Burial of woman in spousal attack stirs memories of mother's fate

Casket bearing the remains of Hellen Murugi Njoki arrives at her maternal home ahead of her burial. [File, Standard]

The long winding roads are bumpy and uneven snaking through the lush green fields of Kathare village in Kirinyaga Central.

There is a flurry of activities here since the village has three funerals on this day. Relatives and friends have gathered to bid farewell to their loved ones.

It is a densely populated area, and so homes here are close to each other. There is little space to park the few cars that have arrived with mourners. The vehicles are parked on the pathways that lead to neighbours’ homes.

So close-knit is this community that villagers take turns to make brief appearances from one home to the next in a show of solidarity as they pay their last respects to the fallen.

Out of the three homes, one is especially sombre, as the less than 50 mourners sit under two tents waiting for the master of ceremony to share the programme for the day.

The family is mourning the death of their daughter and sister, Helen Murugi Njoki who was killed on May 31, in a brutal case of gender-based violence (GBV).

The mother of two was only 40-years-old and was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband using a kitchen knife at their home in Thika town. He is alleged to have turned the same knife on himself and is fighting for his life at a Thika hospital. 

Casket bearing the remains of Hellen Murugi Njoki. [File, Standard]

Murugi’s case would have been just another statistic, after all, according to the 2022 Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS), 54 per cent of Kenyan women aged between 15 and 49 have reported experiencing physical violence from a husband or intimate partner.

Another 34 per cent have been physically abused by a former husband or intimate partner.

However, Njoki is not just a worrying statistic. Her case is unique in the sense that her mother, too, was a survivor of the most horrific case of GBV in Kenya.

Her family is wary of strangers - understandably so. It is a family that has suffered a double tragedy which has painted the grim picture of gender-based violence in the country.

In 1983, the family was in the spotlight after their mother Piah Njoki, mother of Murugi, experienced a horrific attack from her husband, an incident that The Standard reported extensively in the years after.

Jackson Kaguai and Njoki had been married for 15 years and had five daughters, but in a fit of rage, he pinned down his wife and used broken glass to gouge out her eyes.

Njoki survived the attack, but the brutality of it all left her blind. She was to live for 25 years after that attack, passing away in 2009.

At the time it was a case that made national headlines as the attack shocked Kenyans. The matter was brought up by the Kenyan delegation to the 1995 United Nations Women's conference in Beijing as an example of why violence against women must be fought hard and ended. 

Relatives and teachers who had the opportunity to teach with Murugi’s mother Njoki were saddened by her untimely death. 

Piah Njoki (left). She experienced a horrific attack from her husband. [File, Standard]

Grace Mugambi was a close friend of Njoki as they taught at Kiaga Primary School where they shared heart-to-heart discussions under a mango tree in the school compound often after lessons. 

She narrated to The Standard how they would enjoy spending time together and would sit in for other teachers in case of emergencies. 

“As fellow teachers, we had seen how he (Njoki’s husband) used to mistreat her even in front of the pupils. The male teachers who tried to intervene were no match for him so they let him be,” she said. 

“Murugi was beautiful, always smart, humble, and loving as teachers who had the opportunity to work with we miss her,” said Ms Mugambi. 

On Thursday, Murugi was buried next to her mother, grandparents and one of her sisters in their family home. 

Murugi was born on May 24, 1984, and raised at her maternal home. She was killed seven days after celebrating her 40th birthday. 

Muriuki Kiura, a clan representative, said as a family they accepted Murugi’s return after their mother Piah came back pregnant with her and was allowed to stay. He said she had been facing life-threatening attacks. 

“When she grew up, Murugi moved with her mother to Thika where Piah was enrolled at the Thika school for the blind. Murugi would later on come to the village for her education at the St. Agnes boarding school a Catholic school in Baricho,” Muriuki said.