The life sentence handed last month to Simon Wambua Mbuvi, 44, by a Chinese court for trafficking cocaine continues to haunt those who knew him.
That a committed church official in Nairobi’s Chokaa could, not just deal in hard drugs, but swallow 79 cocaine capsules so he could ferry them to China is a fact most of his congregants at Pefa Church are struggling to understand.
Mr Alfred Omondi and Mr Peter Ngolo, two of his close friends at the church in Embakasi East Constituency, think it is the hard economic times Mbuvi was going through that might have pushed him into the murky world of drug dealing.
“He was very broke and jobless. He had rent arrears, not to mention school fees to pay,” said Mr Omondi in an interview on Thursday.
Perhaps the most devastated person is Mbuvi’s wife, Ms Anne Safari, 39, who has had to take menial jobs to make ends meet.
Since Mbuvi’s arrest in Guangzhou on November 25, 2018 after he alighted from an Ethiopian Airlines flight, Ms Safari’s tough life has got worse.
They have three children: boys aged 21 and 14, and a 12-year-old girl. “We are living only by the grace of God. We sleep hungry on some days. He was our only hope,” she told the Nation by phone on Thursday.
Sounding broken, Ms Safari said: “I didn’t know what he was going to do in China. When he went silent, I kept looking for him, with my efforts bearing little fruit. Never mind that I could hardly raise the fare to go to government offices.”
Then she received a call from the Foreign Affairs ministry informing her that her husband had been arrested.
Mbuvi would later be sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chinese Intermediate People’s Court of Guangzhou Municipality.
A three-judge bench headed by Hu Peng dismissed Mbuvi’s defence that he had unknowingly swallowed the drugs — which were detected in his stomach through an X-ray scan.
They ruled that he was trafficking a substance that is “extremely harmful to society”. Had the cocaine weighed more than a kilo, Mr Mbuvi would have been sentenced to death.
Court documents tell a story of a man who met a network of traffickers, notably a woman called Fridah, alias Breda. She helped him get a passport, paid his visa fees and bought him a return ticket to China.
She then arranged a meeting with the people who gave Mr Mbuvi food then had him swallow the capsules, with instructions that he should not eat anything on the 12-hour flight. At the end of the deal, Mr Mbuvi was to pocket $2,050 (Sh211,048).
Mr Otieno and Mr Ngolo said Mr Mbuvi was part of a group known as Friends and Followers and Hospitality.
“Friends and followers are charged with following up on new converts, welcoming and following up on visitors and helping members facing challenges,” Mr Otieno said.
Mr Ngolo revealed that in 2018, he and Mbuvi tried their hands at selling sweet potatoes but the business did not do well, so they closed it.
That might have been the last straw for Mbuvi. It was in July that year when Fridah started engaging him.
“He was going through some difficulties. I believe that’s what somebody took advantage of,” said Mr Otieno.
“Whoever was behind that took advantage of the situation and Mbuvi fell prey to it,” he added.
One of Mbuvi’s last engagements with his church was a burial they attended in Kieni, Nyeri County.
“There was no change in his behaviour, nothing to show that he had joined a bad group,” Mr Otieno recalled.
The plea by Mbuvi’s friends and family to Kenyan authorities is to bring him home to serve his jail term if they cannot negotiate his release.
“OK, it’s a crime, a very serious crime. But it would be better if the Kenya government could find a way of having people like Simon, who are jailed in foreign countries, brought back home to serve their sentences where their families can at least see them,” Mr Ngolo said.