It was a dizzying sight, like one of those elaborate and hyperbolized murder scenes in investigative TV dramas — the good ones, like “Law & Order” or “CSI”. Only this time, it was real.
The small corner master bedroom was in disarray, adult clothing and accessories dramatically tossed across the constricted extent of the bright-red cement floor, from my judgement, not by someone who was clumsy, but by a person who appeared to have been involuntarily trapped in an uncontrollable fit of demonic rage.
Black and brown suitcases and storage boxes, some open, were strewn all over the room, and the light-brown hardwood queen size bed was heaped with blankets and a couple of light sheets soaking in stale blood.
The simmering mid-January heat forcefully penetrated the iron sheet roof, into the ceiling-less bungalow, heating up the blood-stained bedding and intensifying the rancid stench of blood.
I was one of the many reporters who had visited the house to cover a murder-suicide that had happened the previous night. Even though the home was surging with shocked neighbors and curious reporters, no one really spoke.
Only when necessary and even then, it was in exaggerated murmurs and carefully curated words.
The discomforting sight, smell and silence spoke of a complex and multidimensional backstory. Anger, struggle, desperation, pleas, resistance, pain, betrayal; some of the scenarios and feelings I imagined to have unraveled in the dark, tragic minutes just before the murder-suicide.
I had arrived at the house a few minutes to noon. It was a medium-sized Kenyan-style bungalow, still new, hardly two years old. The features of the house, from the shining iron sheet roof to the paint on the walls, windows panes and the floor exuded ‘newness’.
While the family of five had been living here for the last year or so, the house was partially incomplete. It did not have a ceiling yet, and some rooms were incompletely furnished. But it spoke of passion, love, hard work and ambition, the encouraging story of a thirty-something young man who had worked hard, bought land, built his family a home, and given them relative comfort…before tragically taking them away from it all.
The home was in a rocky and remote up and coming middle-income neighborhood several minutes’ drive from Thika town, around 50 kilometers from Nairobi CBD.
In the kitchen, bright rays of sunlight permeated the narrow glass window. The aluminum sink was stuffed with unwashed pots and dishes from the previous night, still carrying leftovers of the family’s last supper— white rice and fried cabbage.
After the kitchen was the children’s bedroom—a neater and more spacious room, with two medium-sized beds.
In the sitting room, two couches formed an L-shape. Both were burnt, but one worse than the other.
The floor was mushy and soggy, ashy remnants of burnt objects, including what had once been a carpet, mixed with the water that had been poured to put out the burning house.
Across the two couches was a wooden cabinet with a 14-inch TV in the middle, and surrounding the TV, drawers with kitchenware and shelves with miscellaneous objects that informed of the family’s once perfect life — a few photographs, school books and documents.
The man; tall and light-skinned with deep-set dreamy eyes and fair skin, and the woman; shorter, dark-skinned, beautiful and bearing chubby and pronounced female features.
No one knew exactly what had gone down. The police and neighbors suspected the man had killed his wife and children some minutes after midnight, stabbing his wife severally and strangling his three children in their bedroom. Other reports said he’d killed the children –who’d strangely missed school the previous day — a day earlier, then killed the wife the same night he committed suicide.
Then, after killing them, he’d turned on the gas cylinder in the kitchen, walked to the sitting room, removed his heavy black shoes (one of which still lay on the floor), sat on the couch across the TV, struck a matchbox, caught fire and burnt away, slowly and agonizingly.
The fire could’ve been worse if it were not put out. The walls were sooty, and almost everything in the room appeared like it had caught fire, although most of the objects burnt just partially.
At 2.a.m, three young men who were heading home on motorcycles after a late night of clubbing had passed the road outside the house, seen it burning and heard the man crying in pain.
The strong blue metallic gate was locked from the inside, so they climbed over the brick wall and put out the fire using water from a tank outside the house. According to them, the man, still burning, drew back the curtain and looked outside when he heard them climbing over the wall, before throwing them a note that disappeared mysteriously. No one knew what the note said.
Friends and neighbors speculated on the motive, but none was sure. The wife had long suspected him of cheating. But he’d also been conned money running into millions by some unknown men he’d claimed were former classmates.
Yet others suspected that the man had been set up. He was introverted, quiet, unaggressive, didn’t even drink. There’s no way he could’ve done it.
The teachers said the first-born was one of its brightest students. Next year, he would’ve done his KCPE. Since joining the school, he had always been at the top of his class. The second-borns, a boy and girl, were twins who always held hands when they walked and were inseparable; you rarely saw one without the other.
Ten months have gone by but I have a distinct memory of everything—the appearance of the house, the agony and confusion on the faces of the relatives, the beautiful faces of the children.
I don’t think I can ever forget.
I remember staying up that night, thinking about those people I didn’t know, about their lives, my life, the unpredictability of the world. Did the man really kill his wife and kids or was it a grander scheme? And if he did, what pushed him? Was it premeditated? Were the children scared? Did they cry? Did they understand what their father was doing to them? Did he flinch as he strangled them?
It was a disturbing memory that stuck at the front of my mind for weeks, but it relented eventually.
It always gets easier in the end. You just have to learn to turn off the thoughts when they ambush you. It is the only option, really. You can’t be the sort of person who gets hung up on everything. As a journalist, you rarely have control over the work you are assigned. You never know when you’ll have to cover a horrifying story and you must learn how to get over bad memories quickly.
A few months later I was covering the story of a man who murdered his former girlfriend and her three children, but spared the woman’s last-born, his only biological child. After that, I wrote about a male primary school teacher who had been raping pupils, mostly boys for years. And the list goes on.
In the less than one year I’ve been working as a journalist, I’ve seen death, smelled it, felt it. I’ve see what real pain and hopelessness looks like in the faces of those left behind.
The ugly and unordinary is normalized in this profession; you hardly ever have time or chance to process your emotions while on the job. You can’t really talk to anyone about what you feel, you just hope those feelings disappear, or find another way of handling them.
But even if the experience becomes less of a burden, you never quite forget, and you’re never the same. You become fearful, overly cautious, disillusioned, skeptical; believing in nothing, questioning everything and everyone. Even worse, you become overly critical, overthinking everything, the confusing complexity of human nature, the meaning of life, and whether the world is really what it is propped up to be.
With all the horrible going-ons of the world, I am yet to decide if this new person I am becoming–pessimistic, apprehensive, guarded, uptight– is better or worse.
Still, I occasionally figure that I may the only one who goes through this dynamic and disconcerting wave of emotions. Sometimes I feel as if my feelings exaggerate themselves.
But I suppose if I am still standing after all I have seen, with hardly any signs of trauma, then maybe I’m not as delicate and fragile as I assumed, and maybe that’s all I should care about, that I have come out okay. Disillusioned but okay.