Writing Police Stories

Greetings, friends:

I’ve been thinking about the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and their English composition department. If you’re on Twitter you’ve no doubt come across the florid tales of cases apparently solved by the DCI, written in the style of a breathless tabloid combined with a Kenyan secondary school English composition. In the DCI’s telling, detectives are always “burning the midnight candle”, “youthful misfits” are rescued from “irate neighbours”, you might even find a miscreant or two.

Back in March, Max Bearak of The Washington Post (and a friend of Baraza Media Lab) wrote about the communications team at DCI behind this flurry of “sleuths” busting underground businesses, and suspects “cooling their heels in police custody”. The man behind the keyboard is Jonah Kimani, who once dreamed of becoming a journalist but ended up a police constable, Bearak reports. Kimani is inspired by the oration of Barack Obama and the vocabulary of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the aim of this frenzied writing is to make the public know that the police “are working”. Sigh.

There are so many layers here that I haven’t even had time to reflect on properly.

A couple of weeks ago, two brothers – Benson Njiru, 22, and Emmanuel Mutura, 19, were killed after being arrested for being outside after the 10pm curfew. It’s one of many and seemingly relentless police killings or deaths in custody – at least 778 people have been killed or “disappeared” by police in Kenya since 2007, according to Missing Voices. This weekend, the brothers were buried at their parents home in Kianjokoma, Embu. Where’s the DCI’s restless writing now?

I’m left thinking of the power of language in a time of tragedy such as this, and not only what is written, but isn’t. When flowery language is overdone for the purposes of appreciating police work, and at the same time a brutal killing that leaves a country reeling is met with a strange silence on the part of the “wordsmiths”, the result can only be rage.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re ReadingWhy Some Of The Smartest People Can Be So Very Stupid, an article on Psyche Magazine. At its heart is the idea that stupidity is not mere ‘dumbness’, not a brute lack of processing power. Dumbness is quite ‘straightforward’; stupidity is something very different and much more dangerous.
  • What We’re WatchingPray Away, a documentary on Netflix taking an unflinching look at the harm wrought by so-called ‘conversion therapy’, which are attempts to turn LGBTQ people straight by prayer and counselling. The most important part to think about deeply is that most of the story’s subjects eventually embraced gay and bisexual identities despite having formerly been so public in their homophobia.
  • What We’re Listening ToWhere Should We Begin, a podcast with each episode featuring real counselling sessions with real couples. More than simply being a voyeuristic show where we are simply eavesdropping on the problems of other people, therapist Esther Perel creates a tender space for us to hear our own lives and struggles articulated in the stories of others. Get ready to perhaps be triggered – and to grow, too.

As always,

Christine Mungai

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