Narrow escape from death made me a better man, says Evans Otieno

Evans Otieno

Evans Otieno, founder, Believer's Garden in Dandora on March 25, 2022.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

A tide of uneasiness washed cover Evans Otieno as he stepped away from the makeshift stall to relieve himself. His three friends were manning the wares, an impressive collection of stolen mobile phones. They had set up shop at a busy street in Dandora Estate in Nairobi.

From Evans’s estimations, his share from the sale would be enough to buy him some time off the streets. Truth is, he found no pleasure or thrill in being a thief. Nightmares of getting caught paralysed him in the dead of night. Still, he showed up for the next job and counted himself lucky to be alive.

As Evans made his way back to the stall, a bloodcurdling scream stopped him in his tracks. Suddenly, a raging crowd wielding sticks and stones surged past him towards the stall.

He watched in terror as the angry mob descended on his three friends, sticks and metal bars clashing mid-air. It was over as quickly as it had begun.

The crowd dissipated, and his three friends—his partners in crime—were left for dead. In a daze, Evans walked away in the opposite direction. The incident was a blur in his mind, yet one truth stuck out like a sore thumb. His crime days were over.

“I have never met my biological father. My mother raised us for some time then she got married. We relocated from Dandora in Nairobi, to my stepfather’s rural village in Seme, Kisumu. I was a middle child, my brother, Gordon Hiro, was two years older than me and my sister, Triza Akinyi, was about four years younger. Unfortunately, my parents died a short time apart shortly after we moved to Seme.

Distant relative

I don’t recall much about them, but I was told they died of an unknown illness. My stepfather passed on first, a year later, mum followed. I was in Class Two by then and didn’t understand much of what was happening.

The people in the village decided to divide us among my stepfather’s relatives since there was no one to take care of us. I was sent to a distant relative, a woman who owned a local brew—chang’aa—business. Instead of taking me to school, the woman turned me into her errand boy. Every day, I went to the market to buy a special ingredient for the brew called nguruu. My prospects of going back to school got slimmer by the day.

One morning, on my way from the market to buy nguruu, I met a certain woman who knew my mum. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked me why I was not in school. I told her about the situation in my new home, I could tell from her face that she was quite concerned. Then again, it could have been just pity. At this point, I was accustomed to people’s sympathy.

A few days later, word reached my maternal grandmother back in Dandora that I had quit school to brew chang’aa. She caught the next bus to Seme and on arrival, asked to be handed over her three grandchildren. We returned to Nairobi, hopeful that our lives would take a turn for the better.

Evans Otieno

Evans Otieno (right) and a member of  Believers’ Court, David Kahiga, nurse a pigeon’s leg. The group runs a rabbit farming project to generate extra income for its members .

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

My grandmother was very hardworking, she ran a thriving second-hand clothes business in Dandora. She also owned the plot of land in Dandora where we lived. Grandma wasted no time in enrolling us at a nearby school, James Gichuru Primary School. We were so happy.

Gordon and I helped grandma with her business. She taught us how to select the best clothes and where to source them. We had an arrangement with Gordon that saw each of us attend three days of school and two days at Gikomba Market getting new stock. Some days, I skipped afternoon classes to hawk clothes around the estate. It was a little price to pay because we needed to eat and grandma, who was the breadwinner, had begun to fall ill on and off.

High blood pressure

She fought the illness bravely but death struck once more, robbing us of her nurturing presence. The doctors said she succumbed to high blood pressure.

Although the world seemed big and scary, I took comfort in knowing Gordon was around to show us the way. We were also grateful that grandma left us a home and a thriving business. At the time, I was in Class Five, almost turning 11. Gordon and I worked very hard to support Triza, who was then in Class One. It was the three of us against the world, and for a while, I daresay life was manageable.

The following year, Gordon sat for his KCPE, but instead of going to high school, he decided to learn tailoring. I think he wanted to get a job so that he could provide for us more comfortably, however, this was not to be. A few months into the training, he fell ill and died. The doctors said he died of malaria. I was devastated.”

Evans felt alone, in a cruel cold world that seemed to relish gobbling up every person he loved. At only 14, he was left to raise his younger sister all by himself. He had to work twice as hard in the second hand clothes business. What’s more, he was now in Class Eight with a few months left to sit for KCPE.

 “To say I felt overwhelmed is a huge understatement. But I had to find courage, rise above my misery and keep moving for the sake of Triza who was in Class Four at the time. Fortunately, primary school education was free, my only headache was food and school stationery for both of us. I continued selling second hand clothes, and on a good day made between Sh50 to Sh100 which was enough to get by.

Flashy clothes

I passed KCPE, and with the help of an aunt, I joined Brainhouse Academy, a day school in Mathare, Nairobi. Although I was elated to be in secondary school, lack of money proved to be a throbbing headache especially now that I had to pay school fees. My aunt chipped in, but it was never enough. It didn’t take much prompting from the local gang for me to get into crime.”

Evans Otieno

Evans Otieno (left), David Kahiga  and Jefferson Mwangi  at the Believers’ Garden in Dandora. 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

Growing up under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Evans had noticed a group of men who stood out from the drab life in Dandora. They wore flashy clothes and swaggered about in the streets like kings. He was fascinated by how these men seem to command awe and fear in equal measure.

As he grew older, his childlike admiration of these street kings snuffed out when he learnt these men were a bunch of wanted thugs.

“I never thought I would become a thug, but biting hunger pangs drowned my repulsion for crime. The people who recruited me were drowning in excesses, and here I was struggling to feed crumbs to my sister. It was a no brainer, and by the time I joined Form Two, I was knee-deep in crime. We stole phones, snatched wallets and other valuables from unsuspecting passers-by. To lull my conscience, I decided to take robbery ‘missions’ only when I was strapped for cash. But who was I kidding, I was strapped for cash almost all the time!”

Evans completed his secondary school education and scored C (plain). He hoped to save up for a few months then enrol for a course in Business Management. Meanwhile, his sister, who had just completed KCPE, chose to forfeit secondary school and instead train to become a hair stylist.

“Triza completed the training and got a job at a hair salon. I was still running with the gang. My earnings disappeared like the morning mist. I made money and spent it all living the flashy lifestyle. I didn’t manage to save a single cent. The slogan is true, crime never pays. I couldn’t get out, I was stuck.”

About nine years ago, Evans snapped out of this hard-wiring when his three friends were beaten to death by an irate mob in Dandora.

“I had just walked away to relieve myself. This close shave with death led to my transformation. That’s why I tell people that a call of nature saved my life.”

When Evans got home that evening, he lay in bed lost in thought. Over the years, he had watched many acquaintances die, some lynched by mobs and others gunned down in the streets during police crackdowns. However, that incident had hit close home. He had a gut feeling that it was his last warning to turn his back on crime.

Temptation

“Despite my resolve, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Top players in the streets kept calling me for ‘low-risk’ jobs. But no temptation was strong enough to lure me back. The gory images of my friends’ death haunted me days on end. I shuddered to think what my death would do to my sister. Thankfully, the calls became a slow trickle that eventually dried up.”

 After a few days, Evans decided to get busy cleaning up his grandmother’s homestead. By this time, he was living alone in the house. Triza had met a good man and was happily married.

“I began with cleaning up a trench that ran outside the compound. As I toiled, passers-by appreciated my effort with a coin now and then. This encouraged me to keep going, cleaning up beyond my grandmother’s plot.”

The satisfaction of putting in an honest day’s work prompted Evans to reach out to his peers who were still in crime, a kind of evangelism, to show them a better way of life. One by one, he gained followers and they began transforming the face of Dandora through the clean-up activities.

 “It took time for the community to forgive and trust me. I don’t blame them, they were the victims of my criminal activities. Eventually, they realised my crooked days were over and I was helping other young people shun crime, that’s why I’m called The Transformer.”

Fortune favours the brave, so the saying goes. His bravery to reform and impact his community attracted the attention of Robinson Esali, the chairperson of the Public Space Network. Under Robin’s mentorship, Evans, together with a friend, Charles Gachanga, established a youth group called Believer’s Court in 2014.

“As a youth group, we had one agenda: to make Dandora cleaner and safer. The biggest challenge was dealing with mistrust, after all we were no saints. To prove ourselves, we began transforming a dumpsite that had been an eyesore in the community for a long time. The job was done so well that a private developer offered us Sh1.5 million for the plot. He wanted to put up a residential building.”

 Evans was appalled by this offer. Their plans for rehabilitating the space was literally a matter of life and death. It was to rescue young men from crime and senseless deaths on the streets.

“There was coercion from some members to take the money, but as a leader, one is often called to make hard unpopular decisions. We had big plans for that space and I wasn’t going to betray that. Not for any amount of money.”

Evans made a good call, as most community members now admit. The space is a beautiful blend of recycled products and renewed minds. Flower pots made out of discarded crates, toilet bowls and Evans’ old worn-out painted gumboots brighten the pathways.

There’s a children’s playground with swings made from cut out tyres and a gate made out of an old spring bed. Whenever school is out, the children throng the place and their shrieks of joy is pure music to Evans’s ears.

“I come here and watch children playing happily. Some come from troubled families. I can relate to that. But once they enter the playground, all their woes are left at the gate. They whiz down the slides and climb the swings, and for a moment, they get to be just children.”

Sell pigeons

The Believers’ Court employs 18 young people from Dandora, some who would have sunk into crime had it not been for this initiative. They sell pigeons and rabbits, and the latter’s urine, which is used as fertiliser. Part of the proceeds is ploughed back to maintain the space, the rest settles wages for the ardent employees.

A community library stocked by well –wishers is a major attraction here, especially among the youth and children. Plans are in motion to set-up e-learning stations and a tree-top co-working space – a first of its kind in Dandora.

The initiative is backed by like-minded organisations such as UN-Habitat and Dandora Transformation League.

 In 2018, Evan’s crusade won the Dubai International Award for the best practice in improving the living standards of human beings.

“Things are looking up, and I have a reason to smile. My sister is a mother of two lovely children. I am an uncle now - our family is growing!”

Last year, Evans, 30, met Linda Adhiambo, the love of his life. They got married and are expecting their first baby sometime in July. He is excited to be a father.

“I am looking forward to becoming a dad. I want my children to grow up knowing they are loved. I hope to teach them how to work hard, be morally upright and above all, to believe in God. I am proud of the Dandora they will find.”

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