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What media missed in Robert Gituhu’s self-immolation story

On a clear day in Mwembe Tayari, Mombasa county, Robert Gituhu, a mechanical and production engineering graduate from the University of Eldoret, decided to end his life in a most bizarre fashion rarely witnessed in Kenya. Standing on what seemed to be a small podium, he publicly doused himself with a flammable substance before striking a lighter on himself.

He survived and was rushed to the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital. Gituhu was admitted with 80 per cent burns. He died while undergoing treatment.

The first reporting of the story attributed the man’s actions to various reasons: Harsh economic times, unemployment and the contested outcome of the August 2022 presidential election.

Confusion And Panic As Man Sets Himself On Fire in Mombasa (Citizen Digital, August 17).

Man sets his body on fire while protesting Raila’s ‘stolen victory’ in Mombasa” (The Star, August 17).

Man sets himself ablaze to protest high cost of living” (Nation. Africa, August 18)

Video of Mombasa man setting himself on fire startles Kenyans” (Standard, August 18).

The media did a commendable job in the initial reporting of this tragic story. The follow-up stories have been equally impressive, with more layers of Gituhu’s turbulent life coming to the attention of readers and viewers.

News stories have revealed the mechanical graduate was not only a brilliant student who scored an A- in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, but he might have also been struggling with a mental illness. Gituhu’s mother told us her son had grand ambitions, just like any other young person with a decent education. He wanted to be a Member of Parliament.

In other words, the media succeeded in humanising the young man’s story. Audiences were not only able to empathise with the tragic fate of Gituhu and his family, but were also reminded of the psychological toll the high cost of living and chronic unemployment have on young people across the country, especially millennials.

But why did the same media fail to place the same story within its proper historical context, like, say, they did with Shakahola deaths when readers and viewers were duly reminded of other cult-like leaders who drove their followers to death?

Here is the much-needed historical context the media ought to include in the reporting of Gituhu’s story.

Self-immolation is essentially a very political act that deserves nuanced reporting. Let’s jog our memories a bit about two similar historical incidents.

On June 11, 1963, Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, was doused with petrol, surrounded by police officers and other monks, before lighting a match that engulfed him in a giant flame that stunned the world. A photograph of his self-immolation would later win the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963. The man died.

Quảng Đức’s reason for ending his life, almost like Gituhu’s, was to protest. The monk was protesting the rampant harassment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, led by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

That ultimate sacrifice, according to historians, led to sustained international pressure on the South Vietnamese government, which was supported by the US, to review its policies and introduce far-reaching reforms.

Why did our media not provide this famous example to add nuance to Gituhu’s story? Drawing such historical parallels expands the audience’s perspective by giving them a global angle to a news report that can otherwise be dismissed as just another tragic death.

A second example would be that of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who sparked the Tunisian Revolution and the “Arab Spring.” After enduring endless harassment from municipal officers, Bouazizi finally decided to end his life through self-immolation.

On social media, concerned Kenyans were able to draw historical parallels with the case of the Tunisian vendor. However, the mainstream media’s deafening silence was telling.

The question we must ask ourselves is: Who benefits when the legacy media strips stories of their historical context, like in the case of Gituhu’s?

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