An Interview from Exile with Robert Kituyi


Ella Raw speaks to Kenyan journalist and activist Robert Kituyi about his childhood, journalistic career, and Kenya's tumultuous politics

Article Image

Image by Robert Kituyi

By Ella Raw

Content warning:
Discussions of domestic violence, violence, and conflict

A journalist’s role is to share people’s stories. For many journalists in Africa and the Middle East, this means risking their own lives, facing prison, torture and exile, to share those stories. But these journalists have a story of their own too, one that I would like to share. Sitting across from me is Robert Kituyi, a journalist from Kenya, studying at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights. It is a cold February evening, and in an even colder university classroom, I asked Robert to tell me about his childhood in a politically turbulent Kenya, his fight for free press, and the many instances in his life which propelled him into journalism; to tell his story for the first time.

Robert was born in 1987 in the small village of Navikoto in Western Kenya, part of the Luhya tribe. Kenya is a multi-ethnic state, made up of almost 43 tribes, the biggest, most powerful being Kikuyu: which has formed Kenya’s leadership alongside the third largest tribe Kalenjin, since their independence in 1963. Robert explains that because of this two-tribe one-party leadership, “other tribes are always disadvantaged”, with the country's resources unfairly distributed among the smaller, and consequently poorer, tribes. Robert notes that his tribe the Luhya, the second largest tribe, are known for voting as a democratic collective, and are often accused of not using their numerical strength within their tribe to gain political power. Instead, they resist voting according to tribal affiliations and oppose incumbent governments despite the periods of one-party rule. This changed during Robert’s youth when in 1992 the first multi-party elections were held.

Robert: “The problem was the leadership. They never favoured our community or our tribe because we were considered as never supportive of the government…So resources are not going to come to our community.”

Ella: “As a punishment?”

Robert: “As a whip to help us vote ‘wisely’ next time, we are restricted from certain things.”

Ella: “What kind of things?”

Robert: “So we didn’t have roads. We don’t even have roads at the moment…we didn’t have good universities, we didn’t have infrastructure…Not because we are poor, but because of our voting pattern.”

Whilst his community dealt with the dark schemes behind the government’s ascension to power, Robert began to see the darker aspects of his own community. He tells me that the women in the community cannot inherit land or own property, are expected to vote as they are told to, and treated as property of their husband with their only purpose to bear children. This despotic culture permeated Robert’s home and his memories of childhood.

Robert: “I grew up in a domestic violence setting where my mum used to be beaten by my dad. I witnessed, not just once, so many times. We thought she was going to die. My brother fought my dad, which is very taboo, you cannot fight your dad: in my community, you’re not allowed to fight your dad. Domestic violence is something I will never tolerate. It doesn’t matter the issue. It just brings back bad memories. Every time I see someone raise their hand to beat someone, I have those flashes.”

As Robert grew up, the experiences of disadvantage and injustice in his youth pushed him to pursue a career in law. However, due to the few public universities and places within them, Robert’s dream was snipped as a seedling, forcing him to rethink and replant his dream for justice in journalism. Robert had written and reported for his high school magazine already, and after graduating started to work for local newspapers as what he calls “a basic writer”.

During his senior year of High School in 2004, Robert’s father suspiciously passed away, and four years later in 2008, his mother also died under similarly suspicious circumstances. His parents fell ill after reportedly consuming meals provided by his father’s stepmother at her house. The family had been embroiled in an intense legal dispute over land rights attained by Robert’s father following his grandfather’s death in 2002. Robert explains that land is one of the main causes of violence in Kenya: “land is like gold”. Since Robert’s step grandmother’s children had received only half of the family land to share between eleven, whilst the other half went only to Robert’s father, she attempted to claim what she believed she was owed. The grief was motivating: “my parents dying so suspiciously is probably the thing that propelled me into journalism.”

On the field, Robert was faced with the demands of a politically preoccupied media, and editors who wanted his stories to cover politics and big politicians only. For Robert this was a problem, he preferred real stories about the people in the local area and wanted to fight against the injustices he saw affecting them.

Robert: “I had a story about an eviction, over a hundred people were being evicted because the government wanted to build something on the land there. But they were not giving the people an alternative.”

Ella: “So where are they supposed to go?”

Robert: “No one cares. They just say, you know, you were given a notice and sufficient time to leave the place. And they say, which notice? Typically, such notices are not publicised or distributed until shortly before the eviction.”

Ella: “So the people can’t challenge it?”

Robert: “They say, you know, this notice was given five months ago, but actually it was hidden somewhere. So, they don’t give you room to, because they know if they give you room to do that, you will go to court and challenge it.”

Robert believed the eviction story was important to share. However, when he proposed running it to his editor, he was met with concern over publishing an article about ordinary people rather than politicians; that also directly criticised the government. A story about women entering politics for the first time was also shut down in favour of Robert covering a story involving a prominent politician. Jokingly, he emphasises to me that politics is “the yardstick for what constitutes as news” in Kenya, to the degree that this story about the big politician was actually about his housekeeper who had been in an accident and had also not worked for the politician in twenty years. Just the inclusion of the politician’s name would sell the “nothing” story. Robert refused to cover it and instead went ahead with the eviction story and women in politics story; he was fired.

On 30th December 2007, when Robert was 20, Kenya’s presidential election results were announced. Mwai Kibaki won, but opposition leader Raila Odinga disputed the results and rallied his supporters to protest the election. This resulted in a mass outbreak of election violence across the country. Thousands were killed and thousands more displaced. For Robert, the Kenyan crisis of 2007 formed a turning point in his journalistic career. Still working for local papers, he started to speak to victims in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, displaced due to the electoral violence. He saw the people suffering at the hands of politician orders and incitements, and those same politicians protected by their position; accepting no responsibility and doing nothing to help.

Robert: “People were crying for justice, there are displaced people living in camps, people maimed, others in hospital, people crying for their victims who are dead. But the politicians are just looking at how to get power.”

In 2009 the International Criminal Court (ICC) made it clear they were going to open a case in Kenya to investigate and prosecute the people behind the post-election violence. The investigation, which officially opened in 2010, produced a file in which six individuals were listed as behind the violence: among them two prominent politicians. However, the two politicians Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto used the international prosecution to win back favour for the upcoming 2013 election – by suggesting that Kenya is being targeted by the West. They became President and Deputy President. The ICC started collecting witnesses for the prosecution team, but witnesses kept dropping out of the case. Robert investigated these witnesses with his editor, for the paper The Mirror Weekly. In December 2014 he interviewed a witness who denounced his testimony. The witness told Robert that he was bribed to drop out of the case, promised land and money, but he was not given any of these things, resultantly threatening to be reinstated as a prosecution witness. Three days later he disappeared and one month later, in January 2015, he was found dead. The government claimed that the deceased witness was part of the defence team; aware the government knew Robert had an interview with the witness before his death, he fled the country for his own safety.

Whilst in exile, Robert handed his investigation over to his editor, who continued to look into the witness’s unexplained death and other witness disappearances. On the 30th of April Robert’s editor was bludgeoned to death, the case was quickly tied up and the perpetrators labelled ‘unknown’. Robert tells me: “He was killed because we were documenting witness cases. I stayed away for months without him. I didn’t speak, I didn’t even know what to do…in a period of seven months I had lost three people, two that I interviewed, then my editor. I imagined I would probably be next.”

Reflecting on the outcome of the “milestone” trials which attempted to bring the most high-profile politicians to justice, Robert decidedly confirms that there are still victims of election violence in Kenya, with people still displaced, homes still destroyed, and violent criminal acts still unpunished. The lack of witness protection, allowing for bribes, threats and death, clouded the investigation into already blurry politicians. The International Criminal Court’s cases against the President and Deputy President collapsed in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

Robert remained in exile, fearing for his life as the security and protection for journalists in Kenya diminished. He managed to get a job at the British organisation Article 19 as a program officer. Here he was able to converse with journalist protection committees, Amnesty International and others to fight for the safety of journalists; before beginning a protective fellowship at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights last year. Currently, Robert hopes he will be able to gain a Master’s degree in Applied Human Rights with the help of a sponsorship from a generous donor.

Robert and I have spoken so long the windows are now reflective black and student voices are replaced by distant cars and the sound of rain patter. I ask Robert if there is anything else he would like me to include, he looks contemplative, then tells me:

Robert: “What has been the lifeline of my journalism is using my pen to cause change, writing without necessarily knowing what will happen and then you see actions being taken. It’s one of the best things. Remember the story I told you about the eviction of the community?”

Ella: “The one that got you fired?”

Robert: “Yes.” (he laughs)

“After the story was published, people advocated for the government to stop that eviction, and the government agreed to find the people an alternative place to live. And when I was doing a follow-up to this story, I met a family, and there was an old lady there, probably 90 years or something, very old. I asked them how they felt now the government was giving them an alternative, and they told me how they are so happy about how the story raised the issue, and that the government is now adopting an alternative eviction plan for the future, involving compensation and other things. Then this old lady hugged me and said she is happy now she knows that if she dies today, she has a place to be buried. Those words melted my heart. So, journalism’s power, I would say, is in the very small, not the very big things…for me, that is beautiful.”

Writer’s note: If you would like to follow Robert’s continued efforts to fight for human rights and journalist’s rights in Kenya and East Africa, follow his X (formally Twitter) page @kittsrobert and visit his website Journalism Hub East Africa.