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The Murderer

By M.W. Kimani (Kenya)

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There is a thin, brown scrap book that I keep in the bottom drawer of my bedside table.

There are no pictures in it, just newspaper clippings.

I look at them often.

The oldest, inserted on the very first page, has a date stamp, 14 October, 1988.

“Irate villagers kill murder suspect,” it reads.

The two short paragraphs below the title don’t really do justice to what happened that day. I know. You see, I was there when the villagers killed Mutitu.

I remember the events of that fateful Wednesday evening as if it was just yesterday, especially the collective sigh of relief that swept through the whole village after it was all over, and order had been restored…

Or so they thought.

It happened at about 6 p.m in the evening. I know because the school bell rang at precisely 5.30 pm, about 30 minutes before it all happened.

As usual, the children fled the school as quickly as their bare feet could take them. The teachers preferred a more dignified, but brisk pace, which allowed for the polite exchange of niceties and bits of gossip as we made towards the village centre, and beyond that, our respective abodes. It was just after we crossed the river and turned the corner; from whence one could see right up the hill, beyond which stood the chief’s camp, and further on, the village centre, that we saw the crowd. The villagers were there in the hundreds; they had congregated at the top of the hill, and barricaded the road with branches, stones and tires.

He had quite a reputation; the man the villagers awaited. You see, our village had always been a rather small and sedate affair. Okay… so sometimes clothes disappeared from the clotheslines, and granaries were emptied in the night, and now and then store clerks stole from their employers…but honestly, that was just about the extent of it. The chief’s camp didn’t even have a prison, just two tiny rooms in which they held suspects before sending them for proper investigation in the city.

It was a peaceful village…and orderly.

Well … I say so only because that is what the villagers kept repeating when the events began. They would say it and shake their heads, in disbelief … such things surely couldn’t happen, shouldn’t happen in their midst… but they did now, didn’t they?

It all began with the murder of Kuria, the wholesale shop owner and his wife; both hacked to death with a machete. Then there was Maingi, who had just sold a piece of his land. It seems he had made the mistake of heading straight to the bar where, quickly inebriated, had proceeded to tell all and sundry of his great and new found wealth. They would later say that Mutitu followed him and crushed the man’s head with a 6 by 4 concrete brick, and took the man’s money.  How they know this I don’t know, since nobody witnessed the murder taking place, but everyone in the village was convinced that it was indeed Mutitu’s doing.

Then, after about two months, a man had been found floating in the river. His neck and face had been cut up with a machete, and his pockets emptied out. His wife said he had taken a couple of cows to the market for sale but had never made it back home. Everyone whispered Mutitu’s name. It was said that he was a bad type, known to travel often to the city, where crimes of these type were common… everyone knew that the city was full of bad types.

And so it was for about two years, that for each crime that occurred, even though nobody was ever present to witness it, the villagers became ever more certain that Mutitu was to blame. Slowly, angry mutterings surfaced and bitter complaints about how the police officers stationed at the chief’s camp did nothing to address the situation.

Just before the villagers killed Mutitu, there was a brief lull in the crimes. Some say it was because he was away in the city, visiting with thuggish pals.  Everything changed when they found her. 

It was a tea picker that stumbled upon her body early in the morning, at 6.30 am on 5 September. Her stiff corpse had been thrust underneath some overgrown tea brushes, right at the edge of the plantation. Her head had been bashed in and next to the body lay a bloodied 6 by 4 concrete brick. The village was chilled.

“She was only 16…” they whispered. “A mere student… What would one want to steal from her?” They asked each other.

“She was doing so well in school too” one teacher offered. Sure, she had to repeat level five and level 7, but she was about to sit her elementary exams, another answered. “She might even have done well enough to get a scholarship to high school,” her mother said.

The villagers had long grumbled and muttered about the rising number of shocking crimes, but now, everywhere, the mumbling slowly turned loud and angry. “What are the police doing? Are they planning to wait until he has killed us all?” The teachers asked each other. “Everyone knows who is responsible for these things, why are they not arresting him?” A woman at the market asked angrily.

A month or so of outraged questions in the village market, at the school and in the church finally led to an official delegation of villagers heading to the chief’s camp.  There they proceeded to inform the chief and his police force that if nothing was done immediately to address the threat Mutitu posed they would have to take matters in their own hands.

I gather that the chief, having deemed the villagers to be serious in their threat, had ordered the police to go to Mutitu’s home the next day and pick him up, as much for his own safety, since rumours were spreading that villagers intended to torch his home, but also to investigate why his name kept coming up as the main suspect in these crimes.

I hear that the police found no sign of a machete in his home, nor any stash of concrete blocks, though they flattened a whole patch of beans looking for evidence. I am not surprised. Mutitu protested that his visits to the city were for no nefarious intents, and that he suffered from the sugar disease, which required him to see the city doctor regularly. Nevertheless, they picked him up.

We knew of it even though we were in school, for a village is a hotbed of information. In fact it seemed that the whole village knew exactly when the police left the chief’s camp and when they were expected back. By late afternoon, we’d heard that people were hanging around the chief’s camp waiting to see Mutitu brought in. It was this crowd that waited on top of the hill and had, in the hours of waiting, decided to barricade the road, and lay in wait.

I had barely taken in their overwhelming numbers when I heard the motor of a vehicle behind us. I turned to see the police pick up truck speeding past the river towards us, then pass and sweep up the hill a few hundred feet beyond us, where it came to a screeching halt in front of the barricade imposed by the villagers. I ran up the hill to catch up with it.

The vehicle had barely stopped when the villagers rushed forward and surrounded it. They stormed the back of the vehicle, pulling out the handcuffed man who lay face down on the pickup floor.

They dragged Mutitu to the tarmac and, as I watched in fascination, proceeded to pelt him with stones. Some threw heavy logs at him; others contented themselves with kicking him.

I had run so quickly to catch up with the police car that that I found myself barely 10 feet from the mayhem. I still remember the shocked and stunned look on Mutitu’s face and his attempts to shout that he was not guilty. “So this was the famed murderer,” I thought to myself.  He was so brown, so handsome, so strong and muscular and yet so …soft… He didn’t look at all to me like a criminal, “but what does a criminal look like anyway?” I thought to myself.

Taken by surprise, the police had at first been pinned to the side of the vehicle by the angry and vengeful villagers. Now they attempted to regain control and rescue the wretched creature that lay on the tarmac being stoned to death. 

It was then that the shots rang out. I had never heard a gunshot before that day and neither had many a villager. It was so loud that I fell to the ground in shock, thinking myself hit.  Then like all the other villagers I scrambled away from the scene almost on all fours to the raised banks on the roadside. A minute later I realized that the police were shooting in the air.

The villagers must have come to the same realization at the same time, for they surged back, confident that the police would not fire directly at them. But by then it was too late … the man that had ostensibly terrorized the village lay dead in a slowly expanding pool of blood. 

That is what sent a collective sign of relief through the village. It was over. The next day the papers sent a journalist to the village, to document the killing of an individual by an irate mob of villagers. For all his scribbles and interviews, there had been only two paragraphs to the story they published. Still, I cut it out and started a scrap book, for I knew there would be more to come.

The body of another school girl with her head crushed with a concrete block showed up a week after Mutitu died. When that body was found the village went deathly quiet. There were no rumours, no gossip, no chit chat about it, no angry comments or proclamations, nobody said anything. I found their reaction quite disappointing.

Nobody said anything either when the next girl’s body showed up a month later. Even the funeral was not well attended; those that came avoided looking at each other, lest the shame show through. Had anyone been inclined to speak frankly, they would have stated what everyone present already knew and could not admit, that whatever Mutitu might have been; thief, robber, or murder, he had nothing to do with the murders that led to his death.

I regret that I could not have been there to see the surprise on their faces when girls suddenly stopped dying.  But I have had my compensations. A whole new village that still reacts with horror and shock at my artwork. They haven’t killed someone yet…

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