Kenyans' culture of silence and its devastating consequences

This culture of silence has seen cases of gender-based violence and other vices go unreported. [Courtesy]

One of the biggest weaknesses of many Kenyans is their tendency to keep quiet when they witness something going wrong. We rarely speak up in support of a person being victimised, perhaps for fear of being persecuted or having to give police reports. We are known to embrace silence, especially when we feel that other people’s actions do not affect us.

It is common to hear victims of accidents narrate how they noticed that the driver was speeding long before the crash, but did not speak up. In fact, sometimes, other passengers gang up against a lone passenger who tries to call out a speeding driver.

People have been known to mind their own business for months, even years, as neighbours fight and hurt each other in domestic violence cases. Only after someone has lost their life do we hear stories of how ‘they always fought’.

People struggle with mental health challenges and battle depression in silence for fear of victimisation. Family members keep child molestation a secret to safeguard their family honour. Sometimes the silence is propagated by the need to avoid discussing ‘taboo subjects’. Children are shushed whenever they mention that an uncle, auntie or parent has touched them inappropriately.

This culture of silence has seen cases of gender-based violence and other vices go unreported for long, sometimes with devastating results. The story of the passengers in a Nairobi town-bound matatu, who raised alarm over a crying toddler, therefore stands out.

The passengers have demonstrated what we all should do when we see something going wrong. They have set a good example of how much damage we could prevent when we become each other’s keeper. When we do not speak up against perceived crime, perpetrators continue to think that their actions are okay.

We should learn to trust our instincts whenever we feel that someone’s actions (or lack thereof) could hurt us or other people. We need to sensitise our communities on indicators of, for example, gender-based violence, cruelty against children, ill-treatment of persons living with disability, and other ills.

We should normalise conversations on the need to speak up as victims and/or witnesses to these ills. We should create household and community environments that allow open conversations about standing up for what is right and protecting ourselves and our neighbours against ill-treatment. With the recent increase in cases of child kidnapping, the passengers prevented what could easily have been the loss of another child.

Fortunately, there are toll-free numbers that a person can use to report a crime anonymously, including child abuse. However, the journey to a society that talks when it matters requires the efforts of everyone from national to the household level.

There is need to create more awareness on the standard operating procedures that witnesses, as well as survivors of violence, can use to get justice without further risking their lives. At the individual level, we need to understand that being loyal to our families/societies does not necessarily mean hurting one of our own, especially when the victim is a child.

-Dr Kalangi is a communications trainer and consultant, Kenyatta University