It was a June lunch hour; bright and hot. The office of Rachuonyo and Rachuonyo Advocates was out to lunch, the laptops left abandoned on desks in an apocalyptic fashion, the fifth floor of Capitol Hill Towers finally still. In the distance, you could hear the lifts occasionally open and close on the floors above and below. Robert Onyango, a lawyer, was in his office nosing through some files, catching up on a case.
Unbeknownst to him, at that very moment, a school van that had just dropped off his three year old son was reversing on him.
Shortly after, his phone was ringing and it was his wife, Irene, shouting hysterically. “Call home! Call Bradley! Call Jackie!” Then he was hanging up and calling Jackie, their nanny who was also screaming in terror, speaking unintelligibly. In the background he could hear mass hysteria; a wave of what sounded like wailing, like a funeral. He couldn’t make out what she was saying but he could hear his son’s name Bradley over and over in her screams. His heart sank. His hands started trembling. He was suddenly weak and hot. He loosened his blue tie and sat slumped at his desk.
As a colleague drove him home at full speed, he prayed. He asked God not to let anything happen to his dear son. When he got to the AAR Center at Nyayo estate where a gasping crowd had gathered, he found his pregnant wife holding his son. She was screaming and shouting at him, “imagine this boy is dead! Imagine this boy is dead!” He stood rooted at the spot, numb, confused. Dead? He took a cautious step forward and looked at his son, cradled in his mother’s arms. His son’s body was broken, something had damaged his small holy body. His teeth and mouth were disfigured. He couldn’t comprehend, how could Bradley be dead? Had he not seen him in the morning a few hours ago? He was in his school uniform and his small school bag with a cartoon character on it. Had he not seen him at the breakfast table, his chin playfully leaning against the table’s edge, Jackie telling him to eat his breakfast?
How could he be dead?
How did a van run over his baby?
Can a school van run over a little boy?
This is impossible. This is a nightmare.
When they wanted to finally take him to the morgue he said to a policeman, “don’t touch him. I will carry him.” He was wrapped in a white sheet now, like a mummy. He had carried him in his arms. His son, who was alive and warm in the morning but dead and cold at noon. He was unusually heavy. The weight of horror and pain. Heavy like death. He felt, through the white sheet, the damage the van had done to his son. His little bones had been crushed and felt disarranged. He felt unimaginable pain, pain you can’t describe to anybody who has never carried their dead son in their arms. He felt everything in his own body had been disarranged; his heart, his lungs, his liver, all his bones, his brain, his life. He knew that his life had disintegrated in pieces and he would never find the pieces to put together again.
Later he went back and begged the doctors to tell him that his son didn’t suffer. Because he couldn’t imagine his son suffering, dying alone under the weight of a school van.
This was 28th June 2015.
I – like everybody else – heard about it on social media that same afternoon. My son was only one year old and when you hear such things, you tend to selfishly think of yourself first, you try to imagine what would happen to you if a van ran over your son. Your brain refuses to process that level of horror.
I met Robert Onyango a year after that event and he talked about having to find the language to tell his two remaining sons (Martin 9, Jason 5) that day that their brother was dead and he had been taken to the hospital and Jason asking, “but when will he come back?” He talked about how much tears washed through their house, how his wife couldn’t stop crying. How Bradely’s death altered their very being as parents, as a family, stained everything in their house with loss and grief. How the night Bradley died his sons all climbed into their matrimonial bed with their mother and she held all of them as they slept, each hand clinging onto one of her sons’ in case death came back for her remaining sons. That night, he crawled into Bradley’s small bed and curled his 6’ 3” frame into the smallest ball he could manage, like a foetus, and suddenly he wasn’t a 40 year old lawyer neither was he a husband nor a father, he was a child again. “I was so scared,” he told me. “I was so scared.”
He told me how when everything had crumbled around him, when nothing made sense, how his father stood by him, how his step-mom offered him solace, how his step sister became a steady rock he would rely on and his friends took over his life and arrangements. He couldn’t sleep at night. He’d leave the lights on the whole night because suddenly darkness terrified him. Sometimes, in the stillness of the night he could hear the sound of the van reversing and the sounds of his son’s bones crushing. How when he eventually cried, he would break down in privacy behind doors and weep utterly while covering his mouth with his hands.
Driving back from the village to bury Bradley he felt like a traitor with each kilometer they moved from the village, having left his son under a mound of soil. How it all sank in during that trip back when he looked in the rear view mirror and noticed that one seat was empty. “We were a family of five, now we were a family of four.” He said. “One of us was missing and was always going to be missing.”
The story was Bradley. It’s going to be ten years next year. We sat down with Robert again.
You want someone to pay for killing your son. Of course you do; a school van ran over your son! You are angry. You want to fight for his honour, for his name. You want someone punished. How is it possible that you take your child to a place that is supposed to care for him, prepare and arm him for the world, a safe place and the same people leave him to die under the weight of moving steel? How can one be so careless, so callous as not to look in the damn rear-view mirror after dropping a child who still needs their hand held? A three year old child, for chrissake! How do you reverse a whole van over a child?
You go to court.
It helped that Robert is a litigation counsel, he knows his way around the legal labyrinth, knows which hoops to jump and what monkey to feed a banana. There were two cases: a civil case and a traffic offense case. The civil case was for his lawyers to prove that the school was negligent and the insurance pays up the damages. Then there was the traffic offense case which involved the government demanding their pound of flesh.
The civil case was at Milimani Law courts. It seemed like an open and shut case however, the insurance companies are not in the business of paying without a scuffle, so of course they lawyered up. They cut through their emotions and they send their meanest and baddest lawyers who intend to tear into the muscle of the case with their bare teeth. This is not personal to them, this is business. “You are put on the stand to testify,” Robert says, “and you have their lawyer cross-examine you and what you don’t anticipate rather naively, even for a lawyer like me, is that the other side will try and make it appear that you are the ones who were careless!”
“I’m used to being in court, so I was not tense but for my wife it was her very first time and she was shocked at the ugliness of the process. It brought out the side of her I’d never seen before.” He says. “When we were dating she lost her father and his passing completely devastated her. Seeing her in court was nothing compared to the devastation of losing her father. I’d seen a different side of her in the amount of sorrow and pain, of having to relieve it all over again, to defend herself and to defend her son. I think it’s the worst I have ever seen her and I never want her to go through something like this again. I never want her to be in that position again.”
Going to court traumatised her. After court sessions she would stay at home for two or three days, not able to go to work. “She would be exhausted mentally and emotionally, the court having taken everything from her because whereas it was supposed to be a session about how a child died, it turned out to be a trial against you; had you been a better parent your son would be alive today, that was the general insinuation.”
After one and a half years the court awarded a package which the insurance company contested. Essentially they said, your son was not worth that much. They appealed. At this point Robert and Irene made a decision; they didn’t want any part of this again, and didn’t want to go to court again to fight anymore. So he spoke to his lawyers, told them to tell the insurance company to pay whatever they deemed fit and end this circus of pain because it now felt like “we were negotiating for a dowry prize and it started taking something away from this process.”
A settlement was reached and the insurance company paid what they thought was fair. The settlement didn’t feel like closure for him. “It is money, it is impersonal. A boy died here, my son got run over by a van. If you take that money and multiply it 1,000 times I would still not feel like it was closure. Nothing would ever make me feel like justice was served and we got what we deserved. This is when you realise that life and money can not be equated.”
Normally there is a minder who rides with children in school buses. He/ she opens the door for them and holds their small hand as they come down the steps. She then crosses the road with them. Or hands them over to their nannies or anyone there to pick them up. She also tells them to sit down, or stop fighting or throwing trash out the window because it’s bad manners. She knows these children. She knows the colour of their gates.
Nobody knows exactly what happened when Bradley was dropped off and the school van reversed over him. Nobody knows what that minder was doing, what the driver was doing, what God was doing. It’s all unfathomable.
The driver took off after the accident and is still at large, nobody knows where he is. In his absence the school-van minder was brought to face the law. Robert saw the van minder a couple times during the traffic case at Makadara courts near a church he attended as a child, the same church where he got baptised. He was surprised at how young she looked. She was in the presence of her mother and auntie and a male relative. They sat huddled around her, a wall of relations and comfort. She avoided looking at Robert and Irene. She stared at the floor a lot. She looked scared of them. “My wife was tired of this case before it started.” Robert says. “The morning of the hearing she asked me, “why are we still doing this? Of what use is it?”
On the next court hearing he waited for this school van-minder in the court compound. She came out of a car with her mother, husband, her uncle and her lawyer. He approached them. When she saw him, she recoiled in fright. He shook hands with the rest and asked to speak with her privately. They were sceptical. She was visibly scared of him. “She couldn’t come close to me, she stood far away from me and I remember telling her, ‘just come close, I don’t intend to harm you, I merely want to talk to you.’” He says. “ I could see she was very scared of me and I felt bad that she imagined that I was capable of hurting her. That I was that kind of a person.”
He was surprised to learn that she had just turned 18 when she took the job as a school van minder, and that job was her very first job. She was remorseful. She kept saying how sorry she was. She broke down and wept. “I held her, comforted her. Her people watched as she cried uncontrollably in my arms.” He says. “And then words just started coming out of her amidst the tears.”
She said there is no day when she hasn’t thought of that day. That it’s something that has always stayed with her and she doesn’t think it will ever go away. “She said there is no day when she didn’t wish she swapped places with my son and she was the one who was run over and killed instead of him. And at that point I tried to imagine what it was like for her, only 18 years old on your first job and the child under your care gets killed on your watch. You are 18 years old and so you have to live the rest of your life with this burden. As a parent I felt sorry for her. I understood how haunted she might be. My son would never come back, that’s a fact, does another person also have to suffer like we have?”
He told her they were dropping the case. They were surprised. The magistrate was also surprised and wouldn’t hear anything of it. He told the prosecutor to talk to him because his client seemed to have lost his mind. “I stood my ground, I told the court I’m a lawyer and I know the implications of this, but as a family we don’t want to go forward with this, it’s too costly on us.” But the court refused to drop the case, it being a public interest case. There is a hearing sometime this year.
“We cannot hold on to some things for life.” Robert says. “There is no better evil, no better good. Only God knows how He does these things.” His relationship with God has greatly changed over time. He’s a member of the Catholic Men Association. “God does things in very mysterious ways. God is the owner of anger. He decides how many days you will remain angry. God is also the owner of forgiveness. As we grow in this world, there are some things you also want your kids to take up, good qualities, like compassion, grace, love. Someday when I’m gone, I’ll want somebody to forgive my son no matter how bad his mistake is. Or him to forgive someone no matter how badly he has been aggrieved. Some debts you don’t pay on earth and I’m not saying this lady has a debt to pay, because it was an accident and of what use is it for anyone if she spends the rest of her life with this great burden when an act of forgiveness can free her.”
Their youngest son was born two months after Bradley died. Robert feels that God has already compensated them for their son by giving them another one. “Of what use will having someone’s daughter sent to jail for many years be of use to us when we already have another child?” He poses. “It can never give us the kind of retribution we are looking for. So it was at that point that we made an informed decision that we just need to go in good faith.”
I asked him if that experience in court has affected his legal profession and how he sees law and justice. As if on cue, just before he answers this question the phone rings; it’s his wife. He says jokingly that he has to take it because that’s the law calling.
“It has really changed my perspective when it comes to cases.” He says hanging up. “I’ve come to appreciate that the files and court papers we handle have people behind them. I handle murder cases seldomly and I’m more sensitive when cross examining people who have lost loved ones. I’m sensitive to the kind of questions I ask. It’s these questions that the victim or the family member will always remember.”
When I ask him if Bradley comes to him in dreams, he says he comes not in the form of dreams but what he prefers to call “visions.” When he sees a ten year old walking from school or in the mall he imagines it’s him, Bradley. Because he’d be that age next year. “I imagine that he could possibly be a classmate to that boy or girl because they are the same age.” For the longest time his last born was a spitting image of Bradley but when he turned three- the age Bradley was when he died – he got his own face.
The boys are all grown now. The eldest is in high school, two years away from university.”I can’t believe I have a child in high school.” His dad is unwell, so he shuttles to the village a lot more now. “The sun sets in the west, I’m turning 49 years old this year, this means I’m heading towards my sunset years so I find myself travelling towards the village a lot, towards the setting sun.”
On the morning of June 29th each year, his wife wakes up and says wearily, “It’s that day.” They used to stay at home on that day, but at some point he decided to go about the day as if it was another, even though it never can be because at exactly 1pm, “wherever I am, my life normally comes to a standstill.” She, Irene, on the other hand, would spend the day in the bedroom sleeping the whole day. “She could be in the room for two or three days, unable to go to work.”
Her WhatsApp has always been the profile picture of Bradley. She has never changed for the past nine years. “It’s the longest profile photo I’ve seen on anybody’s WhatsApp. It has the words, ‘Forever in my heart, baby boy.’” Nobody knows what Irene thinks of when she sits quietly in traffic, or in her office. I asked Robert to request her for an interview. Maybe she will accept it. For now, we can only imagine what she has gone through and what she continues to go through.
What Robert knows for sure is that she is insanely attached and dedicated to their last born son. “The bond they have together is difficult for me to comprehend,” he says. “My son is almost nine and whenever he gets off the school van from school, his mother is always there to meet him…always, without fail! I mean, our house is literally 200 meters from where he is dropped off but she will always be waiting to receive him and walk him home.”
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