Kidneys for sale: Inside the sprawling underworld of human organs trade

kidneys

Poor and illiterate young Kenyans are selling their organs, especially kidneys,  to free themselves from crippling debt and poverty.

Photo credit: File

What you need to know:

  • In the first installment of a two-part series, Nation’s Senior Health and Science reporter Angela Oketch is out to investigate the inner workings of a vicious gang involved in an illegal human organs trade operating between Homa Bay and Uasin Gishu counties.

They are top-secret and risky transactions. But after weeks of investigation, Nation can reveal that poor and desperate Kenyans are being exploited in the underworld of illicit organ trade that dovetails into a global ecosystem. While some social media users may have fun sharing memes about the selling of kidneys, this is real—and it is no laughing matter.

After a tip-off, our investigations took us to the poorer parts of Oyugis, Homa Bay County, where sources had told our team that the sale of kidneys to brokers has become the norm. All one had to do is sign a document on an agreed payment after passing a series of mandatory medical tests, then go through the procedure to remove the kidney. Our investigation reveals that the amounts involved range from Sh300,000 to Sh700,000 after a successful operation. 

Oyugis

Oyugis town in Homa Bay County on June 22. 

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The young men and women we encountered, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, said they were pushed to sell their kidneys to survive, trying to wipe out debts and provide for their families. While the illegal organ trade is not new in Kenya, the market appears to be growing, with those behind it becoming more daring, given that there is a ready market of desperate Kenyans to pick from. 

And infiltrating the dark underbelly of this ecosystem feels like acting in a spy movie. In April, without revealing we were journalists but indicating our interest in finding out more about the black market, we contacted on phone six men who were among those we had been told had donated their kidneys. They detailed to us the process, told where the procedure was done, why they opted for it and how much they were paid.

Victims

Last month, the Nation team embarked on a journey to uncover this lucrative business. We agreed to meet with one of them in Oyugis town. We arrived at around 9am, and he requested that we meet at Muthui junction, three kilometres from the main road.

The first three calls made five minutes apart went unanswered. We thought he had chickened out. On the fourth attempt, he picked and requested that we wait for him for an hour; he was nowhere to be seen four hours later. Had they perhaps set us up?  We called another person in the group, but his phone was off. We called the third one, who did not pick, but we left a message. Day One was a disaster.

On the second day, all the phones were switched off. Later in the evening, one of them got in touch asking what we wanted from him. We explained and five minutes later, his phone was switched off.

On the third day, almost giving up, we tried one last time. This time, the phones were on, and one of them asked us to talk to his father given the sensitivity of the matter.

“Why are you people bothering me? I don’t trust you, people. Talk to my father,” he said.

 After a flurry of questions on our identity and why we were interested in his son’s recent surgery, we found a way to calm him down and told him that we did not mean to harm them.

 We explained that all we wanted to know was the procedure of selling a kidney, how the process is done and a referral to a hospital where the procedure can be done. From his response, he did not trust us, but we convinced him to direct us to his home.

Dangerous ring

“Can you then direct us to your home, for you to win our trust, we have a patient and we will let your son talk to him in private.”

When we got there, it was evident by the young man’s frail physique that he had not recovered well from the surgery three months later. We will call him Elijah. We have taken effort to conceal their identity for their own safety as they had all warned us the group behind the illegal trade was dangerous.

“I did my surgery in April, the process was okay and was paid Sh700,000. I am still recovering,” he said.

“Why did you decide to do it? Was he donating to someone? Which hospital was conducting the surgery?”

“I was not donating my kidney to anyone, I was doing this for money. After finishing Standard Eight, I did not have the privilege of joining secondary school. Since then, life has been so cruel,” he says.

When he heard that there were people who were buying kidneys and that he could survive with one, he informed his father that he wanted to go for the process to get money to build a house and buy a motorcycle.

“From the start, we were warned that the process was illegal and where the procedure was done remains a top-secret,” he says.

From his narration, he started the process after agreeing with his recruiter, who also lives in Homa Bay County. They travelled to Eldoret for pre-screening, blood type and testing of other related medical tests. This took a month as those buying the kidney wanted to extract only the healthiest.

He was given transport to travel back home and told to wait for their call after the results. A month later, he received a call that all his tests were perfect and that they should proceed with the surgery. On a Monday morning, he was again escorted by his recruiter to a different location in Eldoret.

He signed several papers, some of which he says he did not understand, and the following day he was given some drugs ready for surgery. His was done a day later in an Eldoret hospital that he declined to name at this stage and took about four hours, according to his recollection.

He did not spend the night at the hospital. Instead, he was taken to a recovery room. At six in the evening, he was driven to a different destination where he stayed for four days.

He was paid his Sh700,000 in cash and driven back home.

“That is my story. Those are qualified doctors and they will take care of everything, including your drugs,” said Elijah, who refuses to reveal anything about the hospital.

Brokers

According to Elijah, anybody who wanted to contact the group behind the surgery could not do so directly but had to go through brokers, including those who had undergone the surgery. Initial details required for any enquiries through this trusted channel involved providing the blood group, the name, national identification card number and age. There was no other way of infiltrating this gang. We had to find a hospital nearby.

“Bring the details and I will connect you with the right person,” he said, revealing he had referred a number of people who had been successfully operated on and paid. “They treat people well, there is nothing to worry about.”

Trading in human organs is illegal and punishable by law in Kenya, though difficult to enforce. As we will reveal later in this series, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations officer in charge of Rachuonyo South and East, David Kirui, confirmed to the Nation that an investigation into the illegal human organs trade is ongoing, but said they have not made any arrests so far.

On leaving Elijah’s home at 3 pm, we drove all the way to neighbouring Ndhiwa constituency, to meet with our second kidney seller, whom we will name Mathew. We arrived at 4 pm.

He was very cooperative and even showed us his scar from the surgery.

“I will be brief and very frank. This is not legal, but it is easy money,” he says. "I donated a kidney and received compensation."

He used the money to buy a new motorbike but adds that he cleared all the rest.

“If anybody has a patient, I can connect you with someone or give you direction to where you will get help. But do not mention my name anywhere,” he says.

Web of activities

He explains that with many people involved, one might not be in a position to tell the exact place where the surgery was conducted though he remembers where he was taken for the pre-screening process.

First, he says, he was taken to a place in Eldoret where his blood tests and X-rays were done to rule out major diseases.

Mathew was later asked to go home. He waited for two months. He was later instructed to report back to Eldoret but not told where to go.

“My results were delayed because they were more people doing the test,” he says.

The procedure was similar to what happened to Elijah, but he claims his surgery was in a building that looked like a church. After that, he was taken to a one-room rental house. There were similar houses nearby and the tenants went on with their business. The recovery period was three days after which he was paid Sh400,000

 He also insisted that we needed to do an initial test before we could be introduced to the people behind the illicit trade. The interview ended at 7 pm. We drove 16 kilometres from Ndhiwa sub-county to Homa Bay Referral Hospital, arriving at 9 pm. Nothing remarkable was going on at the hospital.

In the morning, at about 9 am, we went for the blood test. It took less than an hour (there is no indication that Homa Bay Referral Hospital is aware of or in any way involved in the illegal human organs trade but only carried out basic tests). We drove to Oyugis town, since we had agreed with Mathew to meet at a central point.

“With this, now I trust that you for sure need help. But, when you go there, just say that you have been referred by me (using his real name) because there is a percentage we agreed that they should pay me once I refer people,” he said.

We were now ready to be given directions to the hideout used by those behind the trade. After further enquiries, we finally got directions. We would drive from Eldoret town towards Kitale to Sinai Junction, then take a rough road near a church. A blue gate is what we would be looking for.

“Get into that gate, third door on your left—that is where the pre-screening is happening. That’s where you will meet Jack, he will do the assessment, and tell you whether you are fit for the procedure or not,” we were told.

Things were about to get interesting.

*******

Tomorrow in Sunday Nation, our team comes face to face with the gang behind the illegal organ trade

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