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Police leave family of murdered non-binary lesbian to find murder weapon

Exclusive: Sheila Lumumba’s friends say it was left to them to find crucial CCTV. Rights groups say Kenyan police must step up

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
25 April 2022, 5.26pm
Sheila Lumumba via Instagram

Rights groups and LGBTIQ people in Kenya say police are dragging their feet over the brutal murder of 25-year-old Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba, whose grieving family and friends have been forced to carry out basic investigative work themselves.

Sheila’s cousin told openDemocracy she had even discovered the potential murder weapon, a knife, among Sheila’s possessions when collecting their things – a weapon police claimed they had been unable to find – and that friends and family had been left to chase down vital CCTV of their final hours.

Sheila, a lesbian non-binary person, lived in Nyeri county, central Kenya. In the days since their killing earlier this month, the hashtag #JusticeForSheila has been gaining momentum on Kenyan Twitter.

They worked as a supervisor at a hotel in Nyeri and have been described as “jovial, very friendly” and “hardworking” by family and friends.

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When they did not show up for work on the morning of 15 April, workmates called their phone, but it was off. It remains unclear when exactly Sheila was murdered, and police are yet to disclose if there are any suspects.

A close family member told openDemocracy that a post-mortem report released last week showed they had been raped, stabbed several times in the chest, face, neck and eyes, and hit on the head with a blunt object. One of their legs had been broken.

Afrika, a coordinator at Kisumu Feminists’ Society in Sheila’s home town, started the #JusticeForSheila social media campaign last week to “break the silence and ensure that we show people that you cannot kill someone like this and go unpunished”.

But the police investigation on the case remains painfully slow, and Sheila’s family say the police are not doing enough to catch the perpetrators.

“They’re not doing much, at least not what is expected of them,” John Lumumba, Sheila’s father, told openDemocracy. “There is nothing much going on. There is not much progress.”

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Kenya – the criminal investigations arm of the police – and the investigating officer on the case have not responded to openDemocracy’s questions about progress.

A sloppy police investigation

Sheila’s cousin, Laura Ocieng, told openDemocracy she was among the people who went to Sheila’s room on Wednesday to pack up their belongings.

She said she had discovered a bloodied knife “hidden” among Sheila’s clothes, even though “the police claimed not to have found the murder weapon” when they conducted their own search days before. She said that she later handed the knife over to the police.

“We told the DCI to come and pick it up, and they told us they can’t come. They told us to take it to the police station. Luckily, we had gloves and took it [to the police] without putting our fingerprints [on it],” she said.

Ocieng also said that police had been given CCTV footage of Sheila Lumumba leaving a bar in the company of three males some time on 14 April. The CCTV footage is one of the only pieces of evidence showing the people with whom Sheila Lumumba was last seen alive.

But even this had to be located by friends and family of the deceased, and brought to the attention of the police.

“I really think the police failed us from the start,” Ocieng said.

'A hate crime’

In 2019, Kenya’s high court upheld a colonial-era penal code law criminalising homosexuality. In the ruling, the court said the LGBTIQ petitioners who wanted the law repealed had failed to prove that its existence violated their rights to health, human dignity and privacy.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an LGBTIQ organisation in Kenya that is providing legal assistance to Lumumba’s family, said the case was “not an isolated incident”, but rather part of a “pattern of attacks and violence” against queer people in the country.

Afrika added: “A lot of hate crimes against lesbians in Kenya, especially masculine lesbians, come from a place of: ‘Oh, you want to act like a man? Let me show you how.’”

The #JusticeForSheila campaign is reminiscent of 2021 social media campaigns like #JusticeForErica, for Erica Chandra, a trans woman who was found murdered in Nairobi, and #JusticeForJoash, for Joash Mosoti, a gay man and LGBTIQ activist who was tortured and strangled to death in his home in Mombasa.

Activists have called out Lumumba’s murder as a hate crime, with attacks like so-called ‘corrective rape’ directed at lesbian women and gender non-conforming people.

Afrika says that when she heard about the brutal way in which Sheila Lumumba had been killed, she “immediately thought: ‘This is a hate crime, a homophobic attack.’” A lesbian, Afrika was reminded of her partner who, like Lumumba, is masculine presenting and has been repeatedly targeted in homophobic attacks. “There are places my partner and I can’t go to,” she said, “places we can’t live in. It's really hectic having to watch your back every single time.”

John Lumumba said he had never had the chance to discuss Sheila’s gender identity with them.

“I’d like to know who did this,” he said. “It does not matter what or who [Sheila] was. I would like to know exactly what happened to [them]. I want to see the culprits caught.”

A close friend of Sheila described them as “energetic, full of life, with a positive vibe”. Another said they “were always surrounded by friends”. John said they were “hardworking” and “took good care” of him.

Sheila Lumumba will be buried on 30 April in Kisumu.

The investigating officer in the case declined to answer our questions.

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