“Saidia maskini. Mungu ata kubariki” That’s my opening line when I see someone passing me on the street. I am a beggar you see. I am that guy with a missing leg and a leg brace next to me. This has been my street corner for the last 5 long years. Ever since I got out of the hospital after my ‘accident.’ But I am not a kawaida beggar. I have a degree.
My name is Were. You may wonder how I got here. What happened to turn a guy who had gone to campus into a beggar? I can say it is a combination of joblessness, bad company and bad luck. To understand my story we need to go back to the beginning.
“You now have the power to read. Congratulations. Go out and make us proud” the university chancellor said.
This is the year I graduated with a degree in anthropology. My parents had spent a lot of money educating me and I was their hope for the future. I was going to make money and send money for my siblings in Kisumu to go to school.
After campus, I moved to the slum with a couple of friends. We had a one-bedroom house which 4 of us shared. Every morning we would go to the news vendor and pay him five bob to read the paper looking for jobs and then apply for the relevant ones. This was to be my routine for the next year.
In the meantime, I worked at a local carwash. This would get me some money at least to buy some food and chip in for the rent. In that one year, two of my friends got jobs and left. They promised to look for us jobs but then they just disappeared.
In the evening my friend Kamau and I would go to the base to chew some miraa. There were different characters at the base. There were makangas, school drops outs and guys from the mtaa. We would chill out and talk about current affairs. Occasionally when there was money we would buy a sachet or two of some alcohol.
After a year of searching for a job, I was tired. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. I was supposed to be having a big job by now. I didn’t have enough money to support myself leave alone my family back home.
One day I was at the base with some of the “boys” drinking sachets when I complained, “I am tired of this life. I need to make money. This maisha ya kusota inabore.”
One guy called James looked at me and asked: “what are you willing to do to make money?”
“Anything. This life ya maskini sitaki,” I said.
The guys laughed. We continued to drink until late. James was buying. He always seemed to have money. When I had asked a long time ago what he did he said he made deals. He was always well dressed and he had money.
When we were all leaving the base at around 10 pm James told me to stay behind. He asked me “Were, what are you willing to do to make money?”
I found it odd that he asked me this question again. I answered, “I am ready to do anything to make money.”
James looked at me and smiled. He gave me 50 bob and told me to meet him at the ambassador stage in the morning at 10 am.
The next morning I wore my best clothes. They were a bit old and the shirt was a bit frayed. But I couldn’t afford anything else. I carried copies of my certificates in an envelope.
I made sure I was at ambassador way before 10 am. I meet James at the Ambassador stage. He took me down to River Road and into some room. It had plastic chairs and a table. I gave him my certificates. He laughed and threw them on the table.
“Were, do you know how I make money?” James asked me.
“No!” I answered.
“What I tell you doesn’t leave this room. If you tell anybody I will make sure you meet with an accident. You understand?”
James sat at the table and told me to sit. “I am a thief. I steal phones. That’s how I make money. I want to train you to be a thief”
I sat there stunned. My mind was racing. But I was past the point of no return. I was tired of being poor. Of having people look down on me because I didn’t have money. At that point, I made a decision which I was to regret much later on but at that time seemed like my only way out.
I accepted to do it.
James taught me how to be a pickpocket. We had a school of sorts. Every day for a month I used to go for training in the morning. We were 5 guys and one lady. All the others were already in advanced training when I joined. We would learn how to spot the people who had money and phones as well. We would be timed to see how fast we could relieve someone of a phone. We practised on each other. We would practice on the lady who would have different types of handbags. Also, we learnt how to pass phones to each other. We also learnt how to spot cops. Let’s just say that in that informal school I learnt a lot more about people and their behaviour than I did in university.
In the afternoons we used to go to Kencom. We would board a bus 3 of us. I would be on the lookout. James would steal the phones and then pass them to Alice, our lady thief who would put them in her handbag after switching it off. Then at the next stage, we would all alight and take a matatu back to town. In this way, I learned to be a thief.
Soon I was the one doing the stealing. I would work with Alice. James was now working on stealing from shops. It was pretty simple. There were new shops that were coming up selling phones. Two people would enter the shop and one would distract the salesperson. The other would steal a phone then they would both leave.
The other con was for someone to dress very smartly. Then they would enter a shop with a laptop bag. Ask for a phone then pretend to be trying to see if the phone works. The person would put in their sim card and then make a call. They would talk to the person on the other end and say that they are coming with the laptop to do some work. Then they would put the laptop bag (filled with newspapers) on the counter and pretend that they need to take a call outside. Then they would disappear.
I did this job for 5 years. Tactics changed of course as people got wiser. I was making money and living the good life. In a month I used to make something like 50, 000 Kenya shillings.
The fateful day that changed my life was an ordinary day. I went to work. That day I was working at a shopping mall. I had taken a phone from a woman who was buying some things and she had left her phone in the side pocket. She reached for her phone and it wasn’t there. I had already walked away.
“Nimeibiwa simu,” she started wailing. “Kuna mwizi hapa!”
Just then her phone rang. I hadn’t had time to switch it off. She heard the phone and looked around. She looked straight at me and pointed, “ni huyo!”
I started running. Shouts of “mwizi, mwizi” I could hear as I run. Unfortunately, when I got onto the street a good Samaritan heard the cry. He ran after me and caught me. The woman came and they removed the phone from my pocket.
A crowd had gathered. They started raining blows on me. They hit me until I became unconscious.
The next time I woke up I was in jail. My leg hurt like crazy. I had an open wound. I tried to ask for help but no one was paying me any attention. I was taken to remand prison. After two months my leg got worse until it started removing pus and was stinking. The other prisoners complained and I had to be taken to Kenyatta hospital.
The doctors said that my leg had gangrene so they would have to cut it off. When I was attacked a bone had broken and the wound was where the bone was protruding. It had gotten infected. They cut off my leg just above the knee. I was in the hospital for about a year. At that time the police had forgotten me. They didn’t want to be saddled with the bill so they left me there.
My friends came together and paid my bill. But there I was broke again and even worse off than before. I couldn’t go back to stealing. I was a cripple. James is the one who suggested I become a beggar.
“Were, you can’t stay at home. We would like to help but you know how things are. Business nowadays is bad si ka kitambo. My suggestion is that you become a beggar. Kuna dough .”
That’s my story. That’s how I ended up here. Sitting on the streets on a mat, asking for alms.
“Saidia maskini, mungu atakubariki!” I plead as you pass.