If snatching a phone and running away with it were to be an Olympics sport, there is no doubt among many residents of Nairobi’s sprawling Dandora estate that one of their own, Evans Otieno, would have run away with the gold.
Mr Charles Gachanga, a friend of Mr Otieno’s, describes the reformed robber as a “rocket”.
“If he took your phone, you could never catch him. I’ve never seen a man so fast. He left many people in this ‘hood’ miserable after taking off with their phones,” says Mr Gachanga.
“Evanso”, or “Oti” as he is popularly known, was on the wanted list of both the police and local residents for a long time because of his thieving ways that left many a resident phoneless.
Mr Otieno says it was a means of survival because he was using the proceeds of crime to feed and pay school fees for himself and his younger sister.
However, his former victims — who have since forgiven him — do not buy this Robin Hood side of Mr Otieno, and they feel that he should have been lynched at the height of his then thriving criminal enterprise.
It is an enterprise that literally went up in smoke after Mr Otieno’s colleagues, having used up all the proverbial 40 days allotted to thieves, were lynched after a robbery gone awry. Mr Otieno escaped death only because of an unusual need to answer a call of nature.
THE TOILET SAVED MY LIFE
“I still remember that Saturday very well. We had with us several phones after a very fruitful mission. We then went to our broker so that we could turn the phones into cash. It was while negotiating that I felt this sudden urge to go to the toilet and I did just that,” he says.
The decision would turn out to be a date with destiny. When he was in the toilet, a crowd that had apparently been monitoring their movement stormed the broker’s shop baying for the thieves’ blood. They cornered two of them and gave them a proper clobbering before setting them ablaze — sending them to the afterlife. For the fleet-footed Mr Otieno, it was yet another lucky escape.
Mr Otieno says he started stealing while still a pupil at James Gichuru Primary School and by the time of the toilet escape, he had survived mob justice and two other incidents when fate seemed to have left him to his own devices.
“I lost both parents and was living with my grandmother and younger sister. After my grandmother passed away, I upped my stealing efforts to ensure that there was enough food for me and my sister, as well as school fees when I joined secondary school,” he explains calmly.
Like someone who is into import and export business, there were times when thieving season was “low” and Mr Otieno had a side business working as a cobbler, helping the locals mend their shoes. These are the same locals he would turn against and steal from, whenever he felt that it was safe to slide back to crime.
The saving grace was that his grandmother owned the plot where they were staying and he was exempted from paying rent. By the time he was quitting crime, he had enlisted in a college. He thanks God for saving his life on the day he lost two close friends.
Not that it was anything new. The 27-year-old says he has lost many close friends over the years and accepts it all as part of occupational hazards.
“I knew that things were bad and I jumped over a wall and ran away as fast as my legs could carry me,” he says.
After this, he held a meeting with himself and made the life-changing decision to quit the life of crime. For good.
ON REFORM PATH
That is when he reached out to Mr Gachanga, who had just founded the Dandora Transformative League (DTL) — a group that is set to change the narrative of Dandora as Nairobi’s crime headquarters. Kenyans living in Dandora in the 1980s remember an organised low-income settlement, and not the den of iniquity it is nowadays. Mr Gachanga has been aiming to restore Dandora’s lost glory.
In the Dandora Transformative League, Mr Otieno has embraced the gospel of change, becoming a high priest of sorts.
“I have seen thugs and former twilight girls change and become better citizens,” he says inside the curiously named Believers’ Court, of which he is the chairman.
Mr Gachanga, 40, told Lifestyle that the group’s origins were out of a distasteful experience.
“It was after the 2007 General Election in Kenya and I got a job that took me to Dar es Salaam. After some time, I got to meet a fellow Kenyan who was also from Nairobi. When he learnt that I was from Dandora, he was shocked because by that time Dandora was synonymous with runaway crime. Behind my back, he went and told my boss that my background was suspect. Because of this I was sacked and had to come back home,” he said.
Living in Tanzania, Charles had noticed a unique quality of their hosts: Their level of cleanliness.
“It is funny that Kenyans think Tanzanians are backward and less educated. But I was shocked that their towns were very clean compared to what we had back at home. I was determined to emulate this,” he said.
HURDLES OF A CHANGE PROGRAMME
It proved easier said than done. First, because of many years of neglect, the drainage system in Dandora was totally lost. They had to ask older residents to show them where the drainage used to be. A team of volunteers got to work, digging up the trash-filled drainage and soon the system was restored.
Next came the difficult task of selling the idea to the residents. Mr Gachanga was determined and slowly the residents took up the idea. Many of the youths in the estate ditched crime and started volunteering in the project.
A $1,000 (Sh100,960) seed money from an outfit calling itself Awesome Fund got the group started. As the residents bought into the idea, they agreed to pay Sh100 per house, which would go towards paying the workers, with the rest going into savings.
“I am pleased with the turn of events and that many young people are now turning away from crime and prostitution to embrace our concept,” Mr Gachanga says.
SMALL WINS, BIG WINS
Last year, DTL won the Dubai International Best Practices Award, an initiative of UN-Habitat aimed at rewarding initiatives aimed at improving living environments. The win secured them a much-needed $25,000 (Sh2.5 million).
“I loved the way the Dubai city is well kept,” Mr Gachanga says.
The group has developed the model street which incorporates courts.
The ‘Model Street’ is designed to enhance liveability, interaction and safety with four welcoming gateways. One has a floating zebra crossing and seating ledges, attractive art patterns on faced, colourful painting, trees, cabro paving, and artistic waste receptacles.
The gateways are designed to welcome the public, creating local identity and show the change and pride of the people living within the block and working on the streets.
The Dandora Transformation League has been implementing the model street in collaboration with UN-Habitat and other organisations, with the aim of making it a benchmark to guide future interventions.
Mr Gachanga’s group took part in Changing Faces Innovation Competition, an initiative by various civil society organisations that seek to clean up Nairobi.
In her speech at the occasion, UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif said: “UN-Habitat is pleased to be associated with this initiative, which started with the Mustard Seed court in Dandora. From one court, it spread to the whole neighbourhood, and has now become a Nairobi-wide initiative. You have demonstrated the power of citizen-led urban regeneration, and how important it is to involve the community in rethinking the city, and reclaiming public spaces.”
She added: “The initiative is very innovative and has demonstrated the power of citizen organising to solve some of the most urgent challenges and needs facing many cities today, including the need for safe, inclusive and accessible public spaces, need for a clean environment, and livelihood opportunities.”
But not everyone is happy with the progress Mr Gachanga and his group have been making. Two years ago, he was arrested on trumped-up charges after he stopped a local tycoon who wanted to grab some parts of the project land.
Mr Gachanga’s Dandora Transformation League has had the pleasure of hosting high-profile visitors including Deputy President William Ruto and more recently, visiting Gambian-British Kora music star Sona Jobarteh.