As Ken Mwangi ‘Mwas’ walks towards the Indian businessman he is about to rob, he feels no fear and has no second thoughts. Pattni, the businessman, is just opening his Mercedes C230 Kompressor when Mwas intercepts him, drives the butt of his favorite hand gun into his side, and urges him to unlock all the passenger seats. One of Mwas’ guys comes out of seemingly nowhere and gets into the front seat.
Mwas and his second accomplice get into the back. He looks outside to see if anyone has noticed them, but it does not matter anyway, they will be long gone before anyone gets to the crime scene. They order him to drive west towards Waiyaki Way and he complies. His hands are shaky on the steering wheel and as they pass a police stop, Mwas gives him a piercing look through the inside rear view mirror and he quickly looks away.
As they approach Kangemi, a slum located just outside Westlands Nairobi, they take several turns until they reach a deserted road. Mwas gets out and orders the devastated victim to do the same. He does not bother to beg them for mercy.
They take him to a nearby bush, take off all his clothes save his socks and underwear and ask him to count to one hundred before he opens his eyes. By the time he does, no doubt well-past the hundred counts, Mwas and his team are back home, safe and sound, and looking forward to a luxurious weekend courtesy of the Muindi, Indian.
Mwas is now 33 years old, currently ‘unemployed’ and living with his longtime friend, Chris and his wife, Amina. They have known each other for almost a decade, Mwas and Chris. They met back when they were both 24. Mwas was a world-class criminal at the time, and Chris a budding entrepreneur. He sold clothes. He loved to sell clothing. In fact, it was his dream to someday own an elegant, top-notch boutique.
Chris and Mwas are almost the same height, 5’8’’, are of the same chocolate complexion, and are also coincidentally from the same village in Kiambu County. Well, almost the same village if you look at the bigger picture. Anyway, Chris and Mwas have been good friends for a long time which classifies them as brothers. Brothers look out for one another.
Mwas has been raised in Huruma which is in the Eastlands part of Nairobi, where many a young man who grows up there becomes a criminal, or has been at one point in his life. Not all of Eastlands is dilapidated.
However, the sum areas are all the same with their open sewers that residents have to jump over on a daily basis and iron roofs that make sleep impossible during rainy season. The evenings are the best as this is when traders of all types come together to sell their goodies.
The streets are always laden with vegetables, mutura (intestines stuffed with other offals), fried fish, French fries, roast maize and even clothing going for as low as Ksh.20 that not everyone can afford. No wonder crime is so prominent in these parts.
Every so often there is news of a young man being killed because of crime, according to Mwas. He speaks incessantly of his past escapades. Sometimes he seems sad about them, other times one gets the feeling that he feels the things he has gotten away with are some kind of achievement.
Chris and Mwas met in Eastlands over cold Tuskers and in the company of beautiful women, the two recall the old days; the mutura on the side of the road and the many times they had to bury their friends lost at the hands of policemen. Sometimes they even smoked a blunt or two at home when Amina was not around, just like they invariably did all afternoons years earlier.
Chris has been kind enough to house him for almost two months now with no complaints. But Chris can only support him as if he were his own brother or child for so long. If you ask Chris why he is letting his brother live with him when he could be dangerous he replies, “Tumetoana mbali” we’ve come from far.
Mwas misses his past life. Not the gruesome parts, though. He misses the thrill of not knowing what the next day holds. He misses his friends, most of whom have left us. Only two of them remain. The other is in exile in a faraway land. He is not afraid to die but is afraid that he might never drive a Range Rover Sport like some of his more successful counterparts.
They own bars and clubs and big businesses. All he owns are the clothes on his body and in the tiny leather suitcase in the corner of the living room. This makes him reconsider the next steps he has to take to get his life in order. Perhaps he will go back to his old trade for a few months.
“Just for a little longer so I can at least drive a Range,” he convinces himself.
Deep down, however, he knows that he would not be able to leave once he goes back in. He wants the glamour, the flashy car, the big house, the beautiful wife, and the well-fed, well-clothed children. He has a soft spot for children. His own bundle of joy softened his heart and turned him into the calm man he now is.
“Eh, nilikua mbaya,” I was really bad. These words are always on his lips when he talks about his past.
Mwas’s cold, deep-set eyes are the only things that reveal his dangerous side. Otherwise, you would mistake him for just another hustler on the streets of Nairobi. You would also have to know him to read that intense look in his eyes that says, “I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all.”
‘I have been to prison many, many times,’ Mwas tells me as he sips his ever-loyal cold Tusker beer.
‘The last time he was in prison was in 2014, almost twenty years after I stepped into those cold rooms way back during my Form 4.’ He says quietly a faint smile on his face.
Back then in his final year of High School, hewas caught with ammunition, drugs and stolen items in his ‘box.’ In Kenya, all secondary school students have metallic suitcases for storing their clothes and other personal stuff. He was imprisoned for a few months, but was able to resume school upon his release.
According to him, you either get better or worse when you get out. He got worse. What made him the worst, though, was the death of his best friend. He turned into an animal, then. Got into harder crimes, and was unforgiving to those who betrayed him.
It was Mwas’s best friend, Oti who introduced him to this life of crime. He was only fifteen at the time. His first assignment was to tag along with him and his gang as they carjacked a PSV and stole passengers’ possessions. Mwas’s first step was taken when he asked a young lady to hand over her purse to him for perusal.
He did not look into her face for fear they might meet another time, and she would remember him. Years after this first encounter on a sunny Saturday in June, Mwas lay over his best friend’s body and watched as his eyes rolled for the last time. He had been shot by the police outside his home somewhere in Eastlands.
“What changed him from a ruthless criminal to a calm individuals?” You might ask.
“Mtoi wangu amenichange. Amefanya at least nafikiria kuendelea kuishi juu yake, yaani I have hope because of her,” my child has changed me. She has given me hope in life, he says with a soft look on his face.
Mwas is not foolish. He did not proceed to college, but only because he started his craft early, and had no need for education at the time, or so he thought. He grew up knowing that the only true path for him was a life of crime, he didn’t know better.
When you start a habit in your teenage life, and it turns into a career, there isn’t much you can do to fight it. You let yourself sink in until you need to come up for air. Mwas has come up for air, but he will soon miss the water, and will dive back in. Once he does this, there’s no telling what will come next.
As Mwas wakes up to leave the restaurant we have been sitting in for the past two hours, I feel sorry for him. I wonder whether he will dive back into the water of crime and desperately hope he will not.