Nairobi — The attack and horrifying personal humiliation visited on renowned novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o and his wife Njeeri wa Ngugi on Wednesday night in Nairobi seemed to shock even those who are now hardened by the city's high crime rates.
And it must be a fate that Ngugi least feared when he returned to Kenya for a short visit last month after 22 years in self-exile.
In order to provide a minimum level of predictability and stability, humans have ordered their lives in such a way that some people, because of their calling, don't suffer some types of misfortunes. Thus, while we would not think twice about it if Presidents Mwai Kibaki or Yoweri Museveni suffered a cold, we don't expect them to be malnourished. And some crimes run so much against social norms, we never prepare to thwart them. Thus, after thieves in Nairobi early this year stole the Sunday collection in two incidents, no church has responded by deploying armed police to mind its money bags.
Ngugi, who had just returned from a triumphant speaking tour in Dar es Salaam and Kampala, is one of Africa's - and definitely East Africa's - most famous writers. People like him are only supposed to be jailed by governments for writing subversive books and insulting the president, not to be stalked and attacked by thieves.
The fact that it happened is not so much an indicator of how crime-ridden Nairobi is, but how much the political problems and economic deprivations of the past two decades have destroyed social order. In other words, blame politics.
Politicians rarely realise that because of their high profile, their actions have a tremendous demonstration effect on the population. Reading the stories of thieving by politicians and officials in the Uganda and Kenya press (less so Tanzania) can be quite depressing. However, not everyone stops at despairing. Many people follow the bad examples - and also steal from the small office, the workshop, and wherever they work.
A president flagrantly breaks an election promise and tells a lie, and soon many people do the same at their level. There is never one single action that leads to a breakdown of social order. It's the single acts of theft, cheating, lying, greed, that slowly erode the rule of law and the moral order. After a while, there is nothing sacrosanct left anywhere.
That's why it's very frustrating doing research in the vast library at Makerere University in Kampala. The few good books that haven't been stolen have many of the pages ripped out. The story is much the same in the Dar es Salaam and Nairobi university libraries, I am told. It is in places like the libraries, not so much on the streets, that you get to best measure how much damage has been done to our psyches by the difficulties that have battered our societies in recent years.
Societies where someone like Ngugi is attacked in the way that he and Njeeri were, begin to rot by tearing a page out of his book in the library - or not reading him altogether.
One of the best statements about what the way we treat books - and therefore their authors - says about us is made in the blockbuster disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.
To stay warm, survivors of a killer snowstorm begin burning books in a library fireplace. One of them holds tightly on to a rare copy of the Gutenberg Bible - the first printed book in history - and refuses to let it be thrown into the flames. Another survivor asks him whether he expected God to save him. He replies that he does not believe in God, and was only saving the Bible because its printing represents the beginning of The Age of Reason.
Horrible as the crime against the Ngugis was, what it represents is even more terrifying. Imagine Chinua Achebe visiting Ogidi, the village where he was born, and being pulled out of his wheelchair by thugs and shaken down. Hard to do.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is managing editor in charge of media convergence at the Nation Media Group.