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The making of a casino nation

Sunday September 9 2018


An administration police officer burns gambling machines in Homa Bay County. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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“Forget about hard work,” my old schoolmate fumed the other day. “In today’s Kenya you either make it through gambling or tenderpreneurship, Kabura style.”

Well, that’s how he sees it. On my part, two incidents last year drew my attention to just how deep gambling has dug into the Kenyan psyche.

In the first incident, I had made a stop-over at Isinya township in Kajiado County for a taste of the famous Maasai soup-dawa.

It was about 11am in the morning on a working day, but the place I entered was already teeming with young Maasai morans in shukas gambling at the several gaming machines.

Out of curiosity, I asked the waiter how come all these young people were there when they ought to have been in school, or at least herding cattle out there.



His shocking reply was: “First they refused to go to school. Now they have abandoned cattle as well. They say gambling is where money is!”

“Where do they get the money to gamble?” I asked. “They go home on weekends to sell the family livestock and come back on Monday for another week of gambling.

"When there is no longer livestock to sell, they sell the family land and bring the money here. Worse, some of those you see are students who have fled school and are gambling with what was supposed to be school fees!”

I lost the appetite for soup-dawa when the waiter told me there were six such gaming places in the tiny township that has neither water nor toilets!


Not long after, I had a cup of tea with a lady acquaintance I’d not met for some time. As we chatted, she excused herself to take a lengthy telephone call.

“That is my workmate”, she told me. “He was calling to give me names of football teams on which to place my bet today.”

“Interesting,” I said, “I never knew you to have any interest in soccer.” “Even now I am no fun of football” she replied.

“Actually, I am hearing for the first time most of the names (teams) I have been told to place my bet on.

Locally if you ask me leopards is name of wild cats and Gor Mahia that of a traditional medicine-man we read about in primary school!” (My friend and colleague Tom Osanjo would hang her for that “sacrilege”!)


I could easily understand my female friend. She is a victim of what is now popular Kenyan “culture” called gaming, jaribu-bahati.

It is a phenomena that began to earnestly take root with the advent of “pyramid” schemes in the last decade where fast-talking crooks duped gullible Kenyans that money could effortlessly “give birth” and multiply like rabbits in the shortest time.

The “pyramid” schemes coincided with initial public offer (IPOs) of shares in some companies, and which sent Kenyans into hysteria buying on misplaced belief that stock market worked the same way as the “pyramid” schemes.


Just how Kenyans can believe in easy, quick riches became clear to me one day during the IPO issue by the KenGen company in early 2006.

I was leaving for home when the night watchman at my favourite joint in Nairobi West came running after me in the parking lot.

“Mkubwa (that is what they call you when they want to “milk” something small out of you) I have something to tell you.”

I stopped to hear him out, remembering some advice given to me long time ago that you never ignore the night guard or the househelp.

They are the people who know where all skeletons are buried! The night watchman had a grand idea how he’d be a millionaire in the next few months.

He’d purchase 20,000 of the KenGen shares on offer at Sh5 apiece and dispose them off immediately the IPO ended and the share price, in his projection, reverted to the pre-IPO prize of Sh45 and above.

He wanted me to lend him Sh40,000 to raise the Sh100,000 required to purchase 20,000 shares.


I asked him where he was getting the balance of Sh60,000, assuming I lent him Sh40,000.

He told me his wife, a retail seller of cereals in Kibra slums, was in a round-table saving scheme that was to give her Sh40,000.

He would raise the other Sh20,000 by selling his only cow in the rural area.

I got the impression he was very sincere and decided to give my two-cents worth of investment advice.

I told him so many people were in rush to purchase KenGen IPO shares, meaning at the close of the offer, the market would be flooded with so many sellers but no buyers, hence the share price would most likely take much, much longer to get to the high of Sh50 and make him a millionaire if everything worked as per his plan.


I went on to tell him that since the wife’s cereal business seemed to be doing well, perhaps the best investment would be to plough back to the business the Sh40,000 she was getting from her round-table group.

With the money she could even consider moving from retail to wholesale trade and where they were guaranteed tidy profits, unlike the gamble with KenGen shares.

I told him he could also consider selling the cow and put the money in the cereal business as well.

Heck, I even took liberty to suggest that he consider quitting the night-watchman job and join the wife in the cereal business.

I am not sure he heeded my advice, more so after I wasn’t forthcoming with the “soft loan” he wanted from me.

I have reason though to guess he never became a millionaire because I still see him at the same place where he worked.

In any case, KenGen share value went south after the IPO and remained there for a long time.


The incident with the watchman reminded me of a story I read about the famous Wall Street crash of American stock market, and which triggered the global depression of 1929.

Historian Cecil Roberts related the hysterical buying and selling in the New York bourse thus: One day he went to have a haircut.

As the barber swept the clean white sheet from his shoulders and bent to brush his collar, he whispered: “Buy Standard Gas (an American company) shares. I’ve doubled mine. It’s good for another double.”

Stunned, the historian walked away saying to himself: “If the hysteria has reached the barber level something must soon happen.” It did.

A day after, what the world had come to refer to as Wall Street “speculative orgy”, the US stock market came tumbling down like a house of cards.


It is also around the same time when a friend called me and urged that we in the media do something to have the “pyramid” schemes banned in the country and those behind them put in jail for many years.

He’d a sad story to tell. A friend of his had been talked by his wife into selling the family’s only life-long investment, a house in Nairobi’s southlands area, to invest in a “pyramid” scheme only for the scheme to close shop and its owners to go underground.

It had begun with the wife putting her Sh100,000 savings in the scheme and doubling it.

She’d ploughed it back and “harvested” another double to make a cool Sh300,000 in just six months!

With that, she had not much problem convincing her husband to sell their only earthly possession to invest in the pyramids.

Sadly, the unfortunate turn of events led to bitter break-up of the marriage.


By the way, women made the easiest prey to “pyramids” which made me conclude perpetrators of the schemes must have been blood relatives of the Serpent who tricked Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and share it with her husband!

The gambling “culture” in the country has come with it what former Safaricom chief executive Michael Joseph once called Kenyans “peculiar phone habits”.

You get to the family living room in the evening and all you find are “robots” each doing their own thing – no feelings and no communication with the other.

The father of the house is busy on his phone frustrated to have lost on his day’s football bet and placing another one.

The mother too is gnashing her teeth for losing on Shabiki lottery but finding comfort catching up with gossip in her WhatsApp group.

Meanwhile, one child is engrossed on telephone games and the other is on a pornography site.

The house girl is also busy texting her boda boda boyfriend to sambaza credit so that she can play in one of the many other lotteries.

If you pray on Sundays, dedicate a special one for Kenyans today.