Footballer by day, robber by night: My life is now captured in TV show

Harun ‘Rio’ Wathari,

Harun ‘Rio’ Wathari, a former gangster mentoring the youth in Kibera, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Pool

Born 35 years ago, Harun ‘Rio’ Wathari grew up to become the most hated member of the family by his father, a church leader.

Despite coming from a well-to-do household, Rio turned out to be a dreaded gangster in Kibera.

With his gang – Olympic Strikers – he terrorised Nairobi residents for many years.

“My father had vehicles and rental houses and my mother is a pastor. My siblings and I went to good schools,” he says.

Rio’s story has been made into an eight-part series “Pepeta”, streaming on Showmax.

He narrates his journey as a gang leader, a part played by Brahim Ouma as Junior.

It started at a football pitch when Rio was 14. A talented footballer who might have donned a Harambee Stars jersey like one of his friends Jesse Were, who now plies his trade in the Zambian top league, Rio became a fugitive.

He played football at Reli grounds in Kibera. That is where veteran youth coach Glyde Aswani, credited for developing stars like Were, Edwin Lavatsa and David ‘Cheche’ Ochieng, spotted Rio and recruited him to his Soka Talent Academy.

Unfortunately, the academy is where the crime bug bit Rio.

They would play football in lower leagues by day and rob people at night.

“Aswani was a slave to fashion. He loved to look good and We wanted to emulate him but didn’t have the money. We still lived with our parents. We had to find a way of getting money, resorting to petty thievery,” he says.

The boys would steal bottles from shops and homes and sell them to “Mali Mali” hawkers.

They bought the latest clothes, competing among themselves to dress up.

As years went by, the team graduated from Under 12, U14 and U20. The boys took part in lower-tier football leagues in Kenya but peer pressure was mounting and they had to upgrade their lifestyles.

“The pressure skyrocketed when we began getting involved with women. We had to find money for our fashion and entertaining our girls,” Rio says.

With his gang of football teammates, Rio began targeting wealthy people in estates neighbouring Kibera.

“That is when we started getting violent as you cannot commit a robbery while smiling. Violence instils fear in victims and makes them cooperate,” Rio says with a smile, as a Sh60,000 bulky silver chain dangles on his neck.

With the loot, they would style up and take their girls to nightclubs.

Florida 2000, popularly known as F2, for those who grew up in the city in the 1990s, was the gang’s favourite destination.

Rio and his boys would take their girlfriends to F2 to experience the jam sessions every Sunday night. The club shut in 2015.

When at clubs, the gang would be on two missions – entertain the girls and identify possible robbery targets.

It was during these club visits that Rio got introduced to a carjacking and kidnapping gang.

“There usually was this guy who was four years older than me. He and his three friends would buy a crate of beer and sit at their favourite spot in a corner the whole night. We could only afford two beers. It bothered me where they got the money but I couldn’t ask,” he says.

The faces became familiar with one another with frequent visits.

“One day, ‘Buda’ called me and said: ‘You are always with a different girl whenever you visit the club. There is one that has caught my attention. Would you mind introducing me to her?’”

It was the beginning of a years-long bromance between Rio and Figo.

The gang terrorised the city with carjacking and kidnappings. It was during this time that the robbing of City Hoppa bus passengers was at its peak.

The gangs preferred City Hoppa because the buses carried a larger number of people than ordinary matatus.

“Figo, whom we called ‘Buda’ (the ring leader), was ruthless, violent, a tactician and principled. He hated rape. He introduced me to guns and told us never to run from police should we encounter them during our operations. ‘If they fire at you, fire back,” he would say.

With Figo’s gang, Rio’s reputation grew to the point of getting noticed by the police.

Word spread in Kibera and Rio’s father wanted nothing to do with him. He kicked him out of his house.

“My football mates joined other gangs and terrorised the city as well. The gangs were from different hoods. My name and that of the gang were big. It led to the establishment of a police station in the heart of Kibera. I was a marked man,” he says.

One by one, the gang members began to fall.

“About 30 of my friends have been killed by police bullets. Some bodies were found in Ngong forest,” he says.

Even with the killings, the mayhem by Rio and Buda continued. They still evaded the police.

Rio could occasionally go to the village and return to Nairobi when things cooled down.Then the unexpected happened.

“Buda learnt from some of his acquaintances that a rich man would be arriving in the country with a lot of foreign currency. He summoned us and the gang laid out a plan to kidnap him as soon as he landed the following day. Buda dismissed us and said he would meet later. That was the last time I saw him alive,” Rio says.

Police had been trailing Figo, having arrested one of his gang members who gave his true identity.

“Buda had outsmarted police for a long time and wasn’t worried. Little did he know that he and our five friends were being trailed when we parted ways. They drove to Highrise but as they were about to alight from the car, police opened fire. They all died,” he says.

“I went to the village. Most of my friends left desperate pregnant girlfriends.”

With the aid of his parents, Rio enrolled on a tractor-operating course. He later got a job as a driver. He runs a salon and a motorbike spare parts shop in Kibera.

The father of two daughters now mentors young people and preaches against crime.

“I share with them my experience. I hope ‘Pepeta’ will help me achieve my goal,” he says.