Francis, documenting police brutality away from the spotlight

By Noah Wánebo
Photograph by Daniella van Bergen

Working under constant threats of arrest and violence, 30-year-old grassroots human rights defender Francis Sakwa has fought at the dangerous front line of human rights for over ten years in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya to document cases of police brutality and other political, economic, and social injustices.

Witnessing police violence in his community drove Francis to activism at an early age. In the densely packed and notoriously tough Mathare slum, police face little accountability. While Francis was in high school, he says police raided his village while looking for a lost gun, and the search quickly turned violent.

“There were a lot of atrocities—they were beating people, arresting, torturing people. We were teenagers, and we were told to look for the [missing] gun in the Mathare river,” Francis recalls. “Then, later, we were carrying dead bodies out.”

This particular case of police violence pushed Francis to become increasingly involved in community activism. He has since documented over 200 cases of police brutality in the slums of Nairobi. Following the election violence in 2017, Francis documented the extrajudicial police killings in the slums to keep record of the political violence.

“My main reason is to counter the narrative,” Francis told Justice and Peace. “The mainstream NGOs cannot access the slums and opposition zones because they have challenges in getting into them. They rely on second-hand information, so for us at the grassroots level, we make sure that when the interior cabinet secretary says ‘we have not killed anyone in the slums,’ we produce videos.”

Police have detained him more than 30 times since his work began, and death threats have forced him to move homes, yet he continues his work on the dangerous frontline of human rights.