The crime culture in the informal settlements of Nairobi

…Excerpts from ‘My Community Diary’ by Joseph Kimani, Community Organizer and Development Student, Muungano Support Trust

Having grown up in Korogocho for me was just as normal as it has been to million others who have been born and raised in the slums. My memories of Korogocho are rekindled every time I enter any informal settlement or slum in any urban town. These memories compound both my positive energy which brings out the zeal, energy, courage and my positive attitude towards life and the people generally. It is a kind of memory that tells me “you have come from the thickest part of the jungle” and for that matter the hardest part of life where few of the young people now adults can boast of having succeeded or made it in life.

In that count I see myself to be amongst those very few of the youths who have grown into adulthood having integrated themselves with the rest of the social and economic class. The other cluster of memories that never leaves my mind, heart and spirit is that kind of feeling that is scaring and dead bad! This is the memory that brings images of faces of youths or teenagers whose lives were censured to an early death or who made a choice of engaging in crime even though there were no options for most of them to choose from. It is the life of crime, violence, hate, anger and suicide. This is the kind of life that every growing boy child in the slum is acculturated into as part of the urban survival.  Let me put this point in a better perspective by being more illustrative in my thoughts;

My encounter with Crime Culture

The year is 2008, location is Kiamutesya Slum in Mlango Kubwa-Mathare and the time is around 12.30pm  and the normal Mau Mau  road ( the road that cuts across the Mathare valley and runs adjacent to Juja road right from Kiamutesya all the way to Mabatini) is covered with a buzz of activities mainly food vendors, firewood sellers, greengrocers. The street at this hour was busy with mainly school children who were grabbing fast food from the ‘Mama nitilie’ (Tanzanian Swahili referring to women food vendors) we were having a visit to a community toilet project that was being renovated in the settlement and our team was composed of few community members mainly from the Federation in charge of the project and some of the youths who were to be the beneficiary of the project as their income generating project.

As our team walked basically from the toilet to the road we observed from one end of the road a group of youths numbering close to eight smartly dressed in suits or rather in an official manner to the point of attracting attention in the settlement. Their walk, dressing, confidence and persona suggested they were not ordinary visitors or strangers to this settlement. As a matter of fact one would have thought they were guys out on a promo, working for a sale company, or special branch from the police or a very important entourage of government or diplomatic corps.

We immediately noticed that busy activities that were going on along that section of the road where the group was visible almost came into a pause like a sudden stop to a loud music playing. The quietness came with a chilling fear that I personally felt gripping me and causing nervousness among our team members and even the community leaders from the federation remained frozen for a moment and at that time as the group of youths approached us we noticed some 3 policemen who were on patrol in the settlement diverting and taking a different route as if avoiding to meet the oncoming group of youths…this happened very naturally that to a stranger one would not have suspected or understood what was happening. As they approached I could not hold my curiosity to want to know who the young men were and to my own comfort and surprise I was able to spot at least three of them whom I had seen in the area before and had interacted with them through the youth organization we had started engaging on waste management. I got further relief when they greeted us as they passed us and entered into a congested lane within the settlement and whoop the vanished.  Immediately they were out of the road life naturally returned to normal as if nothing had happened.

Being a community organizer and with my slum life experience I realized I was relieved just like the rest of the team the moment they left meaning all of us had been captives of that fear. This was naturally followed up with lots of questions in my mind. Where were they coming from all eight dressed in such an official manner at that time of the day? Why was everyone including the federation members scared? What about the police taking a different route and pretending they did not see them? Who were they? What was really happening?

I became curious and followed the story deeper… As a start the community federation team reminded us that there was nothing to be afraid off since the young men meant no one in the community any harm. Then they told us that they were coming from town (basically city center) and that  this was when they were coming back to the settlement.  The explanation continued to state that the group was a professional group of criminals and that their ‘game’ or rather their job is highly regarded and respected (literally) by some of the community members.

Yes, any youth involved in crime of their state was highly glorified by the rest of the community members. In fact one member of the federation told me that in the settlement of Kiamutesya you can find a family where three of its generations have been actively involved in crime. That is to say, that some of the young men we saw had their fathers and grandfathers all actively involved in crime. Hence, making crime a normal family business as well as community way of life.

Categories of slum crime

As I got interested with the topic I learnt that crime was truly accepted and consciously or unintentionally the crime mentor-ship programme has continued in the settlement where younger boys of ages between 10 -15 years who have dropped out of school for various reasons get involved in snatching hand bags, phones and possessions to unsuspected motorists and passersby along Juja road and after a while those who gain confidence very early move their snatching job into town. The next set of petty criminals will be seen in the settlement involved in burglary within the settlement especially in the unsecured areas of the settlements.

Note that secured areas are those that the residents have designed a response to insecurity that is feared by those wishing to steal in their neighborhood. The most feared response is use of ‘mob-justice’ which sees a number of young boys being lynched whenever caught or suspected of stealing or being a thief. (will relook at the issue of mob injustice again).

The ‘mob justice’ and police killings according to most criminals have graduated the youths into armed robbers, or has enticed them to become big timers. As big timers the group becomes professional in their job and they stop terrorizing their neighbors and instead engage themselves into other forms of crime outside their settlement. It is at this point that the community starts recognizing them as their heroes and the young men are made celebs by their peers and parents. It is this group that mentors the young ones. This group’s motto is to “live young as a king than live poor the rest of your life”.  The group believes that luck and death are the same they all come once. Therefore their hope is that one day the catch will be enough to take them and their families out of poverty.