When a person dies in the Kibera slums, sometimes a disco matanga is held on the eve of their burial day to help pay for the funeral. What ensues is a big, thumping dance party and fundraiser, often taking place among a loose circle of lawn chairs, fueled by moonshine sloshing in plastic cups. It is barely reverent, but it does alleviate the financial burden of burying the dead.
There are some cases, however, in which matanga is banned because the people who issue permits for the events are the ones who killed him. These deaths leave no space for celebration anyway. Like the teenager who was bound and paraded around the streets naked for stealing a phone, then necklaced with tires and lit up in front of his mother. Or an alleged gang member cut to pieces with machetes in front of the police who watched, and when it was done carried his remains to the city mortuary.
When the Burnees kill, there is no matanga.
Like any other slum mafia, the Burnees are a pseudo-government that emerged where the real one failed. Because of their gruesome execution methods, supporters say that Kibera is far safer than other slums like Satellite or Dandora, where public transit stops running at night and robberies are more frequent.
Kibera residents like Jay-mo, 20, and Odhis, 22, are the targets of Burnee violence: young men who are, or simply look like they could be, up to no good. For people like them, who are at risk of being killed without cause, the near-total impunity of the Burnees is frightening. (Names of all sources who are not Burnees have been changed to protect their identities; few people are willing to speak openly about the darker side of Burnees’ work out of fear of repercussions.)
Jay-mo explains that the Burnees themselves are thieves, freely taxing every facet of life: construction and land, parking and tolls, tariffs for foreign charities, business, and home security, even fees for evangelical parades.
“Yeah, even matters of God,” Odhis nods. “They hold all the power in Kibera.”
The name comes from the fires they set—burning tires, burning buildings, and, notoriously, burning humans
There is a man in the Olympic district of Kibera that most people have only seen from below. Everyone calls him “Tall.”
At the bustling Nubian restaurant, he sends back his food because he changed his mind and wants chicken, not beef. He wags his finger at the waiter who refused to exchange the meal. “For the last time,” he warns, “do as I say.”
Tall doesn’t pay for the meal if he’s not happy, and he never pays when he takes a matatu—a public transit minibus—around Kibera. He folds into the front seat stiffly and calls back, “Si tuko ma-oldies huku Olympic! Aren’t we the oldies around here?” Sometimes he collects money from them.
He must be close to seven feet tall, somewhere in his mid-forties. His dark skin is cracked like cooled lava running down his neck and elbows. His Swahili reels with the bucolic lilt of a Luo accent, his tongue dry and patchy from chewing khat and rinsing it out with gin.
Tall patrols neighborhoods, occasionally patting the fuzzy head of a child walking by or greeting a woman as she bends over her laundry outside. If you ask him what he does, he says he sells music CDs.
Everyone knows Tall is a Burnee. The name comes from the fires they set—burning tires, burning buildings, and, notoriously, burning humans.
Tall’s CD store is a small nook where he stores some CDs but mostly uses as a hideaway. Photo by: April Zhu
Every so often, the Burnees make national news, as happened in May during protests related to next year’s presidential election. The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and supported by the Burnees, called for nationwide protests to demand reconstitution of the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing elections in Kenya.
As CORD supporters rallied throughout the country, Burnees did their part in Kibera by organizing protests, many of which ended violently. Businesses all over Kibera were shuttered before and during the riots to mandate participation or attention to the rallies, and large fires were set around Olympic to halt traffic.
The violence itself cast a long shadow over the prospect of a peaceful presidential election next year. After all, during the notorious post-election violence of 2007-2008, a large part of the killing occurred within Nairobi’s informal settlements, including Kibera. A heavily contested election rent Kenya along its ethnic lines; hundreds were killed in the ensuing bloodshed, and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced. Burnees were on the front lines of the violence in their territories.
Although the following election cycle in 2013 was peaceful, it was due in no small part to critical international attention. This time, the need for Kenya to demonstrate unity to the world has faded. Many fear tribal enmity may reawaken.
In this light, what is even more ominous than the IEBC riots themselves is that, both in times of peace and conflict, a single group of violent men—loyal to one political and tribal leader—still has a very short leash on the biggest slum in Kenya.