Scars of the gangs: Inside the criminal underworld of Nairobi’s Eastlands

Inside the criminal underworld of Nairobi’s Eastlands

What you need to know:

  • In many informal settlements in Nairobi, teenage gangs that idolise hardcore criminals have taken over State functions from the authorities.
  • With an average of 30 members aged 14–26, their specialties are muggings, carjackings, shoplifting, prostitution and rape.

On July 19, a gang of teenagers reigned terror in Nairobi’s Kayole estate, leaving in their wake broken arms and neighbours cowering in their dwellings.

A band of violent and ruthless thugs that kill at the slightest provocation, they were on a rescue-cum-revenge mission following the capture of their leader after an earlier raid.

“Humanity isn’t in their system; blood is nothing to them. I should be dead. I don’t know how I survived. I thank God, it’s a miracle,” recalls Samir Oloo, one of the victims who was only saved by the quick action of a Good Samaritan.

Every time he stares at the scars on his body, events of the fateful day painfully replay in his mind.

“They stabbed me multiple times. They broke my arms; I had internal bleeding. I’ve been on medication ever since,” recounts the father of three.

Ruthless criminal gangs

“They had attacked a lady, but as they fled the scene with her valuables, residents gave chase and captured the leader. He was, however, released. All was well, but as I walked home alone, they pounced on me from nowhere.

“They took away my cellphone, wedding ring, Sh30,000 chama money and silver chains then stabbed me multiple times. I was rushed to Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital by a Good Samaritan. I recognised some of them and reported to the police but no action was taken.”

Such is life in most informal settlements; a daily dose of pain and misery. Teenage gangs that idolise hardcore criminals have taken over State functions from the authorities; they control the streets and alleys. They are brutal, vengeful and kill at will. They are the government, they are the law.

Portmore, Gaza, Kiarwana, Homeboyz, B3, Mad Lion, Mungiki, Kamjeshi, Jeshi la Embakasi, Kenya Youth Alliance, Kamukunji boys, Munyipi, Taliban, Superpower, Nubians, Siafu, Kamukunji Pressure Group, Yes We Can, J-10 and Ram Squad are some of the squads whose criminal acts know no friends, neighbours, parents, the old or young.

Youth leader, Samir Oloo during an interview with Nation in Kayole, Nairobi on September 4, 2020. Through his One Vibe community-based organisation Oloo leads an anti-crime campaign in the neighbourhood.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

To them, anything goes, as long as it presents an opportunity to make some quick cash. With an average of 30 members aged 14–26, their specialties are muggings, carjackings, shoplifting, prostitution and rape. Guns, machetes, knives, axes and clubs are their weapons of choice.

“Although they look like normal teenage kids, they are extremely ruthless. We see them every day, some are my neighbours. They knew me well but still stabbed me,” recalls Oloo, then offers in retrospect: “They are just lazy youths who do not want to engage in any lawful form of earning a living. All they want is fast cash to fund their drugs and alcohol.”

Gangsters' signature looks

The struggle for survival in a ‘man-eat-man’ society encapsulates the inescapable gang violence that entraps thousands of people in Kayole and other informal settlements. A police officer privy to the operations of these gangs said Superpower, based in Eastleigh and Dandora, Gaza Boys (Kayole), the 40 Brothers (City Centre), Usiku Sacco (Umoja) and Msako Empire (Huruma) have signature looks.

“They put on heavy neck jewellery, flashy rings on their fingers, certain designer caps, T-shirts and jeans. They prefer putting on two pairs of jeans to help them secure their firearms,” he offers. In some gangs, members have dragon tattoos with coded meanings.

A 2018 report by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) revealed the existence of more than 100 gangs in the country, with women and children – some as young as nine years – being inducted into crime. Kayole, Kibera, Lunga Lunga slums, Jericho and Soweto are some of the most dangerous places in the city, according to the Security Research and Information Centre.

Makadara, Mukuru Kwa Reuben slums, Kariokor, Mlango Kubwa and Kongo section of Dagoretti Division are awash with guns for hire. Huruma, Lucky Summer, Kariobangi and Mathare are also crime hotspots.

Police officers carry body parts of a victim of crime wave at Bee Center in Kayole estate Nairobi on August 24, 2016.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

*Steve Mwangi is a reformed member of a teen gang that used to operate in Dandora. He joined the gang because of peer pressure.

“I joined the gang because all my friends were in it and I did not want to be looked at as a snitch because I knew what they were doing,” he says.

Because of their young age, they would mainly waylay mama mbogas and snatch their handbags.

“One day, we were not lucky; the mama mboga we had targeted did not let go of her bag. She held on to it while screaming, attracting passers-by. In no time, we had been surrounded. I only escaped because of my short stature as they assumed I was not part of the gang. I watched helplessly as my friends were lynched,” he recounts.

Having survived by a whisker, his parents sent him back to school under the care of his grandmother at their rural home in Nyahururu and only returned to the city after his college education.

Susan Wangui’s teenage son was not as lucky. Derrick Ndung’u, 19, was lynched in Komarock in May after robbing a woman of her cellphone. His accomplices escaped on a motorbike.

“He was a thief in Maili Saba (Kayole). I cannot defend him. He used to snatch cellphones. I had warned him but he did not stop. I tried my best,” offers Wangui.

Slum dog’s life

She once posted a Sh500, 000 bond and got him a business but with the lure of quick money, he loved the adrenaline rush.

“His uncle, aunts and grandmother pleaded with me to intervene and bail him out. I paid the Sh500,000 bond for his release. But what did he do? Instead of leading a better life, he went back into crime,” she says. “I am advising his friends to reform or suffer a similar fate.”

Kayole South has lost more than 1,000 youths while a sizeable number have just disappeared. For Oloo, if it were not for the death of his elder brother in 2005, who was among six criminals felled by police in Mowlem, he might have also ended up in the slum dog’s life.

“After our parents died, he was the family’s breadwinner. He was killed with five of his friends. They had just completed a highway robbery,” he recounts.

The youth leader now hopes that through One Vibe, a community-based organisation, a wind of change will blow through the sprawling estate to transform lives.

“We have been preaching change, although many teenagers wrongfully believe we are being an obstacle to what they want to do. If we can change five, those are lives saved,” he says with optimism.

Registered in 2013, the organisation helps the youth through clean income generating activities, such as car wash projects. Some have joined the Kazi Mtaani programme.

“We started with only six members but grew to 36; some got employed in county governments and other places. We are now 18. There are those willing to join, having seen how their friends have been empowered,” he says.

A majority of Kenyans believe the government is either incapable or unwilling to enforce the law, enabling criminal networks to dictate the lives of thousands of people.

“There are allegations of collusion between some government officers with criminal gangs and that police frequently release them even when there is overwhelming evidence. About 49.1 per cent of the respondents were not aware of any arrests of members of organised criminal gangs in the previous three years even when serious crimes had been committed by them,” states a report by the National Crime Research Centre.

Gang violence

Arbitrary police brutality and relentless corruption within the force, the judiciary, political influence, difficulties in identifying the members and fear of reporting are some of the factors that fuel gang violence.

Caroline Karimi Kariuki, who is in charge of the children’s division in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, blames these miscreants on the high rate of unemployment, broken families and poverty.

“Poverty is the key driver for teenagers because they step up to become breadwinners early in their lives and the only way to do it is by joining the gang since they cannot be employed under the law. Those from unstable backgrounds run away from the toxic environment at home to try and find a safe place, which are the streets,” she offers, adding that crime significantly shoots up during school holidays.

“Children do not choose to be criminals. There are always drivers pushing them in that direction. They see their peers who are into crime living a certain lifestyle, which they admire. These teenagers are controlled by hardened criminals. Whatever they steal is taken to the gang leaders, where they are given an allowance.”