Concern as domestic violence deaths on the rise in diaspora

Saturday March 10 2018

domestic violence

The later Henry Okong'o and his wife Lydia at a past wedding party. Their marriage was troubled. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Zachary Moitui, a Kenyan-born resident of Jersey City, New Jersey, thought he had seen the worst of human brutality when he found himself at the centre of a gruesome murder in America that made headlines around the world.

On October 2010, Evans Kebabe bludgeoned his wife and their two children to death in their Vadnais Heights apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The bodies of his wife Bilha Omare, 32, and their two children then aged 12 and 9 were found on October 14 in their apartment.

Kebabe, who is now serving a jail term handed down to him on January 2011, was arrested after his car ran out of gas while trying to flee.

Mr Moitui, a respected elder of the Kenyan community in Jersey, led plans to move the bodies from Minneapolis to Jersey City for burial.

“It was a heartbreaking time for our diaspora community because in all honesty, we had never witnessed such brutality and never imagined we had such people among us.

"That was until of course recently, when something eerily similar happened right here in Jersey City,” Mr Moitui told the Sunday Nation.

Mr Moitui was referring to the news early in the week that another Kenyan couple had been found dead in their home and that the husband was suspected to have shot his wife before turning the gun on himself.

The local press reported that authorities in Jersey City were investigating a murder-suicide after police discovered bodies of a man and woman dead from gunshot wounds.

It turns out that the couple — Henry Okong’o and Lydiah Okong’o — were in fact people Mr Moitui was not only familiar with but also related to one of them.

“The late Lydia was my niece. Fourteen years ago when they started having domestic issues, Lydia moved out and lived with me for five months.

"She went back after we helped them to reconcile. Little did I know it would turn out as it did on Monday,” Mr Moitui said.

He added: “I’m not only feeling devastated by her death, I’m also wondering whether reconciling them was the best thing to do.

"What I did then to reconcile them was what any parent would do for the good of the family, especially the children but, here we are!”

The couple has been living in the 2 Mina Drive property for over a decade and neighbours are still confounded by the incident.

“Three children have been left without parents. This is so sad,” one neighbour was quoted by the local press as saying.

Dr George Omburo, one of the Seventh day Adventists church elders, said the couple “had a tough marriage”.

This incident and many others that seem to have escalated in the recent past involving the Kenyan Diaspora have left many wondering what exactly is going on within the community that is usually reluctant to discuss issues of domestic violence openly.

“Having lived in the US for more than 10 years, and having witnessed a lot of these cases, I can confidently say that the major cause of domestic disagreements among Kenyans is the reversal of gender roles as we know them,” Mr Chris Majani, a Kenyan-born resident of Dallas, Texas, said.

He explains that while back at home the head of the house has traditionally been the bread winner — which in most cases would be the man — “here in the diaspora, the roles have completely changed” as women assimilate and get employed much faster.

“Can you, for example, imagine what it does to an African man to be employed to cook, clean and baby sit grown-ups, among them other men?

"Because of their nurturing nature, women find it just fine and wouldn’t even mind working extra shifts to earn a living,” he said. 

However, Mr Majani added: “Of course this should absolutely not be used as an excuse for men to be barbaric toward their partners. Violence is a sign of weakness.”

Some of those who have studied the causes of domestic violence within the immigrant communities agree with Mr Majani to a great extent.

“Apart from the normal stresses of raising a family in a place like the US where laws tend to favour women, children and animals at the expense of men, money is always an issue, especially if the couple does not sit down and establish some ground rules,” Dr Nepe Kwretu of Philadelphia said.

Mr Moitui said that the Kenyan community is deeply concerned about the increase in domestic violence in the US.

“We must, especially, encourage the young couples to speak up and seek professional counselling.

"If a plan is put in place, our young people will find solace in talking to someone rather than wait until they explode with anger and do the unthinkable,” he says.