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Murder in the family: Experts lift the lid on why wedded bliss can turn fatal

Monday July 21 2014

How the Nation has reported the murder incidents. FILE

How the Nation has reported the murder incidents. FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

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Cases of fatal attacks against spouses have been on the increase across the country.

This has raised questions on what could be triggering the killings and fuelling the epidemic that has left many families in shock and tears.

Three months ago, a 32-year-old man in Kilifi killed his neighbour with a panga, accusing him of having an affair with his wife. He then turned the weapon on his wife before slitting his throat.

The local chief said that the man had reported the infidelity to him but attempts to reconcile them had borne no fruit.

In yet another case four months ago, a 37-year-old man from Muhoroni in Kisumu County poisoned his wife, 10-month-old baby and their househelp before hanging himself. Those who knew the couple told the Daily Nation that Fredrick Muhindi had complained that his wife, Eunice, had been involved in an extra-marital affair.

Just as shocking was the case of Paul Mwangi who, in 2010, stabbed his wife of over 10 years, Serah Wambui, to death and then turned the murder weapon against his sleeping children, a 10-year-old and a one-year-old.


He would have killed his third son too had the boy not escaped his father’s wrath. Mwangi, a casual labourer, then hanged himself in the same room in which his family lay in a pool of blood.

His mother, Sarah Muthoni, could not understand why her son had committed the beastly act yet he had stopped taking alcohol and there was no evidence that he was troubled.

What could be making some spouses turn against their loved ones and children?

Experts single out various triggers of this shocking violence. The two common ones are money-related stress and infidelity.

“Financial difficulties can weigh anyone down, and if one has been going through a very difficult financial period for a long time, it can push some to despair, to the point of becoming suicidal, said Dr Dan Mugera, a counselling and organisational psychologist.

According to him, infidelity also has the potential to cause psychological trauma that can trigger violent behaviour, including murder. He said that spouses can hit out against their loved ones in act of revenge.

But why kill innocent children?

“Such a person reasons that in his absence, the children will suffer. In his mind, killing them will spare them the suffering he foresees. However, there are some who kill their children to make their spouse suffer,” said Dr Mugera.

In a few instances, a spouse can turn his or her anger on one’s family when there is a threat of separation or divorce. This happens in cases where the spouse threatens to leave, or actually leaves.

This was what happened to a 23-year-old man from Kirinyaga County who stabbed his estranged 19-year-old wife to death and then hanged himself. Eunice Wanjiru was living with a relative after fleeing her matrimonial home in 2013 following a domestic quarrel.

Her husband visited her there, and when no one was looking, stabbed her to death before fleeing. His body was found a few days later.

Financial challenges that show no signs of relenting can sow discord in a marriage, even one that was stable and happy.

“If you can no longer afford to educate your children, feed and clothe your family, it can affect you adversely – it becomes worse if your spouse does not support you, or blames you for your predicament,” said Ms Eunice Kamau, a counsellor. Her explanation is borne out by one particular incident.

In October 2012, a 30-year-old man slit his wife’s throat and then hanged himself. The couple, who had been married for one-and-a-half years, used to argue constantly, with the woman accusing her husband of failing to pay rent and school fees for their son.

Tellingly, neighbours said the man had tried to commit suicide a day before he killed his wife, but survived after jumping from the seventh floor of the flats he lived.


Although the action of killers within the family come as a shock to other people, psychologists argue that in some instances there are those who kill to protect their family. The logic, however twisted, of a desperate man taking his life and that of his family, says counselling psychologist Shadrack Kirunga, is to protect one’s family from suffering, shame and other perceived situations that he feels are too much to handle.

Relatives always seem surprised that someone they knew so well could kill a spouse. Are there warning signs, or do these individuals simply snap one day and go wielding a panga?

“There may be forewarning in some cases. For instance, it is easy to notice when your spouse is sinking into depression, or showing signs of mental disturbance. If this is connected to a known challenge like job loss or marital failure, then help should be sought immediately,” advises Mr Kirunga.

Other warning signs, which one should never ignore, include comments that imply a threat to kill or to commit suicide.

“Only a warped or troubled mind can make such threats, and in quite a number of cases, these people carry out the threats they make,” warns Mr Kirunga.

Other signs include a spouse who suddenly, or over time, becomes violent and abusive, both physically and verbally. A spouse should be wary if a person who was normally talkative becomes quiet and reserved.

In some cases though, it is difficult to spot the red flag because some people are good at keeping up appearances. This, Mr Kirunga points out, is especially common with men, who tend to keep their problems to themselves, a factor that can easily lead to depression.

Signs of desperation are, however, easier to spot in women, who are more expressive. In many cases, by the time a woman resorts to suicide or infanticide, she will have tried to solve her problems every way possible, including sharing with a friend. Taking her life and that of her children would often be a last resort.