By the time Keroche heiress Tecra Karanja and her lover Omar Lali got to Mombasa, the two were done with bus rides. Tecra called a close friend who sent her some money and the rest of the journey was completed by air.
Back home though, her family was not at peace and tried to reach Tecra, just to know if she was okay.
But when she wanted, Tecra could be stubborn. And single-minded. And could shut you out of her life and ghost you until she felt in a safe enough space to engage.
It was close to a month before she answered the phone calls from home that sought to know how she was doing.
Eventually, it was agreed that a close relative would fly down to Lamu to find out how life on the island was treating her. After that visit, a verdict would be reached.
Tecra was doing fine, and was showing no indications that she would leave the island, at least not any time soon. Tecra would later reconnect with her family, and crucially, got introduced, formally, to the man who had won her heart.
This sort of legitimisation of the relationship took a huge weight off their shoulders and soon, the two were thinking of a future. A family. And everything in between. But, again, there always looked to be one more huddle in their journey. This time, the hurdle proved insurmountable.
The first time the two talked of a life together, they were at the Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The church, that is more like a cathedral is commonly referred to as Kidist Sellasie and represents most of the things that Ethiopians hold dear and sacred.
The church compound is the burial place for those who fought against the Italian occupation and those who accompanied the Emperor into exile from 1936 to 1941. The Emperor Haille Sellasie and his wife the Empress Menen Asfaw are buried to the North of the cathedral.
It is around this rich history that the two first joked about the idea of marriage, and without any ceremony or fanfare agreed to marry each other. Deep down though, Omar knew he had to make a proper proposal. So he bid his time. From Addis, they went to Tanzania, then to Zanzibar.
The next time they were in Kenya, he went down on bended knee and asked for Tecra’s hand in marriage – properly this time.
“She said yes,” he says.
The photo they took on that day captures the range of emotions running through both man and woman.
Omar goes down on his knee. He asks the question. Tecra moves back as if shocked by the question. Then says yes and jumps on Omar. All that they needed to settle on was a date. And they did.
May 30 looked promising. Only their closest friends would be invited. Plus, family. But before then, Tecra had to get immersed into the role of wife that she would play in coming months. So she started taking cooking lessons from Omar’s sister and mother. You’d find her, clad in a dera, head wrapped to cover her hair, making Friday biryani.
Then the two flew out to check the progress on the developing business in Naivasha – the rustic restaurant and campsite. But it is while they were there that Omar’s youngest daughter came to visit from the Netherlands.
“I flew back home to be with my child. A few days later she joined me,” he says.
Then the lockdown happened.
On March 25, the Kenyan airspace was shut down. A week later, movement into Nairobi by road was also stopped. Omar and Tecra found themselves locked on the island.
Now the rainy season in the sparsely populated Manda Island that the two had made a home in is far away from the bright pictures in tourism brochures. For islanders, rain comes with bugs. Snakes. Mosquitoes and rough tides. So the couple chose to move from Manda, to the more populated Shela, a decision arrived at on April 18.
A big part of the day was spent house hunting. “We looked at several houses but she didn’t like them,” Omar says.
Eventually, they made way to a Jaha House, a three storeyed, 4-bedroomed popular holiday rental. They both liked the house, so they settled on it, agreeing on a cost of around Sh9,000 a day, cheaper than the resorts they were living in before that would charge upwards of Sh20,000 a night.
Life settled into a routine over the next week. And soon, they had thoughts of having friends over to see what they were up to and scheduled a mixer for April 24. So they went shopping. Bought some alcohol, passion juice and madafu.
Then when they got home, on the evening of April 23, Tecra made soup for both of them.
“But God had his own plans,” Omar says. “I never even got to drink the soup, the last meal she made for me,” Omar says.
On that night, there were sounds of laughter and joy from Jaha House.
“It was as if they were having the best of time,” a staff member we spoke to said. “It was as if they were reliving their best memories.”
A few hours later though, it went quiet, and then the frantic calls for help.
“There was some drinking,” Omar says. “So I blacked out. This was the first time since we knew each other that I went to sleep before her. I had always made a point of making sure she sleeps before I did.”
Omar says the next thing he heard was something fall down with a thud. Then a muffled scream. Just once. But loud enough to wake one up.
“I was startled. I went down stairs and found her on the staircase. We were alone. She wasn’t moving. I thought I lost her on the spot,” Omar says. “Then I started mouth to mouth.”
It was around a quarter past 5am.
The resuscitation helped and Tecra regained consciousness.
Minutes later, Quswai Lali was startled awake by a call from his elder brother Omar.
“He told me to rush to Jaha House and that there had been an emergency,” Quswai says. “She (Tecra) was trying to talk but words couldn’t come out.”
Tecra was in great pain and bleeding from the ear.
They needed more help.
So Omar called his brother-in-law Ali Bakari.
“He told me he needed help. I asked him what help he needed. He told me that Tecra had fallen down the stairs,” Ali Bakari said.
Ali Bakari, who works as a night rescue boat operator for the county government didn’t go alone. He called his friends Yahya and Ahmed Ali.
When he got to the scene, he says, he saw Omar propping Tecra up and asked if there were any chairs they could use. In a few minutes, the five men dashed out of the house, navigating around the narrow alleys of Shela in search of medical help.
Healthcare services in Shela mirror those in many other parts of rural Kenya. They are few and far from ideal. The nearest one to them was Shela Dispensary. They had to make a dash for it.
At around 5:45am, the dispensary received a call from Jaha House. There had been an emergency that required a house call. But the staff members on duty that night were caught between a rock and a hard place. There was another ongoing emergency at the facility as well.
A pregnant mother was having a complicated delivery. So they told the occupants of Jaha House to try and bring their patient to the dispensary.
Some minutes to 6am, three gentlemen rushed into the dispensary. They were carrying a plastic chair. On it sat a woman. Hunched forward. It was Tecra.
Dispensary staff declined to speak to us and said they were under instruction to refer all queries to the King Fahd administrator’s office, which turned down our requests for interviews on what happened on that day.
However, witnesses we spoke to said that at the time she was being admitted, Tecra was in pain. And was a bit incoherent. She couldn’t keep calm and looked unsettled.
But the doctors who received her were in a dilemma. It proved quite challenging to communicate to either Tecra or Omar. The two were, again from witness accounts, drunk. So she was put under some dextrose to try and counter the effects of what health workers diagnosed as alcohol in her body.
This calmed her down. But the attending medical officers noticed something else. She was bleeding from her left ear. And it didn’t seem like there was much for them to do. They examined her to determine whether there could be any other sources of the pain but found none.
They then decided to refer her to King Fahd Referral Hospital.
But before she left, she talked to the medical staff present and, according to witnesses, called someone whom they say was her father.
Shela Dispensary isn’t unfamiliar to Omar. It is less than 100 metres from Omar’s house which is separated from his mother’s and brother’s by the narrowest of alleys. So when he called his brother and brother-in-law for help, they walked the few steps up a gentle slope to the health facility.
Jaha House, where the two spent their days, is less than 200 metres from the dispensary. On that day, everything happened within a 200 metres radius.
The trip to King Fahd Referral Hospital was by speed boat. They were there in less than two minutes. By this time, they were joined by one of Omar’s sisters, Fadhila. It was now 7am and after being received, Tecra was sent for a scan.
“We were told the results would be out in three hours,” Omar said.
As they waited for the results, Tecra looked like she was recovering. Medical records show that she woke up at least three times from her bed to use the washroom. “At 9am, I called her parents to let them know what was going on,” Omar says. “The doctor came it at 10am.”
By midday, the scan results had not come in. Two hours later, still nothing. By this time, Omar says the doctors were not giving him enough information, and he says, he hardly understood what they were saying. So he made a call to Tecra’s mother.
“I thought she probably was with a doctor and could be able to interrogate what they were saying. But the doctors refused to talk to her,” he says.
It was now 4pm. The doctors at King Fahd were contemplating taking Tecra for more specialised treatment. To Mombasa. Via road. This is when Omar made another call to Tecra’s family. They needed to evacuate her.
At around 8pm an air rescue plane landed at Magogoni Airstrip located within the American base that had been attacked by Al Shabaab militants in early January. At around 11pm, the air ambulance touched down in Nairobi’s Wilson Airport.
From there, an ambulance transferred her to the Nairobi Hospital where she was quickly taken for another scan. “We got the results in a few minutes,” Omar says. “We were told that the results we got in King Fahd were different from what the Nairobi Hospital ones showed.”
He adds: “The doctor said that we let her heal naturally. At that time, I felt that everything was going to be okay. So we left the hospital.”
The trip from Lamu to Nairobi Hospital lasted just over an hour. During the entire time, as Tecra was put on oxygen and on monitors in the airborne hospital ward, Omar was with her. Hoping and willing her to live.
All those kilometres away, Tecra’s family too was concerned. By this time, there was a little bit of panic within them. Since morning, family member cellphones had been lighting up with updates from the King Fahd. From the first call that Omar made to Tecra’s parents to when they left for Nairobi. There was an air of anxiety over what was going on.
Omar’s explanation was sufficient at the time. After all, Tecra would wake up and let them all know what happened on that April night. But she didn’t, and the anxiety grew into something more. It grew into suspicion.
The days following Tecra’s hospitalisation were strange ones for Omar. After leaving the hospital that night, he retreated into her family home in Nairobi’s Runda Estate. The next day, he was chauffeured by a driver, who was well known to him, to the Nairobi Hospital to visit Tecra.
She was recovering. All indications were that she would pull through. But things would quickly take a dramatic turn.
A report at the Kilimani Police Station, OB No.87/27/4/2020 made by Tecra’s mother, Tabitha, detailed the events that led to her daughter’s hospitalisation – from the fall to the evacuation. The statement was in support of a murder charge that had been initiated by the Lamu West DCI office.
“Three days later, I called to ask whether I can go to the hospital to see Tecra but I was told that there was no need. The doctors had said she was getting better,” he says.
He later learnt that plans were being made to get him back to Lamu. He was required to send back a few personal items.
On May 1, Omar, a driver and an individual who was acting as a bodyguard left for Lamu by road.
By the time the travellers got to Mtito Andei, a town some 240 kilometres south east of Nairobi, Tecra’s mother called Omar.
“I could tell she was distressed. She asked me what I had done to her daughter,” he says. “It was all confusing, but we went on with the journey.”
The trio got to Mokowe, on Lamu’s mainland on Saturday May 2, took a boat to Shela where the two other gentlemen took Tecra’s belongings.
Omar went to see his mother in Shela. After the visit, he was arrested and taken to Lamu Central Police Station. The station is placed on one of the highest points of the island, and as Omar walked up the steep hill and into a cell, he didn’t know it would be close to a month before he descended that hill again a free man.
The two-day journey had got to him. He was tired, so he left his phone at the OB desk and went into the cell.
On May 3, he woke up and went to check on his phone. His mailbox was flooded with condolence messages and missed calls, many of them from his eldest daughter. So he called her back.
“She told me Tecra had died,” Omar says. “My heart sunk.”
A week after the death of Tecra, a team of investigators was dispatched from Nairobi. Lamu is set up in such a way that no matter how good a detective you are, you cannot sneak ashore. The boat captains will tell each other about you and before you check into your hotel, almost all the villages will know of your presence, and most importantly of your mission.
This was no different for the eight officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations that landed at Manda Island, and then proceeded, by speed boat, to Shela village. The men spent the next five days asking questions, visiting different scenes and trying to piece together events on the night of April 23.
By the time they left, even village elders knew that the team of eight was split right in the middle. Four were acting for the state. Four were on the island at the request of Tecra’ family to possibly dig up the truth and bring some sort of closure.
Closure though, for all involved seemed distant.
The trial of Omar for murder began on July 16 the way his lover’s life ended. In uncertainty. Weeks after being granted bail by a Lamu court, Omar was taken to a Garsen court staring at a murder charge.
Two days before he was taken to court, the office of the Director of Public Prosecution in Lamu received what looked like new evidence in the case that, in their own words ‘was sufficient to prefer a murder’ charge on the 51-year-old. That was on Friday of July 10.
There had been no charge yet. Just investigations. There were of foul play in Tecra’s death. But nothing more than that. After spending weeks in remand while investigations went on, Omar remained certain that a murder charge was not on the cards.
Court proceedings were supposed to start at 10am. At 2pm, it still hadn’t started. Then, in the sweltering heat of Garsen Law courts, where the case had been moved to from Lamu law courts where he had been charged initially, the magistrate walked in at around 3:30pm and started the proceedings.
It seems it was too early to determine whether there was a murder case. And in a complete turn of events, public prosecutor Eddie Kadebe announced to the courts that his office had opted to take another direction.
“The other side was represented by lawyers James Orengo and others but they are not here. We will first withdraw the murder charges and take the direction of an inquest,” said Kadebe.
Omar collapsed in a heap, thinking that perhaps vindication was coming his way since barely two days earlier, the same court had allowed Kadebe to prefer murder charges against Omar after months of investigations, saying detectives had gathered enough evidence to charge him with Tecra’s murder.
Kadebe had earlier said the toxicological evidence, postmortem reports, phone records including documentary exhibits and witness statements proved that Omar was behind the murder of Tecra.
Even as the case was sent for an inquest, crucial elements could still not be agreed upon.
First, an investigations report by the Lamu West Directorate of Criminal Investigations paint Omar with a different shade of paint.
“Investigations reveal that during the 10-month relationship between the two, Omar exhibited weird personal traits of aggressiveness, possessiveness and was jealous. He physically engaged in fights and confrontations with any person whom he suspected or thought was a threat by coming into social contact with the deceased,” the report reads.
It mentions one particular incident when Omar physically fought a reveler at a bar in Lamu.
Omar says that the reveler had touched Tecra inappropriately. Some witnesses who spoke to the authorities also said that Omar kept Tecra away from some of her friends.
He says that the only friends he kept off Tecra were those who were introducing ‘bad habits’ to her.
An autopsy report, which ought to have provided some definitive information remains divisive to date. The postmortem conducted on May 12, 2020, indicated the deceased succumbed to head injuries occasioned by blunt trauma.
The pathologists from both Omar’s side and Tecra’s family could not rule out the fact that the trauma could have been caused by Omar’s hand. Neither could they rule out the fact that it could have been caused by a fall. At the end, Tecra’s death could either be a near perfect crime, or an unfortunate incident.
Eventually, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions dismissed the murder charges. There wasn’t enough evidence to sustain it.
His freedom though is far from assured. Once in a while he gets strange calls to his phone.
“People call to tell me they will come for my head,” he says. “Amid these are people who know me very well because sometimes they even tell me where I am and what I am doing.”
He says he remains unafraid. Unafraid of death as he was unafraid of love.