall.
“I was so happy about the morning, my beautiful city and the warm sun,” Owuor says.
Siding with the oppressed, she says she was outraged by the force the askaris were using on traders. She says she had interacted with some of the traders and had even demanded to know what was going on until a “burly” man approached her.
Before she knew it, the man had gripped her by her jacket and blouse, and dragged her to a city council vehicle.
“It was so rapid and unreasonable. I thought I was being kidnapped, attacked or robbed,” she says.
After the roughing up and arrest, she was taken to City Hall Court where she was charged with six counts, including hawking fruits and dumping with intent to litter.
Her family paid the Sh40,000 cash bail.
The author says she tried defending herself vigorously as she was being manhandled to no avail. She still has bruises and grazes on her arms and back, and her left hand is on a sling.
She says the ordeal reminded her of the importance of self defence and she would soon enroll for classes.
“It is very easy to die in this city,” says Owuor.
The story takes a more literary turn as the author was saved by a bookmark that had a phone number to a coffee shop where she attends a monthly “book cafe” as she did not have any phone number in memory.
She says the askaris tore her clothes and, in the melee, her phone, spectacles and hand bag were lost.
Owuor says, however, one kind woman askari promised to give back her handbag, which she did.
“There are so many rogue elements but there are also some good people who show humanity. I had felt so dehumanised and humiliated but her gesture made me feel human again,” she says.
But in court on Monday, the prosecutor rebutted that he was “not aware” that she had lost anything, adding that she had “thrown away” her phone in protest.
Owuor also says she was bundled together with other innocent civilians.
Inside City Hall jail, a woman helped her with a “rental” phone and she dialled the number on the bookmark and made a panicky call to a friend who alerted her family.
“Books can save your life. There’s a whole literary thing here,” Owuor says heartily.
She says at the jail; she was advised by the others to plead guilty to all charges so as to end the matter quickly but she declined. They also advised her to appear before the magistrate with her worn out clothes.
She was also outraged that as a “hardcore environmentalist” she was being accused of littering.
“Pleading guilty is like asking me to renounce my God,” she says.