It is shortly before 10pm on a Friday night when Mr Jacob Muchiri alights from bus number 19-60, named “Prime East”, at the Kioi stage in Kayole in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
He is carrying his laptop bag and a few clothes while his phone is safely in his pocket. Two young boys also alight and follow him.
About 20 metres away, he encounters three boys walking in the opposite direction. As he is about to pass them, one of the boys grabs his hand and demands his laptop and watch.
Before he can react, another boy interjects, “Na hiyo simu yako utaniwahi (and I will have your phone).
Thinking they are joking, Mr Muchiri retorts, “Wacheni ujinga. Nyinyi endeni zenu.” (Stop that nonsense. Be gone).” Big mistake.
DICING WITH DEATH
One of the boys grabs his other hand, twists it, and points a gun at him with the warning, “Wewe ndio nitalipua hiyo ujinga yako. Toa haraka…jinga (It’s your stupidity that I will blast. Give me the items quickly… stupid).”
In an operation that lasts just about a minute, the youngsters relieve Mr Muchiri of his personal belongings and some Sh4,000 in cash.
What Mr Muchiri apparently did not know was that alighting at any stage in Kayole after 9pm is dicing with death. The area is under the control of a criminal gang of teenagers known as the Gaza Boys.
For the past two years, the Gaza Boys, most of whom are known to be students in local schools, have been roaming the sprawling estate, terrorising residents at will.
Afraid of reprisals, residents talk about their activities in hushed tones. “I’d say they were about 16 or 17, people who do not even have identity cards yet,” Mr Muchiri told DN2 at his Saba Saba home last month.
Investigations by DN2 found out where the operation bases of the gang are located, whom they target, where they go to school, and the new ways they have adopted to kill their victims even as local police continue to hunt them.
The group, which was formed and originally operated in Dandora, moved to Kayole much later. Today, they have makeshift headquarters in the Riverbank area, although they mainly operate in the Kioi, Masimba, Rasta, Saba Saba, and Nyando areas.
According to Mr Dan Mac Owino, a youth leader, the Gaza Boys gang was formed around the Dandora garbage collection zones after the service was privatised. With no source of income, the group, then comprising about 15 boys, resorted to crime to survive.
PRODUCTS OF NEGLECT
“Most of them are either Standard Eight leavers or in secondary school,” he says. Interestingly, not all of them are driven by desperation, as one might expect.
“Those who are not remnants of the waste-collection industry are the children of local landlords who have been neglected by their parents,” Mr Owino says.
Steve Kamau, 18, is one such young man. He agrees to an interview at a secret location in Nyando, and arrives dressed in blue jeans, a white vest, and white sports shoes.
Kamau, who has taken to sniffing stuff, confides, “Madhe anatukazianga tu sana. Humpati, hakupatii... yeye ana shughuli zake tu za manyumba” (My mother is very mean. She is never around and doesn’t give us much money. She is too busy with her rental houses).
However, Kamau’s mother, who owns several single-room houses in Kayole, disagrees, saying Kamau is a wayward child.
Her exasperation is obvious. “I don’t want to discuss that boy. He has refused to go to school and all he wants is money. I have left him to his own devices. Akipatikana na serikali, shauri yake, (If he lands in the hands of the police, too bad).
Kamau could not give a plausible explanation for dropping out of a city secondary school last year to join the Gaza Boys. A neighbour tells us the boys’ gang of 10 colludes with matatu crews to rob unsuspecting passengers.
“The matatu crew monitors passengers with big-denomination notes and expensive phones or those browsing on their phones and relay the information to the Gaza Boys. The boys then waylay and attack the hapless victims,” he explains.
Another tactic they use is provoking potential matatu passengers. “They announce that the fare from town to Kayole is Sh40 but demand Sh60 once the passengers have boarded the vehicle. Of course the passengers will protest.
“In the ensuing arguments, some will be relieved of their items as they are frisked when being thrown out. So be careful when complaining about hiked fares,” says Ms Lucy Akinyi, a local resident.
Mr Muchoki Mwangi, a boxing coach, reveals yet another strategy the boys use: Baiting unsuspecting victims with young girls. “The girls hit on you and tease you and if you fall for their ruse, the boys attack you,” he explains.
He says one of the boys will claim to be the girl’s boyfriend and insist that you were seducing his girl. “The young girl will start crying, pleading for forgiveness and claiming that she was rejecting your advances.
“Before you know it, you will be pleading to be released at a negotiated fee, and perhaps after receiving a few slaps as well,” Mr Mwangi explained.
The Gaza Boys sometimes meet to plan their operations in an unfenced field also used by Mwangaza Secondary School near the Masimba stage.
They attack those who alight at the stage and disappear into the unlit school field. The road linking Mwangaza Primary School and Mwangaza Secondary School is particularly dangerous because commercial sex workers, who work in cahoots with the boys, use it to solicit clients after dark.
Here, the boys have ready victims in the men enticed by the twilight girls. According to Mr Johannes Osoro, a local resident and elder, many men have fallen into this trap.
“Even before you do anything, you are ambushed by five or 10 young men who attack you and the prostitute, who is actually working in cahoots with them,” he says.
The Mwangaza Secondary School principal, a Mrs Kimani, would not discuss the neighbouring field, only saying: “The school compound is fully secured. As for the field, you can talk to the local DO since it is a security issue.”
Kayole DO Pius Ondachi acknowledges that it is possible that the field is being used for unlawful activities. “The field is next to an estate and without a fence, it can be accessed by strangers for any purpose. It is an issue we hope to sort out soon.
Mr Osoro says the boys are ruthless and cites an incident at Thawabu Primary School, where a girl who was beaten by a teacher sought the boys’ help to “discipline” the teacher.
The police have launched a crackdown on the gang and hardly a month passes without one of the members being gunned down. Last year, one was hanged in the Kayole One area while three were lynched by the public.
But the crackdown has added a new dimension to the insecurity in the area, with some people accusing the police of using it to extort protection fees from the local youths.
A fortnight ago, police from the Soweto police station killed Joseph Ng’ang’a, 27, claiming that he was a criminal.
Mr Ng’ang’a was waylaid after alighting from a matatu in the Corner area. His body, which had five bullet wounds, was found in Masimba, one of the gang’s bases.
However, Kayole police chief Joseph Ndegwa said the police had not killed a gang member but a “petty thief” who regularly picked passengers’ pockets in matatus.
“People are exaggerating the insecurity issue. Let people who have evidence against the criminals come forward and we assure them of confidentiality,” Mr Ndegwa challenged.
But residents, led by area MP John Ndirangu, accused the police of killing an innocent man. “The criminals are known, so when we say this man was not a criminal, we know what we are talking about. The police are executing people who refuse to cooperate by not giving them bribes,” Mr Ndirangu claimed.
“The local people know who is robbing them. We do not want the security problem to be used like the Mungiki menace to execute innocent people,” he added.
Another local resident, Ms Irene Nyambura, says that policemen using “a known Probox” are killing the boys. Once you are branded a Gaza boy, you have to keep paying protection fees. We know the officers involved and sometimes we think they are complicit in dealing with the gang,” Ms Nyambura says.
Political leaders and government officials in Kayole Division say that the Gaza Boys menace is more of a social problem than a security one.
Kayole district officer Pius Ondachi says the child gangs spring from dysfunctional families.
“The challenges of urban life have made many parents neglect their school-going children. In fact, we have been using children’s officers to help identify where the problems lie.”
Mr Ondachi says the gangs are made up of rebellious students who want to identify with certain groups to have a social sense of belonging. “We are treating them as a group that needs to be helped, not one that needs to be eliminated,” he says.
Area MP John Ndirangu concurs. “They are our children. Many have lost hope but we must restore this hope by coming up with ways to empower them. If they are empowered, they will keep away from crime.”
The MP says police action against the children will only breed more rebellion. “The primary cause is lack of something to do, which is aggravated by the demands of urban life,’’ says the MP.
Kayole MCA Elizabeth Manyala says the children, some of whom are as young as 12, are disoriented right from the family level.
“We are struggling with an increase in child-headed households. This puts so much pressure on the children that most will do just about anything to make ends meet.”
However, adds the specialist in children’s affairs, the family fabric is also in crisis because some of the gang members actually come from stable families.
“They are not your ordinary street child. Some have homes to return to after robbing people. In fact, some are children of local landlords.
“For such children, the main problem is that they feel that what they are given is not adequate,” says Ms Manyala, adding that her office has received enquiries from several gang members on how they can be helped to start their own businesses.
“School dropouts aged 13 years want to start carwash businesses, but I tell them they should be in school, not doing business,” she says.
The MCA adds that mentorship for the pupils, as well as proper parenting, should be given priority if the problem is to be resolved.
“We keep telling parents that they will lose their children if they do not take a keen interest in their holistic development,” she says.
For those already in the criminal way of life, Ms Manyala proposes urgent rehabilitation. “A number of then are taking drugs and we should begin from there,” she says.
Ms Manyala says the national and county governments should build rehabilitation centres.
“We should take care of those in dire need of being removed from their families. If we monitor and help them view life positively, they will be saved,” she says.