High-Profile Murder Case Holds Kenya's Attention

In Kenya, a murder case that revolves around the issues of black and white, rich and poor has captivated the public's attention. The sole heir to one of the largest family estates in Kenya killed a black subsistence farmer who was apparently trespassing on the white man's land.

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A murder case that has captivated much of Kenya has also forced that country to look squarely at race relations, at class differences and at what justice would mean for two men - one black, one white; one poor, one rich; one dead, one alive.

Thomas Cholmondeley is on trial for his life. He's the sole heir to one of the largest family estates in all of Kenya. In the spring of this year, Cholmondeley, who is white, encountered Robert Njoya - a black subsistence farmer on his land - and apparently shot him.

But who is guilty and of what remains uncertain, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: In Kenya, crime stories are served up like goat meat at a holiday supper. There's always plenty to go around - corruption schemes, home attacks, slum wars and blatant thievery dominate the headlines.

There's an air of lawlessness here that gives just about everyone the heebie-jeebies, even the police. Dominic Wabala is an investigative reporter for the East African and other newspapers. He's been covering crime in and around Nairobi for the past 10 years.

Mr. DOMINIC WABALA (Investigative Reporter, East African Standard): There's so many things that are happening, so much organized crime. There are places that even armed officers will not want to go to because he has not somebody watching his back. So unless we are going more than 10 guys, two or three of them will get risk.

THOMPKINS: But the crime story that has it all - danger, chance, forensic science and even an Impala - happened on May 10th of this year in the prickly bush of Kenya's fabled Rift Valley. That's when Thomas Cholmondeley - a 38-year-old white, blue-blooded landowner - cocked his rifle and reportedly shot Robert Njoya in the buttocks.

Njoya, a 37-year-old black stonemason was apparently poaching an Impala on Cholmondeley's estate. What has Kenyans atwitter is that Njoya is the second black man Cholmondeley has apparently shot dead in just over a year.

Mr. ROBERT SHAW (Columnist, Kenya): There are a number of major cases that have taken place in Kenya which have been more important.

THOMPKINS: Robert Shaw is a 54-year-old white Kenyan. He writes a column on politics and the Kenyan economy for one of the major daily newspapers here. His wife, Virginia, is one of Cholmondeley's defense lawyers.

Mr. SHAW: The issue here with this one is that it has an interesting ingredients of someone who got off the first time and who comes from a rather privileged background and all the mystique or supposed mystique of the past in the landed gentry.

THOMPKINS: In the spring of 2005, Cholmondeley shot and killed Solomon Ole Sisina - a black undercover officer with the Kenyan Wildlife Service - who had come into his property to investigate the illegal killing of a buffalo.

Cholmondeley claimed self-defense, and the prosecutor withdrew the case based on a lack of evidence. But protesters cried foul, the prosecutor lost his job, and then things cooled down until the Njoya shooting. That's when many Kenyans really took offense.

Ms. MARY WAMBUA(ph) (Financial Advisor): A lot of Kenyans still have that mentality that he's a Muzungu, he's white man and that is it. Period. And he was out to kill this man simply because he's an African, he's black and he looks like a monkey.

THOMPKINS: Mary Wanbola is a 39-year-old black Kenyan and a financial adviser for a multi-national insurance company. She sat at a Nairobi jazz bistro one night recently listening to Billie Holiday sing God Bless the Child Who's Got His Own.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

THOMPKINS: Wanbola doesn't buy the idea that the case is black versus white. At the end of the day, she says, it's Kenyan against Kenyan. But when John Bosire looks at Tom Cholmondeley, he doesn't see a fellow citizen. He only sees a white man.

Mr. JOHN BOSIRAY: As much as he holds a Kenyan passport - or as much as he was born in Kenya, wherever it was - we know his roots. It's not like you've been found in Kenya just by default. We know that you are loaned from wherever, Britain. It's written on the wall that you are Kenyan. Well, he's not a Kenyan.

THOMPKINS: Bosiray is a 27-year-old black Kenyan. He works as a media liaison for a state-run agency that helps children and families who live on the street.

Mr. BOSIRAY: It is (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) is a (unintelligible) coming into Africa, living here freely when our people don't have land, yes -thousands of acres of land. And not only that, he goes on and kills indigenous people.

Mr. SHAW: I think that the talk about the racial overtones is really an embellishment rather than the fact.

THOMPKINS: That's Robert Shaw again. He thinks the case has less to do with Cholmondeley and Njoya than it has to do with the land they were standing on at the time of the shooting. In literary terms, less white mischief and more rich man/poor man.

Mr. SHAW: There is a disparity issue here. You got someone who happens to be a Muzungu who owns a vast tract of land, and most Kenyans have little or no land at all. And, in fact, nearly two-thirds of Kenyans are living on the other side of the poverty line. So that's how I see it, rather than the person being, you know, a vestige of the colonial era.

(Soundbite of car engine)

THOMPKINS: To short out the facts of the Cholmondeley case, the Kenyan high court recently left Nairobi and drove the 70 bumpety miles northwest to the scene of the shooting. It was an episode that could've been called CSI: Rift Valley Province.

CARL "FLASH TUNDO" (Rally Car Driver): I just a little bit lost trying to locate where we were.

THOMPKINS: Carl - AKA Flash Tundo - is a white Kenyan rally car driver and the man who was with Tom Cholmondeley at the time of the shooting.

CARL "FLASH TUNDO": I know we came up this direction. If I knew where the scene was, I could work backwards, if you see what I mean. I think they could (unintelligible) somewhat.

THOMPKINS: Tundo led the high court through the dry, prickly brush of Cholmondeley's estate, retracing his and Cholmondeley's steps before encountering Robert Njoya.

CARL "FLASH TUNDO": That's when I heard the shot. And then not knowing what was there, I ran back in this barracks. That's when all the other shots followed.

THOMPKINS: Tom Cholmondeley stood quietly nearby. At a lean and seemingly relaxed six-foot-four, he appeared to be the only one present who looked completely comfortable in his surroundings. At the end of the day, he boarded the bus back to Nairobi's maximum-security prison. Some Kenyans, like John Bosiray, say he's probably safer there.

Mr. BOSIRAY: He's been convicted already by the public before even the trial. It's awful. People want to see him harmed.

THOMPKINS: But irrespective of the outcome of the trial, Robert Shaw is betting on Kenya to do what Kenya has always done.

Mr. SHAW: Most Kenyans are very cynical about the rule of law here. And I think in this case, as in many of these cases, let's see it conducted properly and fairly and, you know, respect the conclusion.

THOMPKINS: The trial resumes Tuesday.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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