My brother’s keeper: The anatomy of apathy in modern day Kenya

Akinyi Obange
“Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings” ~ Helen Keller.

A friend of mine once narrated his experience with robbery in Nairobi, or “Nairoberry” as it is known. One night at home, while thugs were in the process of relieving him of his earthly possessions; his wife let out a blood curdling scream, naturally to alert neighbours of their plight. His wife was a brave one, you see, and so she kept up the screams of “Mwizi! Mwizi!” for a while even after being roughed up by one of the thugs. They were wondering what was taking the neighbours so long to come to their rescue when suddenly; they heard the creaking sound of a window opening and their neighbour shouting “Baba Dennis, patiana ile kitu wanataka ndio tulale!! (Baba Dennis, give them whatever they want so we can sleep!!)”. Shocked and without options, my friend and his wife resigned themselves to fate.

Over the last few weeks, we have woken up to sordid reports of domestic violence. The collective outrage expressed by Kenyans on social media in response to these reports sprung the office of the DPP into immediate action. One Daudi Nzomo pled guilty to causing bodily harm to his wife and has now been sentenced to 12 years in prison while a man who chopped off his wife’s hand in Kisii County is currently on the run from the police manhunt that was launched to bring him to book.

Curiously, reports of violence meted out by women against men have for the most part been met with indifference, laughter and jeers in segments of social media. “How does a man allow himself to be beaten by a woman?” seems to be the running question. These incidences have revealed a double standard in the way Kenyans perceive domestic violence: perpetrated on women, domestic violence is horrific; perpetrated on men, no harm done, we seem to be saying. Thankfully, the office of the DPP has done its unbiased duty by calling for the arrest and prosecution of these violent women as well. The law, after all, is blind and cuts both ways; what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

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Even more curiously, in every incidence of domestic violence that was brought to our attention on social media there were spectators standing idly by as the violent episodes unfolded. Not a single person intervening. This display of apathy brings to mind the phenomenon of the “bystander effect”. In the wee hours of March 13th 1964, a twenty eight year old woman in New York named Kitty Genovese was stabbed several times, over half an hour, to her eventual excruciating death; a death that was witnessed by thirty eight bystanders (neighbours and passers by). The horrific mental image of this frightened young woman, bleeding and dying as her neighbours ignored her desperate screams; inspired behavioral scientists to investigate the dynamics of bystander inaction that is now taught in many introductory psychology classes across the US. Reportedly, the reason for this apathy that is becoming emblematic of society is simple: people simply do not want to get involved. In fact, it is this very knowledge that emboldened Kitty Genovese’s murderer in the first place. Asked how he could attack Kitty with so many potential witnesses around he chillingly stated “I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do”.

Closer home, the bystander effect has been propped up by the culture of silence. As ‘Dust’ author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor said, Kenyans speak three languages fluently: English, Kiswahili and the language of silence. We witness a crime, we stay silent; afraid to speak out and intervene if no one else is intervening. “Pambana na hali yako! (Mind your own business!)” is the mantra these days. Our silence gradually breeds indifference to the plight of others and before we know it, we have morphed into a society that videotapes an assault instead of intervening to stop it. Before we know it, we have become these cold, heartless people who stand idly by as evil triumphs.

I applaud the office of the DPP for ordering the arrest of such heartless people. It is not enough to simply witness a criminal act; we must all come to the aid of a fellow Kenyan in distress even if we have to be legislated into doing so. In the words of Martin Luther King, “the law was not made to change hearts; the law was made to restrain the heartless”. Let us all be our brother’s keeper today.

The author of the article is MSc student at University of Nairobi

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