THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Who is Irene Gakwa? (Part 1)

Missing Kenyan’s father describes kind-hearted daughter who loved cooking and helping people

Pictured above is a young Irene Gakwa and her father, Francis Kambo. He mourns the loss of Gakwa, 33, who mysteriously disappeared from her home in Gillette in last February. (Courtesy photo from Francis Kambo)

rancis Kambo has his memories. His eyes grew wide, as he strolled across the golden grass on his three-acre property in the Rift Valley in Kenya where his daughter, Irene Gakwa, lived until she was 29.

“She was a Daddy’s girl,” Kambo said with a wan smile. “She wanted to be around me all the time.”

It’s been nearly a year since Kambo has spoken to his 33-year-old daughter. The two talked almost every day after she moved to Meridian, Idaho in 2019 to be close to her two older brothers. Their last conversation was a Whatsapp video call in late February, before Gakwa mysteriously disappeared from the Gillette home she shared with her fiancé Nathan Hightman.

Gakwa had looked tired, Kambo recalled. She blamed it on work, and he suggested she drink some milk and take a warm bath. She really missed their native food, she told him, and craved the fresh fish and beef that made up her diet in Kenya. The two made plans for Gakwa to fly home for Christmas.

Unbeknownst to Kambo, Gakwa was in Wyoming with Hightman at the time of their last call. Gakwa had told her father she was in Texas, even though the couple had moved to Gillette in July 2021.

Hightman, 39, told police Gakwa left the couple’s home one evening with her belongings packed in two plastic bags. He said that she got into a dark-colored SUV and that he hasn’t seen or heard from her since, according to court documents.  

Hightman is considered by police to be a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance. Last May, he was charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against her.

Hightman’s trial for those alleged crimes has been postponed from February. As of Jan. 18, no court date has been set.  

Lingering questions

Kambo told the Wyoming Truth over a Facebook messenger call Tuesday that he does not care about Hightman’s alleged five felonies. He just wants answers about what happened to his daughter.

Kambo’s last video chat with Gakwa was on Feb. 24. After that, Kambo received a handful of short WhatsApp messages from her account in which she told him she’d recently moved to Texas. But she made excuses for why couldn’t do a video call. The two communicated in a mixture of Swahili and English.

A message on Feb. 27 from Gakwa’s account referenced her impending trip to Kenya and Gakwa’s recent move to San Antonio, Texas. Her father asked if she needed help financially to which she replied, “No Dad I am well…”

Another message from her account on Feb. 28 said she couldn’t do a video call, because she’d dropped her phone in water and the microphone was not working.

The last message Kambo received from Gakwa was on March 9, in which she promised to text him from her new phone number. When the messages stopped, Kambo asked his sons to contact Gakwa.

A close friend of Gakwa’s informed them that she was living in Wyoming with Hightman. The brothers drove to Gillette and filed a missing person report on March 20.

Early life in Kenya

Kambo was against his daughter moving to the United States. She, too, was hesitant about the move, because her father had just retired and was experiencing some health problems. Gakwa wanted to stay to help take care of him. But her older brothers convinced their father that it was a good idea to let Gakwa go, so she could experience life on her own and attend nursing school, Kambo said.

The two had always been very close. Kambo worked as a mechanic for American Airlines and traveled around the world repairing planes. Gakwa hadn’t liked her father being on the road. When he called from the airport to say he was on his way home, she would show up at the airport and wait for him at the gate. Once at home, she competed with her brothers for their dad’s attention and wanted him to only sit next to her.

“That is the girl I am missing,” Kambo said, smiling through his tears.

Kambo admitted that he spoiled his only daughter. Sometimes, that meant buying seven blouses when she originally asked for two.

Gakwa was equally generous with others, he said. As a girl, she often cooked and delivered meals at the children’s home for orphans. On Christmas, she insisted on taking gifts to them. If a family couldn’t afford to feed their children, Gakwa would ask her father to help.

“She has such a big heart,” he said, “and was always caring for others.”

Even the family’s chickens, Kambo said with a laugh. They’d accidentally killed a handful because they’d fed them the wrong food. When Gakwa, then age 4, saw the dead birds, she assumed they were just sleeping and immediately covered them with a blanket. When the family woke up, Gakwa suggested to her father that they bring the chickens some tea. He was heartbroken to have to tell her the truth.

Gakwa also wasn’t in a hurry and reveled in her surroundings, Kambo said. She insisted that he drive at half the speed limit, so she could enjoy the scenes of daily life, such as women carrying firewood on their backs or farmers in the field manually planting one or two beans at a time. She also enjoyed pointing out the wild hyenas, elephants, rhinos and sometimes lions grazing near the roads.

Gakwa, along with her two brothers, attended an elite boarding school for high school, located about 120 miles from their home just outside Nairobi.

“I tried to give my children the best,” he said. “I didn’t want my kids to have trouble.”

Gakwa thrived in school, he said. After graduation, she worked at the front office at Nairobi Serena Hotel. She told her father she took the job to make friends. But she wasn’t happy there, so she set into motion her plan to attend nursing school in the United States.

Story doesn’t add up

Even after she left home, Gakwa remained closed with Kambo. If he didn’t call her every day, Gakwa would tease him about forgetting about his only daughter. Sometimes, they talked twice a day. And she’d sometimes call him in the middle of the night in Kenya, because she knew he’d answer the phone.

The fact that she kept Hightman a secret from him and her mother confounds Kambo.

“It was 180 degrees of what I knew of Irene,” he said, describing a girl who brought all of her friends – and sometimes strangers – home to meet the family.

Kambo thinks Gakwa knew that he wouldn’t have approved of Hightman, because he wouldn’t have made the cut in his eyes. He also doesn’t understand the slow-moving wheels of the American justice system, while his daughter remains missing.

Kambo tries not to succumb to the dark thoughts about what might have happened to Gakwa. Sometimes, he worries that she might be lost and in need of his help.

“One thing I know,” Kambo said, “is that any evil that is done in this world will be repaid once someone is buried. The truth will come out.”

Stay tuned for part two coming to you soon.

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