Stress, hopelessness turns many into family butchers

Friday March 16 2018

Hellen Atieno is consoled by her friends at Masana village, Vihiga County, on March 11, 2018 following the murder of her children by her co-wife. PHOTO | ONDARI OGEGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Ezekiel Kagiri Njue was arraigned at a Nakuru court for doing the unthinkable.

It is alleged on March 11 he used a belt to strangle his four-year-old son to death.

What followed prompted the courts to have him undergo a psychiatric test to establish if he is mentally stable.

Njue, using a hammer and nails, crucified the body in the house and fled.

At daybreak on Monday, last week, in the Jersey City of New Jersey in the US, Henry Okong’o, 51, a Kenyan living in the US, shot his wife Lydia Okong’o, 40, multiple times in the chest and abdomen and killed her. He then pulled the trigger on his head, ending his life.

The couple’s bodies were found by neighbours in their house in 2 Mina Drive, in the freshest incident of domestic violence that was widely reported in the US and the local media.


READ: Kenyan couple found dead in US

According to neighbours, the Okong’o’s had had “a tough marriage” and “quarrelled a lot” during their on-and-off relationship.

The police are still untangling the murder mystery. When a heavily pregnant Priscillah Wangeci, 34, visited her in-laws in Ongata Rongai in February, little did she know that her life would soon be snuffed out before she could bring her twins into the world.

Wangeci, a primary school teacher in Dandora, Nairobi, had visited her husband’s family only to be found dead the following morning in the room where she had been sleeping in circumstances that remain cryptic three weeks later.

Her in-laws claimed Wangeci had committed suicide. The autopsy indicated strangulation. Wangeci’s husband Morris Mbugua allegedly plotted the murder in conjunction with his family while in Dubai where he is said to work.

The assault, rape and dousing with acid in January that Lucy Njambi suffered in the hand of her attackers before her horrific death two days later is still raw in the minds of Kenyans.

The ghastly incident stirred a frenzy of indignation across the country and personified the length to which villains are ready to go to mete out brutality on their victims.

READ: Lucy Njambi's killers forced her to swallow acid

In February, a man hacked his wife with a machete before hanging himself in Ihithe in Tetu, Nyeri County.

This catalogue of horrors goes on and on. Yet these are only the cases reported in the media.

While violence, separation and divorce have always characterised marriages, spousal murders were almost unheard of in the country until recently.

Homicides are now almost a daily occurrence; before the country recovers from the shock of a macabre murder, another slaughter hits the headlines.

Crimes of passion constitute a significantly large proportion of all murder cases in Kenya today, pointing out to a country entangled in a meshwork of social stresses, and what represents a new low in human civilisation.

At the centre of these bloody marital storms have been innocent and vulnerable children, some as young as a few months only, who suffer the same carnage as their parents slaughter each other.

On Sunday March 11 at Got Kabindi in Kisumu County, Jacinta Atieno, 30, butchered her co-wife’s three children aged between one and six years before taking her own life and that of her unborn baby in heartlessness that is almost peerless.

The Okong'o’s two children aged between one and three years watched in horror as their father killed their mother before killing himself.

Even more remarkable are the parallels drawn by such crimes: Bloodcurdling, callous and execution style murders, mostly by strangulation, frying, clubbing or hacking.

So, are there factors besides the common cases of infidelity and inheritance disputes that could be feeding this unprecedented spate of murderous spite?

Has murder become so easy to execute among Kenyans? Is Kenya fast descending into a “homicidal” country?

A psychiatrist and a criminologist dredge through triggers believed to fuel this dramatic lunacy that has gripped the country by the scruff of its neck.

Dr Mary Kuria, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Nairobi, cites a strong connection between mental health disorders and gory murders in the family.

“Mental disorders from chronic alcohol and drug abuse, schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder where a person experiences hallucinations) and delusional disorder may all predispose a person to homicidal acts,” she says.

She adds: “People with a poor or no social support system have a high risk of becoming homicidal.

"It isn’t only the quantity of social connectedness but also the quality of these interactions. Is the person, for instance, connected to his or her workmates, family, club and God? Does the person have a confidante?”

The couple involved will usually have occasional quarrels, tiffs that neighbours dismiss as negligible until tragedy happens — confirming the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates: The hottest love has the coldest end.

According to Dr Kuria, other social risk factors that may fuel homicides include poverty arising from unemployment and cultic engagements.


And rightly so, discernible variances exist between poor families and the economically endowed.

Brutal murders are more likely to occur among poorer families or those slightly above the poverty line.

Shootings rather than gory hackings are more common in well-off families.

Could the frustration of poverty be powering barbarism? And what are the economics of family-related homicides?

“The harsh economic realities that have gripped the country in recent years too are perpetuating homicides considerably,” Mwenda Mbijiwe, a criminology expert and security analyst, says.

“It’s frustrating when the breadwinner in a family is unable to cope with the unbearably high cost of living.

"This frustration builds up and explodes into spite. At this point, the person chooses to kill his or her dependants then commits suicide rather than see them suffer,” he explains.

Disputes over wealth, he adds, could also motivate murder in the family, as one spouse or siblings seek to take control of their family estate.

A homicide is capable of triggering another one elsewhere, in what Mbijiwe describes as mass psychology.

“Today, people are constantly being bombarded with information about murders from both electronic and social media.

"These grim reports affect some people emotionally. They will therefore replicate what they heard or read about in media as an outlet for the unsettling information overload,” Mbijiwe explains, adding that the growing trend of intolerance in the world is also to blame for brutalities.

Dr Kuria says adults who become homicidal, even without suffering from mental illness, will mostly direct their aggression towards persons they know, usually their family.

“It is rarely an indiscriminate act. This is never an act of love but vicious hatred which has built up over time. With poor impulse control, the person feels the need to kill to justify his or her thoughts,” she argues.

She describes as wanting the state of mental health education among Kenyans, despite the rising cases of family murders.

“Mental health education should be widely available, and risk factors to homicides identified and prevented with an emphasis on how to identify risk factors and how to prevent them,” she says.

Research shows that one in every four Kenyans is likely to suffer from mental illness in their lifetime.

There are however only 88 trained psychiatrists in the country, and slightly above 400 nurses trained to handle mental illness.

The country has 14 mental hospitals only, each with an average bed capacity of 20 to cater for more than 45 million Kenyans.

“Counselling services should be availed to all those who need them. All forms of domestic conflicts should be resolved soberly and in time to prevent build-up of homicidal thoughts,” she says.

According to Mbijiwe, the way homicide cases are handled in the judiciary may deter or encourage other acts of savagery in future.

“People no longer frown upon murder cases because suspects are set free by the courts all the time. This boils down to the role of the police in murder investigations,” he says.

He adds, Lucy Njambi’s husband Samuel Ndung’u, the main suspect in her murder, was charged in court together with two others, but released on bond this week, even as the prosecution described Ndung’u as a dangerous man capable of manipulating and even harming witnesses.

“The quality and standards of murder investigations is so low in Kenya because our police are ill-equipped, both in terms of information and the apparatus to thoroughly and sufficiently investigate such crimes. This compromises the cases which lets dangerous people back into the society.”

While family has traditionally offered love, comfort and a sense of safety, today, however, one’s relations are potentially as dangerous as other criminals out there.