By the time Tecra Muigai Karanja fell to her death in a rental house in Lamu’s Shela village, she and her lover Omar Lali Omar were just a month away from a wedding.
Their two families had discussed it and a date was set, following Omar’s proposal next to a picturesque waterfall that perhaps signified the freefall their relationship had been in since they first met on June 6, 2019.
But unknown to them at the time, the descent of those rushed drops of water into the river below would come to signify the fluidity of their dreams. Their ambitions. And what they hoped life would be.
Like everything else around them, their union started like it ended: with a story.
But while for some it was a love story, for others it was a tragedy. For the couple, it was a yearlong tale of wild romance that saw them immerse themselves in dizzying adventures that took them from the continent’s best beaches to its premium safari destinations, and finally a grave for one and a jail cell for the other.
Their story’s first chapter was set on the sandy beaches of Shela, a village on Lamu Island where Omar has now gone back to but without the person he calls the love of his life.
But even if Omar were not in the picture, it is easy to see why Tecra would be enchanted with island life.
There are few places on earth where one feels in control of their time. Shela is one of them.
The turquoise waters, beachside conversations punctuated by 15-horsepower speedboat engines, plus the heat and the endless opportunities for a swim provide a potent mix. One that can become an addiction for someone running away from or towards something.
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And here, both Omar and Tecra fed their respective addictions to a hassle-free life.
“She was a special lady,” says Omar, 51, in an exclusive interview. “Even I know there can never be another like her.”
Omar is now some sort of celebrity on the island. In the weeks that have followed his lover’s death, he has had tourists come up to him for selfies.
He has had relatives knock on his door early in the morning requesting him to introduce them to the witchdoctor who helped him get free after he was almost charged him with murder.
“They get offended that I don’t share the contacts. Some think I am very selfish because of this,” he says.
Omar might have survived. But just barely. A lot has been said about him since April 23.
But even as his friends and family members remain grateful that he can walk the sandy beaches of Lamu barefoot once again, he has moments when he breaks down. He thinks back to what was, thinks forward to what might have been, before being jolted back to the present.
Often, during these times, he is alone at one of his favourite places on the shores where fishing and sail boats rub against each other gently. Up and down, responding to the rhythm of the ocean as the waves softly beat against their hulls.
Often, during these times, he lights a bonfire, sits next to it with a few stems of khat popping from under his kikoy, and loses himself to the embers of the flame.
“God had his reasons for taking her this early,” he says on one such night. “We will never know why.”
He looks almost as if he is in a trance. As if these same words would come out of his mouth even if he were alone, away from the intrusion of a journalist with many questions.
“I miss many things about her. You would never get bored around her. She never talked ill about anyone else. She was sensible. Always had a smile on her. Her smile and her heart were the same,” he says.
“Sometimes I think if I talk about her like this the world will become jealous and get back at me.”
Omar talks like a man who had put his lover, Tecra, on a pedestal, with superlatives forming the base of every conversation revolving around her.
He says she had a certain light around her. He says with a single look at her you could tell that she was special. He says she liked helping people. He says his four-year-old daughter and a niece, also ten, idolised Tecra and to date, they keep asking him why she has not returned.
He says he is sure there is a lesson somewhere in the events of the past few months, but he is struggling to see what it is.
He says because of her nature, people often took advantage of her, but she always found a way of forgiving them.
After another long look into the fire, Omar says that in a different world, his whole family would be in Naivasha right now because before her death, Tecra had got a number of his siblings jobs in the town.
“Mtu mwenye kukunyooshea mkono kukupa kitu ni mpita njia. Mtu mwenye kukufungulia maisha ni mtu anayekupatia kazi ya kuendelea na maisha yako,” he says. And Tecra did the latter for the Lali household.
Until April 23 when an evening of fun turned tragic, and the light that had drawn the Lalis in went out. It set the stage for a roller-coaster of emotions for two families that were, even then, worlds apart.
Champagne with lunch
Tecra and Omar’s lives were colourful. Like any other lovers, they had good times and bad ones. But there was always colour and spontaneity.
On Christmas Eve of 2019, the couple checked in at one of the island’s high-end hotels. They had, as was now customary, woken up to yet another day of merrymaking. They had champagne served with an early lunch.
Waitstaff who served them are divided on what the main protein for the meal was. Some say it was crab. Others say it was lobster. But what they are absolutely sure about is that the food was served with incredible amounts of pasta, generous amounts of cheese and a homemade chilli sauce.
After the meal, the two wanted something extra to jazz up their day. They couldn’t leave the island because there were no commercial flights. But when they got to the Manda Airstrip, Tecra spotted a two-seater, fixed-wing plane.
They asked who the owner was and if it was available for hire. Fifteen minutes later, they were in Malindi. They shopped around for a few essentials and three hours later chartered the same plane back to Lamu in time for fireworks later that night.
Theirs was an almost Bonnie and Clyde life. Minus the run-ins with the law. For most parts, it seemed like it was them against the world, an attitude that defined the days they spent travelling.
In August 2019, two months after they had met, they flew to Nairobi and hired a Toyota Land Cruiser to explore what lay outside the sandy beaches that had intoxicated them. They went to Meru National Park and toured conservancies with one of Tecra’s cousins and the family driver.
After being away from the country for most of her adult life, for the first time Tecra started thinking of settling back in Kenya. Close friends say before she met Omar, she was already planning to go back to Italy. Those who spoke to us say they are not sure when and how she changed her mind. But after Shela, she had her mind fixed on staying home.
She had already initiated conversations with her parents over the possibility of them hiving off a chunk of family land in Naivasha for her to set up a rustic hotel and campsite.
Already, she had started rearing chicken, turkeys and goats in anticipation of the traffic that would eventually find its way to what would be a boutique restaurant.
But before she settled down, there was some time for at least one last hurrah. And this involved a whirlwind of trips.
On August 30 last year, she and Omar left the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In an hour and a half, they landed in Dar-es-Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport. Tecra’s brother James was just about to celebrate a birthday and the two were not going to miss it. They were in Tanzania for a week before leaving for Zanzibar on September 6.
The Spice Island hosted them for a couple of days before they came back to Nairobi and then proceeded to Addis Ababa on October 12. Their Ethiopian adventures, however, were cut short by what they told friends was a bad flu. On October 22, they flew back to Nairobi and onwards to Naivasha, where another chapter of their relationship would be written.
Wife and children
Omar is well travelled. He lived in the United Kingdom with his wife and children for close to 15 years. At a certain point in his life, he got used to riding on trams, the little comforts that proper cities offer.
He is a holder of a British passport and has lived in the Netherlands, too, where he has another wife and child.
But you don’t imagine these things about him at first glance. Omar’s face is hidden behind a cloud of grey hair, with a matt of dreadlocks on his head.
He can be comfortable in a pair of fitting chinos, but is more at home in a wraparound kikoy. He can be comfortable in a pair of brown, size 11 Clarks — his favourite brand — but he much prefers it when his toes are free and can wiggle in the sand.
He knows that not everyone appreciates the look he has going on but says he was still surprised at the reaction he got when Tecra told her extended family that the two were dating.
“I was called Al Shabaab. Some said I was too old for her. Many thought perhaps I was out to get her money,” he says.
Their union, despite them spending months together, wasn’t well received at first.
And a visit to Naivasha, which forms the setting of the second chapter of their lives, almost broke their relationship, threatening to sever lifelong ties between Tecra and some members of her extended family.
It all started with a WhatsApp message. In it was a selfie Tecra had taken with Omar. There were no hashtags. Only a simple explanation that the man in the photo was Tecra’s boyfriend and she hoped to bring him home soon and introduce him to the family.
So the two went to Naivasha towards the end of October 2019, and this time opted to rent a house rather than spend most of their time in hotels. But then things took an unexpected turn.
Omar sees the events of that day as an ambush. But to some, it was an intervention. He claims someone called and told him some of Tecra’s relatives were coming to the house the couple was staying in.
When the cars pulled up in the driveway, Omar panicked.
“I don’t know why I did what I did,” he says.
He ran away from the house and hid in a guard house.
“I felt like my life was in danger. I was far from home and I knew they had not taken a liking to me. Plus, who was I to them? I felt they could do whatever they wanted to me and no one would ask a question.”
As he fled, Tecra followed. After reasoning things out a bit, they agreed that she goes back to the house.
The intervention lasted the entire day, and when it ended, it was thought that a resolution had been arrived at. But Tecra stood her ground. She wanted to live her life as she pleased.
By the time the ‘intervention’ party had left, the couple had made up their minds to return to the seaside peace they had grown accustomed to.
Tecra, just like Omar at some point, had also got used to the little pleasures of the First World. There are things she had never done in her life, but after that intervention in Naivasha, she was about to do one of them for the first time.
By all accounts, Tecra was a child of privilege, so when the duo decided to make their way to Lamu minus the comforts of cash on demand, it was only natural that Omar takes the lead.
With the little cash they had, they took a matatu from Naivasha to Nairobi. They then proceeded to Accra Road to buy bus tickets to Mombasa before proceeding to Malindi and eventually to Lamu.
Time, however, was not on their side. By the time they got to the station, most buses to Mombasa had already left. The only available one had two open seats: one in the middle, the other at the back.
“We tried to reason with the passengers to switch with us, but none of them agreed,” Omar says. He is not sure whether what he did next was guided by love or infatuation.
“She was shaken, so I couldn’t let her sit by her own, so I sat on the aisle with her on the chair,” he says.
The floor soon became too hard for him though. They then decided that Omar takes the seat and Tecra sits on his laps.
“But she wasn’t light, so after a while, I had to surrender the seat to her again,” he says.
As this went on, a conductor took pity on the fleeing couple and gave Omar a cushion. It might have been just a few inches thick, but for the rest of the journey, Omar felt like he sat on feathers.