Kenya’s drug-peddling women waste away in faraway jails

Saturday July 28 2012

Grace Maina displays a photograph of her sister Anne Wambui Maina (centre) who is serving a jail term in Hong Kong in drug connection case during the interview on 26th July 2012 in Huruma, Nairobi. Photo/DENNIS OKEYO

Grace Maina displays a photograph of her sister Anne Wambui Maina (centre) who is serving a jail term in Hong Kong in drug connection case during the interview on 26th July 2012 in Huruma, Nairobi. Photo/DENNIS OKEYO  

By KIPCHUMBA SOME [email protected]

A letter from a mother jailed in a Hong Kong prison to her two young sons in Nairobi’s Huruma slum speaks of her hope amid despair and her undying love for her children.

In them Ms Ann Wambui Maina, a convicted drug trafficker, sees hope for a future of prosperity, not one of regret and hardship in a faraway land.

She does not mention that her search for a better life for the boys aged eight and nine is the reason her own took such a bad turn.

“How are you, my sweet boys,” the letter begins. “I hope you are doing fine. I love you! I know this month is your birthday Hussein, and I really wanted to send you a card, but I have to wait a little bit ….”

As a birthday gift to Hussein, she attaches a sketch of herself smiling and on either side, little portraits of what she thinks her sons might look like two years after they were forced apart.

She ends the letter by telling them to read hard, pray and listen to their elders. “Just be good boys,” she implores, her sense of regret over how things have turned out breaking through.

Ann, 29, is serving an eight-year sentence after being caught at Hong Kong International Airport while on a drug-delivery mission.

She is among scores of young Kenyan women languishing in jails in Asian countries on drug-related charges.

The ministry of Foreign Affairs was not able to provide the exact number of Kenyans imprisoned in foreign countries on charges of drug trafficking, but by 2009, anti-narcotics sources said there were 300.

Most of them are being held in China, India and Pakistan. Most are young women from poor backgrounds lured by the opportunity to make quick money and live a lavish lifestyle.

A statement given in Parliament in 2009 by then Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula indicated that 27 Kenyans, including 22 “very young women”, as he put it, were serving sentences in China.

In 2009, five Kenyans were sentenced to hang by Chinese authorities for drug trafficking, highlighting the magnitude of a problem whose impact is being acutely felt by the victims’ families at home.

Illegal business

The Sunday Nation tracked down the families of four convicts to Kiamaiko, a slum in the sprawling Huruma neighbourhood, and listened to stories of how the young women were lured into the illegal business they believed would be their ticket out of poverty.

“My sister was approached by a friend some time in 2006 with the promise of casual jobs such as being a housegirl and bar tending in China,” said Ms Grace Maina, Ann’s sister.

However, Ann did not realise then that she would be taking the first step that would eventually land her in a foreign jail. Just one year later in August 2007, she called home to inform her sister that she had been arrested in Hong Kong.

“She told me that the people who were taking her for the job had forced her to ingest the drugs at gunpoint during a stopover in India,” said Ms Maina.

“She told me that she had no choice; they would have killed her.”

Like most Kenyans who have been arrested for drug trafficking, it was Ann’s first time abroad, and her sister reckons that the sheer nervousness of being in a foreign country and doing something illegal must have given her away to anti-narcotics officers at the airport.

Independent sources told the Sunday Nation that up to 20 young women from the larger Huruma community could be languishing in jails around the world, especially in Asia, although we could not independently verify this information.

“There are rumours of so many of them having gone abroad to traffic drugs, and they have ended up in jail, but we do not have the exact figures,” said Mr George Wanjohi, the Kiamaiko ward councillor.

Six of the women convicted in China come from his ward, although he suspects that many more families could be suffering in silence due to the social stigma associated with the drugs business.

But what is certain is that between 2006 and 2009, an active recruitment drive took place in Kiamaiko and other slums in Huruma in which young women were lured into the narcotics underworld with the promise of riches.

A stone’s throw from Ann’s humble home, Ms Margaret Muthoni is silently mourning her daughter, Mary Mukami Muthoni, 29, who was jailed in Hong Kong for five years in 2007.

“My daughter had never travelled out of the country before, and I just gave her my blessings when she said she had found a job abroad. I allowed her to go because I simply wanted a better life for us all. If I only knew ...,” she said.

The widow, who is 66 and diabetic, is now looking after her daughter’s three children with little support. Her small second-hand clothes business can hardly cover the family’s needs, and she often has to rely on the support of neighbours and good Samaritans.

A common thread runs through the interviews with the families: the young women were recruited by a local woman who seemed to have been working at the behest of powerful drug lords.

Act as mules

It is no longer a secret that young Kenyans are increasingly being lured to act as “mules” for West African drug syndicates, mainly Nigerian, whose masterminds are aggressively targeting students and desperate women from poor backgrounds.

Ms Mukami believes her daughter was introduced to the trade by a local woman named Collette who was working for drug barons of foreign nationalities. Collette, she said, convinced her that she had found her daughter a job selling curios in China for a period of three weeks.

“She once came here and told me that she was going to help my daughter, and I had no reason to doubt it,” she said. “But I found it curious that she refused to get out of her car to greet me,” she recalled.

She said Collette was accompanied by a man who identified himself as Chris. “He had an accent similar to that of those Nigerian TV actors,” she said.

She has never seen them again.

Her sentiments might not be far from the truth. A large number of Kenyans in custody are alleged to have confessed that they were recruited by a Nigerian drug kingpin named Ken Amadu Obina Okuoma.

Until his dramatic arrest in a police operation and deportation in early 2009, Mr Okuoma had run a drugs empire in Kenya for more than a decade, allegedly with the tacit support of some senior government officials.

Ms Maina believes that her sister Ann was recruited by people close to the West African kingpins. She developed the idea following a visit by three Nigerian men soon after her sister was arrested in Hong Kong.

“They came looking for me, and they enquired where my sister lived and where her children were,” she said.

When she refused to answer their questions, she added, one of the men with a heavy Nigerian accent threatened her with a gun concealed in his clothes.

“They threatened to kill every one of us, but I think they backed off after confirming that my sister had been arrested. I think somebody fed them rumours that she had sold the drugs and was now living large.”

While some of the couriers are innocent young women who are either lured or blackmailed by the drug lords, some have become seasoned mules, criss-crossing the world.

One such suspected recruiter-cum-courier is Jackline Margaret Njeri, who was arrested in Brazil in 2009. Ms Njeri left home telling friends and family that an unknown friend had secured her employment in the South American country.

A few months later, she called home saying she had been arrested and sentenced to a three-year jail term for peddling drugs.

“She told us that she had been fixed by someone,” said her brother, Mr Ephantus Mwangi.

Unfortunately, they may never know if she was framed because she died in prison last September. Her family maintains that Njeri was an honest girl who had fallen victim to a drug syndicate taking advantage of gullible young women.

However, interviews with some of her friends and relatives indicate that she might not have been as honest as the family would want people to believe. She had previously travelled to China for some undisclosed business and returned with a lot of cash.

“She had a lot of money to burn after she came back from China,” said a source who declined to be named for security reasons. “She never really explained to us how she made it.”

The source further revealed that Njeri had tried to recruit her as a courier in 2008.

“She told me I would die poor if I kept to the straight and narrow of life. She told me that I had everything needed for the job — youth, beauty and confidence. But my heart was not in it,” she said.
The deal, she said, was to transport the pills to China.

“I was to be paid Sh100,000 before flying out and another Sh300,000 after delivery. She even offered to overhaul my wardrobe, but I declined.”

In September last year, a friend in prison called the family with the tragic news of Njeri’s death. She had been scheduled for early release the following month. Her cause of death is still unknown.

But resisting such worldly temptations was apparently more difficult for Mary Adhiambo Opondo, a married mother of five who is serving an eight-year jail term in Hong Kong.

Unlike most of those we interviewed, Mrs Opondo’s family says she never told anyone where she was going when she boarded a plane that would see her land in trouble in December 2007.

“I just saw in the media that she had been arrested there,” said her mother, Keziah. She said that the fact that her daughter kept the trip secret from her family raises the possibility that she had an idea of what she was getting herself into.

“Why keep such an important event secret from your family if there was nothing she was hiding?” her mother asked.

But she believes her daughter was coaxed into the deal by a close friend involved in the drug business.

“I know the person who tempted her. They went together to Hong Kong, but she returned. I have looked at her in the eye and asked her why she misled my daughter into such business, but she has never given me satisfactory answers.”

Although not rich, she says that they were not so poor as to warrant her daughter resorting to such desperate means of earning a livelihood. “At least we could afford food. The desire for more money will cause us too much pain.”
She has been communicating with her daughter mostly through letters.

“Sometimes she calls, and I try my best to assure her that everything is okay. But that is not entirely the truth.”

Keziah, a widow who earns a living selling herbs in Huruma, is now shouldering the burden of raising five grandchildren. She said her daughter’s firstborn son refused to proceed with secondary education so as not to burden his grandmother.

“He took pity on what I was going through and declined to burden me. Of course I do not support his decision, but I am powerless under these circumstances.”

Her deepest worry is seeing her grandson gradually embrace the street life that sucked her mother into the narcotics underworld. “I wish there’d be a good break from all this for us.”

If you are not from Huruma, you might be tempted to question the gullibility of the young women who have fallen victim of the qet-rich-quick drug schemes.

But when you encounter the levels of grinding poverty there, you begin to understand their fallibility.

As you would expect in any slum, conditions in Huruma are brutal. Decent housing and functioning sanitation are non-existent, and affording a meal is a big struggle.

Education levels are among the lowest in the country. These conditions have over time created a pool of desperate youth, ready to do anything to escape the poverty, and rich, international drug lords have tapped into this desperation.

“Imagine someone who has never handled more than Sh10,000 in her lifetime being promised 30 times that in addition to a fully paid trip to a foreign country,” said councillor Wanjohi.

If these uneducated and unemployed youth are given no reason to be hopeful of a better future without drugs, Mr Wanjohi reckons, Kenya is yet to hear the last of its youth wasting away in foreign jails.