Asylum Denied, A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America opens with David Ngaruri chest-deep in cold water in a locked cell. “When it was high, I had to stand to avoid drowning. When it was low, I tried to curl up and rest on the wet floor … I could not sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, because I was afraid that the water would rise and drown me while I was asleep.” This happens after his captors, the Kenyan state security police, take him into the woods, blindfolded and handcuffed, and debate the utility of killing him on the spot or letting him live to betray his collaborators. “The best thing to do with a Kikuyu [the ecothnic group of which Ngaruri is a member] is to kill him,” one of his tormentors remarks. “Then you never have to deal with him again.”

Ngaruri winds up in this bind after leading a protest against a government agricultural policy that consigned its tea farmers (growers of the country’s leading export) to penury. The movement Ngaruri led rose up spontaneously and culminated in a rally of 30,000 farmers insisting on their rights in the face of the repressive apparatus of President Daniel arap Moi. After Ngaruri’s imprisonment and eventual release, the government made concessions to the protesters in the form of an increased price for their tea. But Ngaruri himself was branded a troublemaker, with the eyes of the security police following him.

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