Monday, 5 August 2013


Bipolar disorder is a mental illness comprising extreme mood swings from exalted highs to despairing lows. My first experience of my own mental illness, long before I knew what bipolar disorder was or that I would live with the condition for the rest of my life, was an involuntary journey that took me to the abyss of depression when I was 24 years old. I was then a Rhodes Scholar and graduate  law student at Oxford University. Below I recall a season when I touched the nadir of despair and struggled to stay afloat against the swirling currents of self-condemnation in a world beyond hope and meaning.


Psychiatrists say that although some people are predisposed to mental illness due to their genetic make-up, there is usually a trigger that sets off the advent of actual illness. For me, the trigger had been the loneliness of being away from home for the first time in my life; living in a foreign land where people usually kept to themselves, the sun hardly shone and it rained almost continuously. Since the autumn of 1991, shortly after my arrival at Oxford University, I had watched helplessly as my life began to unravel all around me as I sank deeper into the depths of depression.

It was early May 1992. I had been sleeping rough in the streets since late March when it became clear that my continued stay at University had become untenable as I was unable to hand in any of my weekly class assignments. Attending to the simplest of tasks had become an unbearable burden. However I was too terrified to accept my apparent failure to accomplish what had brought me to England and to take the reasonable decision to return home.

I had therefore abandoned my room at Jesus College and embarked upon an unending journey to nowhere, wandering aimlessly by day around the streets of Oxford. At night, I would find a secluded place and lie down under the cover of the starless sky, exposed to the elements, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, my mind never quite finding rest. All the while, I took great care not to go anywhere near Jesus College, the Law Faculty Building or Rhodes House where anyone might recognize me.

When I seemed to run out of places to go in Oxford, I would take the intercity bus to London to continue wandering some more, all the while brutally hating and condemning myself continuously for being such a good for nothing failure who could not make anything out of his life despite having been given the best opportunities.

Neither the rain nor the chilly cold deterred me from my aimless wanderings. On the contrary I endured them as a fitting punishment for being such a loser. I would walk and walk going nowhere in particular and yet ending up everywhere, wishing I could die and leave all this misery behind, yet too terrified to take my own life.

Once, before I left college, I had found the numbing pain in my mind too hard to bear and I had made elaborate preparation to take an overdose but I had chickened out at the last minute, which made me condemn myself all the more. “You are not even brave enough to kill yourself, you good for nothing idiot!” a voice would later mock me from within, almost audibly. “Why don’t you just go off and jump onto the path of an oncoming train? No one would miss you anyway!”

I had no appetite for food whatsoever and I would not eat until I was on the verge of starvation and then I would buy something, anything – a sandwich, a cake, a soda, an ice cream, whatever – and force it down my throat without tasting it, and it would be enough to keep me going until the next time I felt too weak to continue my endless journey to nowhere.

Sometimes, when I happened to be in London, I would return to Euston Station, where I had worked at a fast-food restaurant in happier times on an earlier visit to London at the end of 1989. During these dark days of depression, I would sit leaning against a wall at the station concourse near the food court trying to get some elusive rest oblivious of the crowds of people swirling around me rushing to board their trains. Just after 11 p.m., when the station was about to close, I would be evicted by the cleaners back to the bitter cold, into the outer darkness, exposed to the elements that had by now become my only companion.

One late sunny afternoon in June, I was wandering inside one of the parks in Central London when I happened upon a young couple just hanging out, having fun and obviously celebrating their seemingly newfound love. I had been watching the young man from a distance as he taught his girlfriend how to ride a bicycle. He was now sipping from a can of beer as he watched proudly and cheered her on as she wobbled along a nearby cycle track. Although I was in no state to admit this to myself at the time, I was desperate for some human company having gone for months without actually talking to anyone.

“Can you spare some food?” I asked the young man, whom I later learned was an Iranian student.

“No!” he growled back seemingly irritated at this unwelcome intrusion to his romantic pursuits and clearly in no mood to discuss the matter further.

“Thank you,” I said meekly without feeling. I started to walk away with no particular destination in mind, but then he called me back.

 “What did you ask?” he sought to clarify, as if he suddenly felt guilty at being so abrupt even before he had actually understood what it was that I had asked him.

“I asked whether you had any food.” I repeated.

“I’m sorry,” he said remorsefully. “I thought you were asking for beer. A lot of people in this city don’t want to work and they beg for money just to buy drugs and alcohol.” He now sounded just as friendly as he had been hostile a moment ago.

He regarded me up and down as if trying to make sense of this unusual spectacle of a young black fellow, clearly a foreigner, who seemed so articulate and yet looked as filthy and disoriented as any homeless Londoner that he had ever seen. I must have been quite a sight to behold. I had not had a proper night’s sleep in longer than I could remember. Neither had I had a proper meal for just as long. It had been ages since I had taken a shower. I wore the winter coat I had first bought back in October from the Oxford open market and which had not been touched by water since except the seemingly endless English rain.

 “My girlfriend and I are just about to go home to have supper and you are welcome to join us,” said the young man, who told me his name was Mohammed.

The early summer sun shone warmly behind us as I joined Mohammed and Salanger, his Colombian girlfriend, both self-sponsored students of English, for the ten minute walk to their flat, but I knew it was more than the warmth of the sun that I felt. It was the kindness of two young people, fellow aliens in a foreign country, who had reached out to me and instinctively empathized with my plight even before I explained it to them.

Though I did not understand it at the time, this brief encounter was to be an important lesson for me on the value of unconditional acceptance by other human beings as a critical step on the path towards healing from mental illness.

As we approached their flat which was about a kilometer from Kings Cross Station, Mohammed and Salanger asked me about my predicament. I told them that I was an African student without specifying from which country and that my school fees and pocket money from home had inexplicably been delayed. I added that I was now out on my luck and trying to survive while waiting for my family to sort it out.

It was a lie. But it seemed a more believable story to tell them than the truth. It would have sounded incredible to try and explain that I was actually a graduate student of law at Oxford University - a Rhodes Scholar no less - and that I actually had plenty of money in the bank since I had hardly used any of my living expenses for the last two terms, but I was paralyzed by debilitating depression and unable to make rational decisions regarding my life.

Mohammed and Salanger lived on the first floor in a block of flats near the Angel Tube Station. The young foreign couple’s flat was small and sparsely furnished. It was so neatly arranged that it gave the impression of being more spacious than it actually was. From what I could tell, it had a single bedroom and a small kitchenette. The living room had an old sofa set in front of which was a glass top coffee table. There was a small television set and radio on a simple wooden stand. On top of the TV, there stood two miniature national flags of Iran and Colombia. At one of the corners of the living room, there was a picture stand on which stood a recent photo of the young couple whose radiant smiles seemed to light up the room.

I was able to notice and store up all this information in great detail in my mind at a fleeting glance despite being hardly able to function normally, which is one of the ironies of mental illness. One exists in a twilight zone where one is at the same time extremely alert to the goings on around them and yet unable to connect meaningfully with one’s social environment. This is why it hurts so much when ‘normal people’ ignore us, patronize us, speak about us as though we are not there, or make decisions concerning us without involving us.

While Salanger quickly prepared a simple meal of spaghetti and minced meat, Mohammed shared with me his own struggles with loneliness in London before he met her fifteen months earlier. She served us and we ate in silence as we watched TV, though in my case, I merely stared blankly at the flickering images in the box before us and barely heard what the evening newscaster on ITV had to say in his bulletin.

As usual, my mind was racing with countless thoughts of self-condemnation. Why could I not just get my act together as these two young people had clearly done under more reduced circumstances than I who had graduated near the top of my class with a law degree and had been awarded a prestigious and generous scholarship to one of the world’s top universities?

In the course of our evening together, this God-sent couple had become quite friendly and obviously sympathetic to my plight. They seemed oblivious to my unending mental anguish, or if they noticed it, they mercifully pretended not to.

Although they seemed to recognize that I had nowhere to spend the night, Mohammed and Salanger clearly would not extend their hospitality to inviting a total stranger to stay with them overnight. Instead, they did the second best thing. They gave me an old duvet and packed some of the left-over spaghetti and minced meat in a plastic container for me. It was around 10.30 p.m. when I thanked them for their kindness and stepped out into the chilly London night.

(Months later in the early days of my initial recovery in October 1992, I would look back at this brief encounter with a young Iranian student and his Colombian girlfriend - foreigners themselves trying to find their way in a cold unfriendly country - extending a hand of friendship to a total stranger. I would recognize it as one of the many hitherto unnoticed evidences that even at my lowest and most vulnerable moments God had lined up His angels to watch over me.)

Alone once again, I wandered in the general direction of Kings Cross Station. I found a small deserted park. There I sat on a wooden bench overshadowed by a few trees which stood as silent witnesses to my lonely suffering and meaningless search for meaning.

Soon thereafter I lay down, converting the cold hard bench into a makeshift bed. I used the plastic container, still warm from the food inside, as my makeshift pillow and covered myself with the old duvet trying to shield myself from a soft rain that had suddenly began to fall on me.



By Njonjo Mue

When the horizon 
suddenly grew dark
and distant thunder
her majestic approach,
men panicked,
women fled,
youths scattered.
running helter-skelter
to find the nearest shelter.

But not I

I stood here.
Waiting, hoping, looking up.
Desiring to get cleansed,
beginning to get soaked,
but needing to meet her,
pleading to know her name.

Then down she came,
pure energy cascading.
A soothing drizzle at first,
then an impatient pounding.
Escorted by light and sound;
and oh, so cleansing.
Watering this thirsty ground.
Heralding a new beginning.

Come, daughter of the rain,
usher in a new season for me,
lonely child of pain.
Approach elegantly from afar.
Refresh, replenish,
scare off the dust,
and chase away
the scorching heat
that’s enveloping
my heart.

© Njonjo Mue
    1 May 2003. 


Thursday evenings at Alliance were reserved for clubs and societies. It was the highlight of the week. For in addition to not having prep, clubs and societies would organize debates and usually invite girls’ schools to participate. To a mass of hormone-charged teenagers, the presence of girls always set off a wave of excitement.

And so, soon after supper on Thursdays, the school would usually become a beehive of activity and at the best of times, a kaleidoscope of colours. The Accrossian greens mingled with the Kotetian reds, the Bomarian greys mixed with the Choxerian browns, the Cabbs blues interspersed with the State House greens. Once in a while, we might even have the odd ‘third world school’ like Senior Chief Koinange, Mary Hill or Moi Girls Kamangu straying into our hallowed grounds.

We derisively labeled the latter schools ‘third world’ because, in the foolishness of our youth, we had categorized schools into a similar hierarchy as that obtaining in the world economic order without any sense of irony in the fact that this global hierarchy placed our own continent in the so called ‘third world’.

We were guaranteed to have at least one girls’ school grace the School each Thursday evening. Even when no other schools showed up, we were always guaranteed to have the faithful Accrossians coming to attend one or other activity hosted by the Junior Debating Society (JDS), the Fourth Form Debating Society (FFDS), the Senior Debating Society (SDS), the Young Christian Students (YCS), the Young Farmers’ Club, the Wildlife Society, the Kiswahili Club, or the Science Club, among others. We were allowed to be members of up to three clubs but we usually found a way of gate-crushing the activities of others when the guest list was right.

Ahead of an external meeting, as we called debates where visitors were expected, a highly elaborate ritual usually got underway in the dorms in preparation. Boys would take an extended shower after games and rush through their supper after evening parade. We would then don our best crisply ironed uniform, owned or more likely borrowed, and splash on ourselves generous doses of cologne – usually Brut Ferberge – which was shared all around. I sometimes wondered whether the visiting girls might not suspect that this cologne was supplied to all students by Mr. Owiti, our Quartermaster, along with the uniforms that were issued to each student on arrival at the school.

The debates would be held at the Carey Francis Memorial Lecture Theatre or any of the lecture rooms in the Science Block – BLR, PLR or CLR. In most cases, the visitors would arrive to find us already seated in the debating room and so there was no chance before the meeting started of striking up a conversation with a girl, or ‘hooking’ someone as we called it. We therefore spent the half hour of question time trying to impress the girls by asking witty questions to the ‘cabinet ministers’ and contributing thoughtfully to the main motion of the debate. But all the while, we would be busy identifying who our preferred ‘catch’ would be and making calculations on how to go about ensuring we ended up ‘sinking with her’.

 Following the debate, we would all stroll to the Dining Hall for refreshments and socializing for a few minutes with the girls before escorting the Accrossians to their gate or seeing off other visitors to their bus. The short walk from the debating chamber to the dining hall was a critical period. It was a make or break for one’s social standing in the School. Competition for ‘hooking’ the preferred chick would usually be intense particularly because at that age, peer pressure was overwhelming and our definition of beauty largely superficial. There were therefore few girls among the visitors that were considered acceptable to ‘sink’ with and the fewer the visitors, the more intense would be the competition. Floating was unthinkable, though it often did happen with devastating consequences for one’s reputation.

On Tuesday evening once a month, the Theological Society, whose patron was the inimitable Rev. Fred G. Welch (more famously known as Contra), would invite several schools at once. It was then that all the girls would seem to descend upon us at once in perfect display of grace and colour. They would join us in hearing a talk by Dr. Tokunbo Adeyemo, Prof. Watson Omulokoli, Rev. Timothy Njoya, Rev. David Gitari, or some other theologian as they addressed us on some deep theological subject. The fact that the Theological Society meetings were reserved for Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Formers, made junior boys long with envy for the day they would be admitted into the elite club.

Once or twice a term, there would be a charity film screened on a Saturday night to raise funds for some worthy cause. Unlike other entertainment activities which were free, students were required to pay a small amount to buy a ticket for the movie and refreshments were sold at the Senior Common Room during the interval. Proceeds would go to charity. No charity evening was complete without visitors from one or more girls’ school.

One Saturday evening there was a charity film about to be screened. Acrossians had already arrived and I was busy making calculations as to which chick I was going to ‘hook’. Being only a Form 2, and with my sinking skills far from perfect, there was a distinct possibility of floating and that would be an unspeakable dent on my reputation. 

But the early signs were good. I had already spotted three distinct prospects. The evening was pregnant with possibility. Still, one could never be too sure and I had to position myself strategically within ‘striking distance’ of my first choice, a fellow Form 2 girl from Macpherson House whom I had met during swimming practice a few weeks before. Things were looking good.

Just at that point, a stream of red skirts and sweaters flowed into the hall. Alas, Loreto Limuru, better known as Kotet, had responded to the invitation, a rare occurrence for charity films which were usually a Bush-Across affair. 

If the excitement before had been palpable, it now became downright tangible. Quick re-calculations had to be made among those of us who had loyalties in both schools. There was great potential for trouble as I spotted a Kotetian I had spoken to on several occasions before, enough times for observers to conclude that we were 'an item'. 

Preoccupied as I was with planning how to avert a serious crisis, I failed to notice that the stream of girls from Kotet had stopped flowing into the hall as it was now filled up with many girls still waiting to be admitted. What was more, another busload from Mary Leakey had arrived for the charity film and were also stranded outside the hall. But not for long, for soon the entertainment prefect was on stage making an announcement.

"The hall is filled up and we have to make room for our visitors. All Form 2s, please leave the hall. You will watch the movie tomorrow afternoon," he said with disturbing finality.

Was this guy listening to himself?? How dare he pick on Form 2s? Why us and no one else?? Why could it not be Form 4s and Form 6s who were asked to leave? After all they were the ones who needed to study for exams and they were the ones who were always spoilt for choice during Theological Society meetings. But of course this would never happen. 

All students were equal but some were more equal than others, especially the candidates. His choice was arbitrary, but it had been made and was clearly not up for negotiation. Form 2s were to vacate the hall before the movie could start. But we would not give up so easily. We remained in our seats pretending he was speaking to someone else. There was a mini stand off until the burly figure of Mr. Tendeka (better known as Breshnev or Brezhi ), the Deputy Headmaster, made its way to the stage. 

"All Form 2s," he said in his unmistakable Kisii accent. "You will leave the hall immediately." While we could possibly argue with the entertainment prefect, the Deputy HM had now spoken, and his word was law.

My heart sunk. Didn't this man not know what damage he was doing to my youthful heart that was still wildly palpitating with excitement? Could he not understand that this was the night I might meet my future wife?? This was preposterous! This was turning out to be a disaster of epic proportions, at least to an infatuated 15 year-old boy whose hormones were running amok. 

Having no option, we filed out of the hall forlornly as if on our way to attend a funeral. Many of us had borrowed pleated trousers and the mandatory brut-faberge cologne. I was even wearing a new pair of boots borrowed from my dorm mate. And now I was headed for Prep??

The rebel in me was sufficiently provoked and as we reluctantly made our way out of the hall under the watchful eye of the Deputy Headmaster, Mr. Tendeka, I started singing softly but defiantly  under my breath to the tune of the old gospel chorus ‘Moto Umewaka Leo’,  "Kazi ya Tendeka, kazi ya tendeka..." Suddenly, all the disenfranchised Form 2s who now found an outlet for their frustration joined loudly in our new-found freedom song, "Kazi ya huyu shetani yaTendeka..." 

The rest of the hall burst into laughter. I was not sure whether they were laughing with us because they found our protest song humorous or they were laughing at us because we were being evicted from the hall and were going to miss out of all the fun during interval and after the movie.

But Mr. Tendeka himself was not amused. He huffed and puffed on stage but that did not deter us. We sang all the way to the classrooms. We knew that we would eventually be punished for our impertinence but that was another problem for another day. What mattered to us now was that we had expressed our discontent and had not meekly walk out of the hall when unjustly ordered to do so. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013


One of the most satisfying aspects of my job when I served as Principal Human Rights Officer at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights IN 2006 – 2009 was prison reform. This included not just advising government on penal reform policy, but prison inspection to ensure respect for the rights of prisoners and upholding of best practice. 

Prison inspection was particularly gratifying to me because I myself had been a guest of the state several times and I knew first-hand what serving time in a Kenyan prison was like. I had first been incarcerated in 1994 at Industrial area Remand Prison. At the time, Kenyan prisons were so congested that any communicable disease that broke out spread like bushfire and prisoners were dying at a rate of one or more a day. Prison was the place where you went in but were lucky to come out alive. Society locked you up and threw away the key leaving you at the mercy of prison warders who themselves were little better treated by the system than the prisoners that were placed under their care.

During my time at the Commission, my team and I often conducted impromptu visits to prisons around the country. We inspected the cell blocks, ate their food, conducted confidential interviews with inmates about their well being, and spoke to prison officials about the challenges they were facing looking after people society had given up on with the inadequate resources that government placed at their disposal. We then prepared reports and used them as the basis for advocacy for improvements. We also visited prisons in response to routine complaints or the need for urgent interventions following ongoing human rights violations or to deal with a clear and present danger to the welfare of prisoners.

One of the more memorable prison visits happened at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on 17th November 2008. My wife Katindi and I were driving to work that morning when I got a call from my colleague Kamanda Mucheke informing me that there had been trouble overnight at Kamiti during which a prisoner had been killed and that we needed to go immediately and investigate. I quickly dropped Katindi off at her office then rushed to my office at the Commission.

Accompanied by our Chief Investigator, Joseph Kaberia and two interns, we set off for Kamiti. On arrival there, we were at first refused entry but we refused to leave. Soon thereafter, an officer was asked to call me in. I was to leave my colleagues at the car park as I was escorted alone to the office of the Officer-in-Charge where a crisis meeting was underway. It was chaired by a person who introduced himself as the director of operations from Prisons Headquarters and attended by the Officer in Charge, a Mr. Mutevesi, several senior prison officers, a policeman from the nearby Kiamumbi Police Station, and a doctor.

 “Mr. Njonjo, where have we met before?” the Director of Operations welcomed me trying almost too hard to be friendly. There was an air of panic around the room.

 “I am not sure we have met,” I said curtly being careful to ensure that I was not distracted from the serious purpose of my mission here by an exchange of pleasantries. “Could you kindly let me know what is going on?”

“Well, there was some trouble in the prison yesterday which is why we are meeting here,” he said vaguely.

I had been fully briefed about the specific nature of the ‘trouble’ so I decided to help him out, “What about Ibrahim Ngacha, the prisoner who was killed in Cell G6?” I asked. “Please tell me what happened to him.”

There was shocked silence as everyone stared at everyone else with the startled look of children who had been caught trying to conceal a misdemeanor from a seemingly all-knowing adult.

“It is not true to say that a prisoner was killed,” he stammered unconvincingly. “It is more accurate to say that a prisoner died and we are still investigating the cause of death.”

At this point, I got a call from Kaberia. “Njonjo, those guys are keeping you in there as they try and remove the body from the cells” he alerted me. “A GK Land Rover has just been driven in and we are sure that’s what they want to do.”

I stormed out of the office and and rushed down the stairs. I demanded to be taken to Block G where I was escorted by two warders to Cell 6. There I found the body of Ibrahim Ngacha. His fellow inmates had refused to let the prison authorities remove the body fearing that they would be blamed for his death while they claimed that he had died at the hands of brutal prison warders. I was joined by an officer from Kiamumbi Police Station who assured me that they would investigate the cause of death. After I took photos of the body and interviewed the eye witnesses, I was able to persuade the prisoners to allow the prison officers and the police to remove the body.

As I was walking out of the block, a prisoner shouted from a nearby cell, “Go to G36! Go to G36!!” The warders said I could not go to that cell and I told them to try and stop me. They both rushed out presumably to seek further instructions from their seniors and left me to roam the cell block unhindered. 

I ascended the stairs to the first floor and found my way to G36 where I found inmates who had been scalded with hot water in the cause of the violence that had taken place the previous day. They also told me that there had been unbelievable brutality meted out against the prisoners by the warders. I went to two or three other cells and recorded statements that all seemed to corroborate the story of indiscriminate violence that had been unleashed upon the inmates in the course of searching for contraband.

At one point, one of the prisoners asked me whether I wanted to see some evidence of what they were claiming. He then produced a phone with which he had recorded the goings-on of the previous day. I viewed the clip and could hardly believe what I saw. It seemed as though the entire complement of prison warders had descended upon Kamiti the previous day. They had ordered all prisoners to strip naked and had mercilessly embarked on an uncontrollable orgy of brute violence.

After promising the prisoner to replace his phone, I smuggled the footage out of Kamiti. At the gate, we were met by reporters from all local media houses with, each seeking to scoop the rest, asking me whether I had any footage of the violence that had taken place the day before. I resisted the temptation to give the footage to just one media house. It was important that the news of brutality behind prison walls come out and spread as far as possible if the issue of urgent prison reforms was to gain traction. We therefore made copies of the footage and distributed it to all media houses. 

By 1.00 p.m. the story had become the lead item on all TV Stations. It was carried at 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. It was picked up by the international media and the wide coverage forced the government to condemn what could no longer be denied as it was splashed on TV for all to see. The government also promised prompt investigations and committed to meaningful prison reforms. The officer in charge of Kamiti prison was suspended and six warders were interdicted following the events of November 16, though it is not actually clear that anyone was ever prosecuted for the death of Ibrahim Ngacha.

I returned to Kamiti recently this time not to inspect the facility, but to participate in a fundraiser of a good friend who is an inmate at the prison. My friend had gotten permission from the prison authorities to organize a harambee to raise funds for his children’s university education. The fundraiser was presided over by the Commissioner of Prisons and attended by the Prisons top brass.

It was a sight to behold seeing prisoners and warders clearly interacting as human beings in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The prisoners looked happy and well looked after. We were entertained by some of the best talent I have seen anywhere – acrobats and dancers, singers and actors - all prison inmates who were making the best of their time at Kamiti.

My friend is pursuing a London University law degree by correspondence while he serves his time and thanks to the fundraising effort that was supported by prison authorities at the highest levels, his children too will finish their university education. As my friend said in his speech, prison has come a long way from being a virtual death sentence, to brutal punishment, to rehabilitation, and now to empowerment.

After the fundraiser, I met one of the officers who had gathered for the crisis meeting following the death of Ibrahim Ngacha in 2008.

“What you did at that time helped us to realize that prisoners were not animals,” she told me referring to the confrontation at the office of the Officer-in-Charge five years earlier. “They are our own brothers and sisters who may have once behaved like animals; but the way to help them is to treat them like human beings and not to brutalize them as had been happening prior to that. I want to thank you.”