Ten years ago it probably would not have been a good idea to meet Dedan Juma in an isolated ally; if you did, you would have most likely lost your valuables to him.
Juma, now an actor, was a member of criminal gang and made a living through stealing from people.
Growing up in City Carton, a small ghetto near Buru Buru Phase 1, life was not easy for him and his mother. As a young man, life in the ghetto was a daily struggle of making choices of whether to fall deeper into crime and drugs or keep off them.
“My mother always showed me the importance of going to church and making the right decisions. On Sundays, she would take me to church and I would see a different side of life. My mum had a small sukuma wiki kiosk in Gikomba market; whenever she went, I always tagged along. It was her way of trying to prevent me from joining groups in the ghetto; I am her only child,” Dedan Juma said.
But as years went by and Juma became a teenager, having to go everywhere with his mother was not appealing. He was more interested in hanging out with other boys in his neighbourhood. It is here that he was introduced to criminal gangs.
“I would be given small jobs by the gang leaders like delivering things and getting paid. I was in class eight and I would get paid like Sh2,000. This to me was a lot of money. There was a time I made Sh15,000. My mum and I lived in a mud house and I was happy when I got the money. The next thing I did was rush home to give her the money but she never took it, and she slept hungry that day because we did not have anything at the time. I think she already knew that I did not get the money in a good way and it was her way of trying to show me that she does not want me to be part of that life,” he said.
Juma continued to hang out with bad company and take part in illegal activities, until one day when a gang member and a friend was lynched by a crowd in Githurai.
He takes a few moments before narrating this scene…“There was a day we had gone on a robbery job in Githurai, and then…,” he trails off.
“We were four of us, and usually, we would snatch mobile phones and it is usually a well-thought-out plan. The first to snatch the phone runs and gives it to the next and the next until the fourth person. Now the trick was after handing over the phone to the next person you change your clothes immediately and I follow you together with the crowd that is forming around,” he explained.
“It was important for us to be in the crowd to be able to create a distraction to help the one with the phone escape when apprehended. But this day that one person whom we believed can run fast was caught, and unfortunately, someone saw him when he changed his clothes and demanded him to tell the crowd where the rest of us were hiding…He was called Martin.
“We were all there, he could see us and we saw him...Martin was lynched to death in front of us just because he did not give up our identity as the crowd wanted,” he says, trailing off between sentences.
This was the beginning of his turning point from crime. Juma started looking for honest jobs as a casual labourer at construction sites. He also started going to church with his mother.
It is at the church that he joined a talent group and honed his acting skills. A friend in the group later told him about auditions being done for a local drama series called Real House Helps of Kawangware.
“I went for the auditions and got the part of detective Juma, a very ironic role from the past life I was living,” he said.
The show took a break in 2018, leaving many of its cast in financial trouble as it was their main source of income.
“I wondered what life wanted from me. To survive, I started selling sweets in public service vehicles. People would tell me they used to see me on TV and questioned why I was now selling sweets in a matatu. I remember I went back to the guy who gave me work at construction sites and they refused because he said he is now used to seeing me on TV, [and] his wife and kids are my fans. Besides, after being on TV, my ‘pockets must be full’,” Juma said.
It so happened that at that time his mother also fell sick and was admitted in hospital. While looking for money for his young family and sick mother, he received a phone call from his friend Kevin Ogolla who informed him of an acting job in a new drama series.
“When I went to audition I was confused but I did it anyway. My mum fell sick in February and died in March. When she was on her death bed I remember telling her that I am going for an audition and if I get this role I will be able to clear the hospital bill and take care of her properly,” he said.
A few days later Juma was called and informed that he had gotten the role on Pepeta, a new drama series currently airing on Showmax. But a few minutes after receiving the good news, he also received a call from the hospital telling him that his mother had passed on.
“I am here as a testimony that no matter how bad life is, you can change it for the better.
“In Pepeta I play the role of Zeze, a hard-core criminal. I was able to explore who Dedan Juma was and who Zeze was. When I was in a life of crime, I do not think that I really knew myself, but now I do. My advice to young people is that patience pays,” Juma said.
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