NAIROBI, KENYA - Stephen Gichuru was an acrobat. Or a thief. Or both, depending on who you ask.
But one thing is undisputed: he was shot dead by Kenyan police on the morning of May 17 in Nairobi's Kiamaiko neighborhood.
There are few jobs available for young men in Kiamaiko. The only available steady labor is at the goat butcheries, but those jobs are hard to get. And so, like other Nairobi slums, Kiamaiko has seen crime run rampant — mostly muggings and robberies.
Police killings are a sadly common affair.
A report from the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, an organization that documents cases of torture and extrajudicial killings, says police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five Kenyan cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, which represents 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed.
In comparison, armed robbers killed only 260 people.
During a walk through the neighborhood, Tony Mburu, a self-proclaimed “reformed criminal,” points out a number of unremarkable places where young men have been killed by police: the sidelines of a soccer field, in the back of a small convenience store, and, in Stephen Gichuru’s case, at the foot of a shoe store on Missionary of Charity road.
Mburu, who served time in prison, now tries to steer young men away from crime in an environment that he calls increasingly hostile to them.
“When I was a criminal, the police were not so much using excessive force," he said. "They used to arrest us and take us to prison. In prison we grew up and started seeing life from another perspective.”
Stephen the Acrobat
When Stephen Gichuru wasn’t dodging police in the streets of Kiamaiko, he was living an extraordinary second life, traveling with a Kenyan troupe of acrobats, performing as far away as Taiwan.
A video from one performance in 2012 shows an exuberant young Stephen dressed in red, dancing and tumbling on stage and clambering into position as a pillar in a human pyramid.
His brother, Mwaura, said his success got him all the wrong attention in Kiamaiko.
“When my brother went to China, not so many people were happy about it,” Mwaura said. “They asked ‘Why him? Why not my child?’ My opinion is, from that point, all these problems started.”
To the police, Stephen was just another street thug.
Accused of running with a criminal gang that robbed locals, his family says two local officers warned Stephen to leave the community or they would come and kill him.
And so he did. He moved away from Kiamaiko, joining his father at a small family homestead in Kiambu, a modest rural enclave surrounded by fruit trees, just outside Nairobi.
Another of Stephen’s brothers, Mwangi, later recalls: “My dad used to ask us, ‘How can you live in Nairobi?’ We told him it is just by the grace of God.”
For five months, Stephen made the most of his life in Kiambu, keeping himself busy building a one-room house to live in.
But to get some materials to finish the wiring of his house, he had to make a trip to Kiamaiko.
That is when his family says he had his final run-in with the police.
‘Today is Your Day’
There are varying accounts of Stephen’s death.
According to his sister-in-law, Ruth Mumbi, a human rights defender who is demanding justice for Stephen’s death, the young man was having his morning tea when he was confronted by the same police who had threatened him before.
“The police officers said 'We told you, we warned you that anywhere we come across you, we are going to kill you and today it’s your day,'” she recalled,
Relying on eyewitness accounts, she says Stephen surrendered, pleaded for his life and then was shot dead.
But police have a different version of events.
Reading from a single-page police report of the incident, Bernard Nyakwaka, the district's head officer, said two plainclothes police responded to a robbery by three young men armed with machetes.
Two of them ran away, but the third, later identified as Stephen, was shot and killed by one of the officers.
The report says police recovered 3,000 Kenyan shillings (about $35) and a stolen Nokia phone.
Asked why the police did not try to arrest the suspects instead of opening fire, Nyakwaka replied: “When they are armed, you can never get a chance to reach them.”
The police report does not say any weapons were found on Stephen.
He was 17 years old.
The Independent Medico-Legal Unit, which reviewed Stephen's case, conducted a post-mortem examination of his body.
The autopsy report says he was shot three times: in his left arm, his right arm and through his chest.
Nathan Karugu, an IMLU lawyer handling the case, says the forensics show no sign that Stephen tried to resist.
“I think it’s very clear from the post-mortem and from the conclusion of the pathologist that there was no evidence that he tried to struggle or he was armed in any way,” he said.
While police say they have opened an inquiry into the incident — standard practice for a shooting death — the cases rarely go to court.
“A lot of families in the ghetto, they don’t have the capability to follow up the cases of their loved ones,” said Stephen’s brother, Mwangi. “So the police take advantage of that; they just kill and plant anything on you and call you a thief.”
But Mumbi, who insists Stephen was not involved in any criminal activity on the day of his death, said the police should be arresting suspects, not killing them.
“The question we are asking is, ‘Why are the police taking the law in their hands?’” she said. “We have institutions, we have [the] judiciary. Why are they not arresting these kids?”
Kenya’s National Police Service Act says officers “shall always attempt to use non-violent means first” when confronting a suspect. It adds that when force is used, it should be “proportional to… the seriousness of the offense.”
Karugu said the solution is to strengthen existing governmental oversight bodies that monitor police.
“Give them the resources to be able to achieve their objectives and put this particular menace to an end," he said.
Tragedy Strikes Again
Stephen’s family says harassment has continued even after the shooting. They accuse police of even stealing the money they had collected for his funeral.
Tragedy struck the family again when Stephen’s father, with whom he had lived during his respite from Kiamaiko, died about a month after his son.
The two are now buried in plots near each other at the family home, fresh dirt piled atop both graves.
Stephen’s brother Mwangi thinks their deaths are closely related.
“My father really loved Gichuru because he was the first son who offered to come and stay with him in Kiambu,” he said. “Losing that love is what has killed him.”