- He started stealing while still a pupil at James Gichuru Primary School.
- He survived mob justice and two other incidents when fate seemed to have left him to his own devices.
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.