Very few of us will ever find ourselves on the sharp-elbow of Somalia, spending hot musky days lying on a mat under a sketchy thorn tree waiting for unspoken peril. We might never know the smell of fear on our skin. We will not know how it is to have our freedom forcibly relinquished and our life balanced precariously on the decisions made by a ragtag band of wild-eyed brigands lugging guns against their skinny shuka-clad bodies, occasionally spitting green cud on the dusty ground.
None of us here reading this, right this moment will ever know how it feels like to be abducted by Somali outlaws who keep shouting in your face; “We kill you, they no pay, we will kill you!, their breaths a thick plume of khat, cigarettes and terror.
But Janet Muthoni Kanga does.
They captured her. And held her and two of her colleagues, in the very armpits of Somalia, a hairy place that lurked terror, evil and lawlessness.
She was held for two years.
We are at Eka Hotel seated at a reasonably quiet section of the lounge at the end of the reception. I have my travelling bag at my feet because I just landed from Kilimanjaro, TZ on the 6-am flight on an African Wildlife Foundation’s assignment on sniffer dogs that help in conservation. I can feel my endorphins still coursing in my body. Because in the Precision Airline’s flight Captain Rizwan brought the plane so close to Mount Kilimanjaro that we could see the texture of the rocks. For fifteen minutes he went round that mountain and everybody leaned to the right peering through the windows. It was so close you could reach out and touch it. (With a very long stick) Then he lifted the plane to 20,000ft above the mountain’s 16,100ft and soon we were literally flying above the mountain!
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced in his silky captain’s voice, “you are now on top of Africa.” I swear what was missing were African drums. The view below, by Jove! It was a fine time to be on top of Africa and to be an African. The detour lasted almost 20mins and as he slowly twisted that bird and curved away from the mountain, away from the small craters and the clouds now lit orange by the rising sun, and the icecaps, he said almost ruefully, “Oh well, we will start descending into Nairobi any moment now, please don’t forget to collect your Kili summit certificates from the cabin crew.” And everybody laughed and clapped.
Flying is normally so boring and unmemorable that when you get such moments you tend to appreciate them more. It’s always a pleasure to be flown by funny captains because the rest are just caught up in looking cool behind their Ray-Bans.
To Captain Rizwan Rebtula, if ever your job becomes dull and monotonous and you question if your purpose on earth is just to fly planes and say things like, “Flight attendants, doors to arrival and crosscheck,” please never forget that flight four days ago because unbeknownst to you, you made everybody in that plane so happy that early morning. But more than that, you sent us away with such a special and unforgettable memory. Thank you.
Back to Eka Hotel.
On 11th July 2012, Janet Muthoni Kanga, then only 36 years old and working for International Aid Services (IAS) was seated at the back of a Land Cruiser that was weaving it’s way in the patchland of Somalia’s Puntland on a site visit. Riding behind them was another Land Cruiser with three Puntland Police Officers carrying guns. Security. They had been to Garoowe and its small villages, to IDP camps with the yellow tarpaulin dwellings, fluttering in the wind. Seated in front was their Somali liaison officer, Ahmed. Two of her colleagues, Abdinoor and Kioko, rode with her at the back. They spoke little but stared out through the window at the moving brown-patched landscape consisting of squat thorn tree, camels walking in a line, Somali men with gaunt faces stared at them with passing interest. They zoomed through known pockets of dangerous villages known to sympathise with Al Shabaab and through safe villages whose clans weren’t. They passed thirsty goats clustered under measly shadows of trees. They drove through sand and donkeys and more camels. Sometimes small children waved at their stout motorcade. Sometimes women turned to look at them from their buibuis, mysterious in their veils. “I wondered how it was to be born a woman in this part of the world,” Muthoni tells me. Well the universe was listening.
They got off roads and passed through small towns with ageing men seated at the verandahs of shops, men with orange-dyed beards, shukas gathered between their legs, leaning on walking sticks. They stopped at villages and inspected generators that powered boreholes that fed schools and hospitals and camps. The got back on the tarmac roads and drove into lulled villages to check households with water filters and to check the progress of latrine constructions. They marked GPS co-ordinates of their projects. They supervised the repairs that had been done on camels’ watering troughs. They talked to single mothers and mothers with kids with special needs. They stopped for qado (lunch) at Ahmed’s house where a host of smiling and hospitable buibui clad womenfolk brought out plate after plate of camel meat, bariis, and camel soup, maraq, bread, potatoes, qaranfuul, meat stew, lettuce, guava juice, bananas (of course) and sabaayad (chapos). They sat on mats on the floor and ate with their hands, legs crossed.
“Are Somali chapos any good?”
“Excellent. They make some really tasty chapos there.” She says.
Later, children gathered around the departing group. One of the women brought a jerrican of camel milk as a send-away gift as they said their goodbyes. At 4:30pm they set off, as in the horizon, a wind storm curled towards the sky. They had to beat the sunset which sets earlier in Somalia than it does in Kenya.
(Please allow me to change the tense here because shit is about to go down and past tense can’t hack it).
The convoy sets off. The security car stops to refuel. Everybody is full. The road curls and curves. Acacia trees rise and fall. At 5:30pm just as they are passing Harfo, a dark green Surf – out of nowhere – suddenly drives into the road from the bush. They are like whoa! What the….! They grind to a halt and men with guns jump out and start shooting in the air. The security car which was behind them overtakes their cruiser and stops between them and the shooters. Muthoni’s first thought was, this is a stick up. We are being robbed. They will take our phones and money and they will let us go.
Things happen very fast. She defies everything she was taught during security training for humanitarian workers just a few months ago, one which is not to try escape when faced with gunmen. She leans forward and tells Ahmed to reverse and he in turn commands the driver in rapid Somali who turns the car around sharply right into the bush.
Bullets start raining on them. Kalashnikov bullets.
“It was like rain on mabati,” she tells me. “It was loud and it seemed to go on forever, hitting our car. I remember thinking, ‘why aren’t we dying?’
They zoom off in the opposite direction and but 300-meters in, the car starts slowing down and stops all together because their tyre had been shot. Ahmed isn’t moving, he has been shot in the chest and is bleeding, a bullet is lodged in his spine. He raises his bloodied hands and motions them to leave the car, to go. They pile out of the car and stumble into the thicket, which isn’t really a thicket, more like patches of thorny shrubs. She calls her sister but disconnects then calls their Country Director as they run, and it rings and rings. Suddenly she remembers seeing more of them in front while hearing footsteps and shootings behind them.
They were cornered.
It was all over. They stop and kneel down, hands in the air in surrender. She closes her eyes and waits for a bullet to hit the back of her head. Men are talking in an excited and agitated manner in Somali. A rough hand roughly grabs a fistful of her hair and yanks her up to her feet.
“Did you have this natural hair then?” I ask her.
“No,” she says, “a weave.”
I successfully resist the urge to roll my eyes.
They are bundled in the back of a vehicle. There is more shooting as the men with guns jump in cars and off they go. The car is driven recklessly and at a very fast speed through the shrubbery. The men are talking in excited Somali as they laugh smoke and chew khat.
She passes out.
When she comes to they are still speeding, her glasses are gone, so is her phone. One pirate with his gun to her head asks her, “You UN?” she says, “No, NGO”. “Big office, Europe, yes?” They all cheer. They speed through the wasteland of dirt. They force their way through roadblocks, shooting in the air. At some point they swap vehicles. They drive some more to what seems like the end of the planet earth (maybe to the horn of Africa itself!). At some point as they are nearing a village, about a dozen or so men with AK-47s come out and stand in a line and start shooting in the air. The vehicles stop and they also start shooting in the air. The men won’t allow them to pass through their village; they have their women and children in there and they will be damned to let them through. There is more shouting and more shooting in the air. A Soomaali stand-off.
“I was sure there was going to be shootout there and we would all get killed,” she says. “Thankfully, the bandits back down, turn around and use a different direction away from that village.”
She remembers one of them in an Adidas track-suit handing her his jacket which later she discovered had lice. They are given biscuits and juice. Throughout the drive they play very loud Somali music; she remembers the glowing blue of the dashboard and this one song that was playing on the DVD player of a Somali lady in white trousers and reddish top.
Finally they drive into a village and they are taken to what looks like a cave, with stonewalls and some underground river. A man comes out, he’s the translator. He’s calm. He speaks English with a slight trace of a North American accent. He also speaks Kiswahili. “Don’t worry, the whole world now knows about your kidnapping because it’s been reported on BBC,” he tells them calmly as if that is supposed to be great news. “These are pirates and they are only interested in ransom. If you come out of here you can all write books and make loads of money.” He laughs. His voice echoes in the cave.
He asks them if they have any medication requirements, drugs they might be taking. He leaves them with armed guards who mill around chewing miraa and smoking. Another man comes and takes away her earrings and their watches. Their pictures are taken. They spend the night on the floor the first night. The next day they are handed clothes, shukas for the gentlemen and a deera for her. They are told to go bath but she is warned not to remove her clothes. “Our women don’t remove their clothes while showering,” one guard warned me. she says. That day she showered with her clothes on. She discovered shrapnel in her left shoulder and something coppery in her head.
Thus started their two year ordeal.
They were moved to a different camp. Then moved again. And again.
“I think we were moved a total of 27 times in the two years we were held captive.” She says.
The ringleader at some point got assassinated because of disagreements. The crazy driver was shot in the leg one evening after a spat with others. Months fell off calendars. Seasons passed.
Back at Eka we move to the balcony lounge area overlooking the Southern Bypass. It’s a nippy morning. Muthoni sits near this beautiful potted plant that I have an urge to walk out of the hotel with. I wonder if security would notice. I think it would look great under my television set. We order hot dawas.
“Were you sexually molested?” I ask her.
“Thank God, I wasn’t.” she says. “But if I was going to raped it was going to be this very young guard who was very erratic and jumpy and wild. They kept changing guards though, and depending on how negotiations were going sometimes the guards would be very hostile other times they didn’t bother with us much, they smoked and chewed miraa.”
They bonded a lot, her and her two colleagues. They talked about their childhoods. They talked about their dreams. They talked about their upbringing and being Kenyans, they talked about politics. And they prayed a lot. “After one year, we realised that we were repeating our stories.” She laughs. They kept track of the days by counting.
As days and months passed they became more unsure about the outcome. Some days the guards would threaten them about how they would sell their organs to Yemen if the ransom didn’t come. Some days when the negotiations were going great in Nairobi they would be handed treats like tuna and biscuits. Other days the guards would threaten to sell them to Al Shabaab. “You never knew what to expect.” She says. One day they were brought a small transistor radio as a treat and they huddled around it listening to BBC. She remembers the rain and the feeling of renewal when it came down. She remembers looking at an odd flower that had grown in dry earth and wondering how something so beautiful would come out of something so barren and dead. “Nature speaks to you, when you listen.” She says.
“This is an odd question but is there something you miss about that ordeal?”
She looks up in thought for a moment. “When you have whole days to do nothing, you get to think a lot. We don’t know how to stay still in silence, we are always up and about. That period was marked with stillness and reflection and lots of prayer. I got very prayerful at that time.”
“There is a syndrome called the Stockholm syndrome,” I start. “This is when the hostage develops some sort of a psychological connection or affection towards their captors. Did this ever happen to you?”
“I don’t think it was a psychological connection, no, I wouldn’t call it that,” she creases her brows, “I think for me it was a very spiritual connection I had with God not my captors, but on a human level I sort of saw where these guys were coming from on a humanitarian level. It made me see their struggles as a nation, as clans and the key to it is the lack of education, the lack of any skill set for these people to live off. Then of course there is their wars. I don’t know…” She trails off.
““I wish I would have had a Bible, I would have read it twice over. They refused my colleague the Quran or us the Bible, they said we would use them for witchcraft.” I chuckle.
She sips her dawa.
“By the way, how did you manage your menses during this time? I mean you didn’t have sanitary pads, did you?”
“Well,” she says without any hint of hesitation. “First year wasn’t so bad, the negotiator would send me some but during the second year I would use bits of clothes sometimes cotton wool.”
They fell sick. One of them had constant asthmatic attacks and would wheeze through the night. She had back pains and bone problems- iron deficiency. They got typhoid. “If you take any medicine, somehow you recover.” She says with a smile. In one camp they had a small “shamba”, a small 1meter by 1 meter, they called it Baraka shamba, very little grew there, maybe it was symbolic. On her 36th birthday she remembers camels coming and refusing to leave the compound. During Ramadhan Abdinoor was allowed a clean set of cloths to pray in and to cook and they shared his food. Sometimes to feel connected to home they would pick discarded scraps of newspapers used to wrap miraa and read bits of the news off it. “That was our small link to home.” She says.
“Did you tire of praying, did you question God?” I ask.
“I somehow made some peace with it,” she tells me. “I figured God had allowed it and so my job was to wait it out, I wasn’t going to be the person who disrupts his plan and be the weak link. I was going to wait it out.”
“What’s your feeling towards the Somali community after this ordeal?” I ask.
She pauses for a long time, staring out at the lumbering tracks out on the bypass. My dawa is now tepid.
“I have mixed feelings…sometimes I have residual anger, but I can’t be angry at a community can I? I mean I have Somali friends and colleagues who I engage with in security forums. But sometimes the anger is there…” she says thoughtfully, then adds. “But then I look at the circumstances of the people of Somalia and I feel sorry for them. The boys who guarded us were kids picked from the village to earn a quick shilling. They are boys whose fathers had perhaps died in the war or in the inter-clan conflicts. These people need education, and resources to live on. They have none. I think it’s desperation that gives rise to very desperate actions.”
“If you were to do it all over again, would you allow it to happen to you?”
She sighs. “I might, but my family can’t. I wouldn’t put them through that again.”
These events that defined her mid-thirties have shaped many decisions she has had to make now on what she wants to do with her life. Her spirituality was deepened as a result of that experience, it became “more practical” and more “relationship oriented.”
She’s 41 now, studying for for her doctorate in disaster management and sustainability. She lectures. She works with children in Juvenile correction facilities on character development and life skills training. The trauma, she admits, doesn’t go away. The horror somehow stays with you. “It’s not over yet. Post-traumatic stress is not something that just goes away. I see it in my behaviour sometimes when I behave in a funny way,” she tells me. “This is not something that you get over, it’s not an event, and it’s a long process. We were counselled in a debriefing as individuals and as groups and I have gone for other therapy sessions and I’m still open to more.”
I ask her if she has forgiven those men.
“I did before we were released. I mentioned that sometimes we would be given a radio and we would always listen to BBC’s Outlook a program where people who have gone through horrendous experiences ten times worse than what we went through tell their stories.”
At her feet is a small bag which she tells me carries her mementos from the time they were in captivity. Would I like to see it?
“Of course” I say.
She removes another small gunny bag from it, one that she made herself while in Somalia. She holds up the cargo pants she wore when in captivity. It’s very old and frayed at the bottom. It has a colourful patch below the knee where she had mended the wear and tear using different pieces of cloth. Out comes an old grey t-shirt that she was wearing that fateful day. It has a big patch of dried blood on the left shoulder where the shrapnel had pierced her. There are pieces of her hair, a scarf, scraps from boxes of biscuits, tinned tuna, a Sportsman packet (“that’s all they smoked”).
“People looking at us now might think you are selling me old mtumba.” I say.
She laughs. “Or that I’m a mchawi.”
“You must have lost a great deal of weight.”
“Oh yeah, before I was captured I had been trying to lose weight. I was 69kgs but when we were released I was 49kgs!”
Lose up to 20kgs in Somalia, no pills, no exercise. Sign up now for great discounts. I think it. I don’t say it.
“Those chaps helped you,” I tell her. She chuckles and says sarcastically, “Oh they did.”
She holds up cardboard from a carton with a floor-plan created by punching holes with a needle. “We would draw and plan our dream houses. This was mine.”
She removes what looks like a bandana for her hair. “Can I smell it?” I ask her. She hands it over and I take a lungful of it. I was hoping that I would smell something from that time; terror, dust from Somalia, fear, whatever, instead I smell something old, aged maybe, like old weave. I don’t know.
We have been speaking for over two hours and I’m dying to go home and have a hot shower because I somehow feel the dust of the story on me. And she has to go and run errands. Plus my phone is dying. I ask her what this experience means to her now. She leans back and says thoughtfully. “It means many things. It means that now I have learnt to focus on the big things, the things to spend my energy on. It means that I have a role to impact on lives in a greater way. It means that I’m now more aware of other things in life and I don’t take them for granted. Things like freedom, being able to do what you want to do anytime you want to do it. Things like a shower. Having sukuma-wiki. A roof. Having a fruit.”
“A fruit”. I repeat and an image of an apple comes into my mind. A green apple with a little round sticker on it.
“These things are not owed to us,” she says. “They are not a guarantee.”
I’m looking for men and women in their 40s who have lived richly and are willing to unpack their lives for us to learn from. Know anyone like that? Or maybe you are the one? Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org