It was dark. The kind of darkness that looks like a black fog. A black opaqueness that refuses to get out of the way. The two stolen cars followed each other through this blackness, headed to a house in Kiambu where a man who had just come from the US was having a welcome home dinner with his brothers. There was lots of money in that house; dollars, Kenya shillings and euros. The eight men in the two cars knew it. And they wanted that money. In one of the cars was our guy, seated calmly at the back, ignoring the chatter. Let’s call him Ng’ash. He had a gun. They all had guns. He also had a switch knife with a heavy base. It is with this heavy base that he would later pummel one of the brothers when he tried to resist, drawing fresh blood. Blood didn’t scare Ng’ash. Neither did violence. This job required violence; violence was a vital tool for it.
During the robbery, as the other gang members scoured the big house, picking light electronics, rummaging through the drawers for other valuables, Ng’ash – the calmest of them all and thus the brains of this unit – was watching the captives, because the whole operation depended on everybody not making any sudden movements. Sometimes that meant shooting someone, like he did one of the chaps who tried to be a hero. As the guy crumpled to the floor, a bullet in his thigh, Ng’ash calmly turned the gun on the heaviest of the men and just stared at him. Nobody did anything foolish again until the gang re-entered the darkness they belonged in, dumped the cars on River Road and took cabs out of the CBD to a slum where they got off and walked to meet their lady boss, the head of the gang.
Before you get it twisted, this isn’t a crime story of some hoodlums shoving guns in people’s faces. This is actually about a man, a robber, a father, a husband. There is a woman who is pivotal to this story. Let’s call her Njeri. She is important because she is the one who turns this story around. But Njeri isn’t ready to enter our story just yet, right now it’s about the badassery of Ng’ash.
I’m seated with Ng’ash at the food court of a mall. This same man who shot a man in the thigh. It’s irreconcilable. He’s so calm. When I joined him, I found him reading a novel. Ng’ash is a teacher in a very famous school in Nairobi – as in, if you named the top five primary schools in Nairobi it will be one of them. Which means he could be your daughter or son’s teacher. He could be one of the class teachers you sit with on open day to discuss your child’s progress.
Violence is not something unfamiliar to Ng’ash, it goes way back to his childhood in Nakuru.
“My dad’s first wife gave him four daughters, but then she died when the girls were very young, after which he married my mom,” he says softly. “My mom bore my sis and I, the only boy.” His father was a drunk and a violent man. Home was tempestuous. He would come in drunk, punching holes through doors, fighting his mother. There’d be screams, utensils falling and breaking, snarled words, tears and his mother leaving in the dead of night, Ng’ash passing her purse through the window as his father snarled in the living room, staggering around like a caged beast. “Mum would be gone for a few days but then she would come back. They would have another fight and she would be gone again,” he says.
One day a truck came and she packed him, his sister and all her belongings and fled that marriage. They left the other four sisters behind. You only carry what you came with, right? They started a hard life in Nairobi. He joined a new school. “One day, after many months, my father suddenly shows up in school. He tells me to grab my bag and that the teacher has allowed me to leave. He wanted me to take him where we lived. I was in class five,” he says. He happily took him home. (“My mom was pissed off!”) His father told his mom, “You have a choice here, if you keep this boy with you, I will not pay for his education, but if you let me leave with him, I will take care of his education.” His mother was struggling, so she said, “Fine, go with him.”
And Ng’ash was back in Nakuru.
“At the time, I found it strange that my father left my sister with my mom. It’s only later that I figured that she wasn’t my dad’s daughter.”
But let’s go back to the robbers. They get to the heart of the slum where boss lady lives. To get to her, you’d go through “security layers”, which involved doorways and corridors, past small open squares that finally led you into a lavish home that could have been anywhere in Muthaiga or Loresho. They get there at around 3am and a young man lets them in. They sit in the living room, where they place all the money on the coffee table and wait. Twenty minutes later, bosslady emerges in a deera. She had been sleeping. She says hello to them and asks if everything went okay. They report that apart from the usual (beatings) they had to shoot someone in the leg. Boss lady sits away from the money, legs tucked under her, ignoring the exercise before her. She never looks at the money or touches it. A second man comes in and counts the money. They all sit silently. The only sound is the tick tock of the grandfather clock on the wall. It’s the first time Ng’ash has been to that house. He has heard of bosslady, of her mythism and lore. At some point he thought she was an urban lore. But there she was, stifling a yawn, looking more like a housewife than a crime lord. Her house was rich and sophisticated with oil paintings, thick carpets, antiques, silverware, the works.
Back in Nakuru life was proving difficult living with his other four sisters because his father was a government official and was always gone. “He’d leave money behind for food, which my [step] sisters would divide five ways and everyone would get their share. Whatever you did with yours was your problem. If you spent yours before Dad came back you would starve.”
One day his father came home and picked some household stuff. He then bundled them all in the car and took them to a house in Shabaab where he disappeared into the inner rooms, leaving them in the sitting room. “When he emerged, he was wearing shorts. That’s when it hit us that all along when he’d disappear for weeks, he was here in his other home. He had another wife and a son that was not his,” he says. “He introduced us to his wife and told us that we would be living there. My sisters refused. He told them if they opted to go back to our house, he’d not pay for food or afford to pay rent for two houses. My sisters left all the same and later got a one-room house. I remained behind.”
“Living in that house was the start of my tribulations,” he says. “My stepmom was the the stereotypical stepmom. She would mistreat me and beat me up. I did all the house chores; cooking, cleaning. It didn’t help that my being a boy seemed to threaten the position of her own son because we were now two sons. When my father was around, she would be on her best behaviour and no matter what I told my father about her, he would never believe me. My step brother was a good guy. He always tried to protect me when his mother was fighting me, but she soon wore him down too. I developed anger issues, real anger issues. I started running away from home. I didn’t feel that I belonged anywhere.”
One day after being beaten by his father, he took off and got into an Eldoret Express bus, landing in Nairobi in the dead of night. He didn’t have anywhere to go so he sat outside Central Police Station. A man driving by stopped and asked him what the hell he was doing there alone at that time of the night. He was 13-years old. He said he had nowhere to go. The man said, “Okay, come we go.” They went to a bar behind Roosters frequented by cops, CID officers and Flying Squad guys. The man bought Ng’ash sodas while he drunk beers with his peers. The men kept asking what Ng’ash was doing in the bar and the man would say, “Leave that boy alone, he’s my guest.”
In the small hours, they left and drove to Gilgil. Ng’ash only realised the man was a military guy when the soldiers at the army barracks gate saluted him. The man took him to his house and introduced him to his wife. She gave Ng’ash a blanket and he crashed on the couch. The man never pressured him, never asked him what his plan was. He taught him two things; how to drive and the love of books.
“He was like me, a very quiet person. His house had a study that he would disappear into for long stretches of time. I would join him there because I like solitude and silence and he would give me a book and tell me, ‘Your life will not amount to anything if you don’t read. I could get you into the army when you are of age, but without an education you will never move up the ranks like me. But if you read you can make moves.’” he says. “We would often sit in his study, just reading.”
The army guy eventually met and talked to Ng’ash’s father. When he went to Sierra Leone for a peacekeeping mission, Ng’ash had to go back home. The beatings resumed, only worse.
Then he joined Menengai High School. There he made friends with makangas at the stage nearby. In them he found a family. He would hang out with them after school. They introduced him to weed. It’s from one of these boys that he got his first switch knife as a gift. His love for knives began. “I love knives, I collect them,” he says. “I have come to know that people fear knives more than guns. Knives mean business.”
“Did you ever cut anyone with a knife during your missions?”
“Yeah. I did,” he says slowly. “Small, painful, skin deep cuts are excruciating and effective.”
One day, he and his boys went to a house. There were nine chaps and three ladies there. He had just come from school, so he had stuffed his tie and school shirt in his bag and remained with his t-shirt on. One of the guys told him that they were there to make a brotherhood oath. A bowl was brought. Everybody cut their palms and let their blood drip into the bowl. They put some snuff in the blood, mixed it then they each dipped their finger into the blood and licked it while saying, “Ithuì aanake à nyùmba ya Mumbi, kûgerera thakame îno twàita na kûnywa ûmùthe, reke itûnyitithanie hamwe na tûtikanatigane ûnarîî na rìrìa tûgatigana kana ûmwe wîtû atûgarûrûke, gikûo nîkîo gîkamûkûra haría arí, thaai thathaiya thaai. Thayù!”
Translated loosely as: “We the men of the house of Mumbi, through this blood we have shed and taken today, may it bind us that we may never part. Should we part, if one of our own betrays us, death will find them where they will be.”
“For once in a my life, I felt like I belonged,” he says.
Then the robberies began; supermarkets, small establishments, hotels, shops, homes. Some were violent, others not. They went with guns and knives. Because his accomplices (I sound like the DCI) were gruff, dreadlocked fellas, his job would be to walk in with inquiries to stake out the place first because he was soft spoken and looked nothing like a thug. (Well, thuggery has changed so much, what with thieves wearing suits and ties.)
“One day we went to rob this pharmacy and when we got there, I realised the owner was a woman who knew me. I told the gang, ‘This lady knows me.’ They wanted to finish her but I asked to talk to her. I told her that this was not personal but that if she ratted me out and the men and I ended up in jail, it would get personal. The boys would come for her and she would be harmed. She was terrified but promised not to say a word. Even when the cops came later after the robbery, she never said a word and nobody ever bothered her.”
At home he started standing up to his step-mom. He was older now, and taller. He belonged to a gang of brothers and had a knife. One day he pulled out the knife on her and said, “If you lay your hands on me, two things will happen; one of us is going to leave this compound in an ambulance and the other will go to jail.” She stepped back. That evening she reported Ng’ash to his father. Ng’ash told his father that he continued to look the other way at what was going on in the home, choosing to believe his wife. He warned his father that one day something terrible would happen in that home if he didn’t do something. His father kept quiet.
I know. Even I have been dying to introduce her.
Njeri was also a student at Menengai High. She came from a rich family in Nakuru, which meant she was in the cool crowd in school. Njeri was dating one of those rugby types who like to do squats in the gym. Ng’ash wasn’t cool and didn’t belong to this cool clique. She barely looked Ngash’s way because Ng’ash was, well, Ng’ash. But then one day he heard that Njeri had broken up with the rugby fella. This time he had loose float from robberies and since money gives one balls, one day he stepped up to the plate and said to her, “Hi, my name is Ng’ash and I have liked you for so long and not just because of your nyash.”
No, I lie. No. He didn’t say such corny things. I’m just being terrible.
I don’t know how he started talking to her but whatever it is he said worked because soon they started dating and then boom, she got pregnant. Then it became a big family fiasco; the boy from the other side of the tracks with the girl from the rich family. Her father – a doctor – was a tyrant. Long story short, it was agreed that she would have the baby. It was a girl. Ng’ash finished high school, went to uni, dropped out for lack of fees, then joined a teacher’s college.
He maintained contact with his gang. They would come and visit him all the way in college, a six-hour drive from Nairobi. Word went round that Ng’ash was in a gang. He was untouchable. One day Njeri called him and said she was at the airport and that her father was shipping her out of the country. She had been tricked into leaving, she said, to study nursing in Massachusetts, in the US. The baby was left behind. After that phone call, Njeri completely disappeared from the face of the earth. “Nobody would give me her contacts in the US. I had no email or physical address. Her parents despised me.”
After graduation, he went for his daughter and together they eked out a living in a one-room house in Nakuru on his meagre salary. He was earning 4K and rent was KShs 1,500. “I think the reason I’m so close to my daughter now is that it was just the two of us – we slept in the same bed, didn’t have much to eat most days, so we ate together, hung out together,” he says. “I remember that since I had no nanny, I would take her to school with me and leave her with the cook the whole day.”
One day his cousin asked to meet him in a bar called Legend. While there, guess who trots in five years later; Njeri. She was back from the US. It was like seeing a ghost. Her skin looked like she bathed in honey. She told him how her parents had manipulated their separation. She wanted them to be together again. So she came to Nairobi. He later quit his job and joined her and they got married, rather they started living together as man and wife. He got a teaching job in a school but then reconnected with his thug friends back here.
“After a few months, I quit my teaching job but didn’t tell my wife. I’d leave in the morning and hang out with these guys, planning and going for missions and then come back home as if I was from work,” he says. “The money I was making was so much, I didn’t need to be a teacher.”
They’d now gotten to a new level of robbery, even robbing banks. “We once robbed a bank in tao. Crazy. I had lots of money. You never really do anything with it, mostly because you know you will get more tomorrow or next week. So you blow it.”
“Your wife never suspected you were in a gang?” I ask.
“She did. She first got a hint of my other side when one time in Nakuru, after asking me to take her out to a club, we went albeit shingo upande. I was being trailed by some money hungry and vengeful cops. They pounced on us a few metres from the club and when they asked for money (which I had in my secret kapocket), I lied to them and said I didn’t have. They handcuffed me and asked her to go home. I knew they would take me somewhere and kill me. My only saving grace was that she refused to follow their instructions to go back home and stuck with me. I asked her to go and silently prayed but she stuck to her guns. Unbeknownst to her then, that saved me because as we were being taken around town, a gang member spotted us and word reached a “good law insider”, wheels turned and I was free…It was scary,” he continues.
“One day Njeri found my gun while cleaning the house. She confronted me. I denied it of course, and said the gun belonged to some friends who had just left it in my house. Njeri didn’t believe me. She said she knew that I was involved with bad company. She said she knew how people talked about me and feared talking to her in my presence, how people treated her. She asked me to stop, begged me to stop whatever I was doing. I told her I wasn’t doing anything.”
“Did you ever kill anyone?” I ask.
“No. But I cut up a few guys with my knife. I beat people up during robberies. But the gangs had inter-gang fights and I know that killings happened.”
“What was your state of mind during robberies? Were you high? Scared?”
“No. I never had fear. I’m a very calm person, even my students say that when I’m angriest I’m at my most calm.” He chuckles. “I don’t drink alcohol but my friends would be high. There is a lot of adrenaline involved during robberies because things can go wrong. When you go for a mission, you never know if you are coming back. I would always be very calm but each time I’d go back home after a mission, I’d throw up and tremble so much, I’d not be able to hold even a cup. I’d also fall very, very sick and would stay in bed.”
“So how would you switch from being a robber to being a father and a husband?”
“Well, marrying into money gave me some esteem issues and I always felt I had a point to prove,” he says. “I would always remind myself that money equals open doors and respect. I had an easy time switching from doting husband and father to this cold, seething and simmering-with-rage guy because for me, every mission was a chance to avenge the wrongs that had been meted on me. You only had to look at me the wrong way or just be cocky for me to be hard, swift and ruthless. Regrets would come later but at that moment, I had no feelings. My wife and daughters were David and his harp to my soul – they calmed me and brought out my alter ego. They made me loving, playful and happy.”
Anyway, shall we go back to the slum with the bosslady? The man finished counting the money. Bosslady then instructed him to give each man 100K. She never once touched the money, as if it would corrupt her purity. They then opened bottles of alcohol and celebrated. Ng’ash had a soda. “I never touched booze. I saw what it would do to my father, so it was never my thing,” he says. “Also, when you are sober during missions, you have clarity of thought and make less mistakes.”
Just before dawn, they leave boss lady’s house. They pass by a cafe and have breakfast then get a taxi and go mtaani. The plan is to go to their base and drink some more. Once they get out of the cab, Ng’ash realizes that the sole of his shoe is coming off so he stops by a cobbler and tells the rest that he will join them in 15 minutes. No sooner had he removed one shoe than he heard gunshots.
“They were loud and successive; papapapapapapa!” he says. “I knew what had happened. I just knew it. The cops had laid an ambush,” he says. “I quickly snatched up my shoe and went to the scene to join the crowd. Five of the seven guys had been killed on the spot. Some had bullet holes through their heads, the back of their heads wide open. It was horrible. And you know what the cops do after? They leave the scene in their Landcruisers, leaving the bodies there. After an hour, they come for the bodies. The reason they do this is to pass a message.”
At this point a teenage girl shows up at our table. She has one of those braided mohawks. She says, “Hello, sir,” and Ng’ash says, “Hii, Nina? How are you? Good to see you! You have grown so big! Where are you now?”
“I’m at USIU,” the girl says.
“Meet my friends Biko and his son Kim.” [I’d just picked Kim from school, he was bored out of his bum.]
The punk rocker leaves and I find it so weird that this guy is actually a teacher! That he marks books. He has a red pen. “I’m a pretty good teacher, my class does pretty well,” he told me later.
Anyway, after his friends are slain, he goes home, removes his clothes, takes his time showering then he takes off. He goes to his mother’s house far away, to lay low. Njeri comes back in the evening and calls him. She tells him, “I saw your friends. They had been shot dead. I have seen your clothes here. They have mud, the same mud their shoes had. Ng’ash, you were with them. I can’t live with you anymore, not like this. I can’t live with a thief. I’m leaving. You either join my church and repent or I’m taking our three children away.”
By this time he already had a new teaching job with this nice school I mentioned up there. He chose to join the church to save his marriage. “I didn’t understand what I was doing,” he says. “Initially I joined the church to save my marriage, to be with my wife. I didn’t even know how to pray.”
The following week, he met his other boys at their base – Waruku on Waiyaki way – and told them that he was done. He had found the Lord. They laughed and said this wasn’t a matatu you just alight from. This was a brotherhood. He was under oath. “Did you not taste the blood of your brothers? You can’t leave. You can lay low, you can be with your lord, but you can’t leave.”
Then threatening phone calls started coming. “We will finish you if you walk away.” He had confessed everything to his wife and so she knew his predicament. She would pray for him and they would pray together for the men to back off, for peace, for his life.
“I lived in constant fear. I always watched my back. I knew one day they’d kill me. What terrified me was not knowing when and where it would happen. The how I knew; a gunshot. It would be a motorbike gunman probably outside my door,” he says. “I’d carry my gun to school.”
“What?!” I say surprised. “Where would you keep it?”
“I’d keep it in my locker,” he says, like you would say, “I kept the leftover beans in the fridge.”
I found that horrifying; that you could drop your child to school and leave them in the hands of a teacher who had a gun in his locker! A gun with bullets! Ng’ash would carry his gun everywhere, waiting for the hitmen to come. The waiting drove him mad. The phone calls wore him out. He eventually went to (the irony) a cop friend for help. The cop said he could only help if he gave up the men. This put him in a catch-22 because if he gave up the men, more would be sent to kill him for sure. Ng’ash refused to give them up. He reached out to an old acquaintance in the government, a man who straddles both the land of the law and the land of the underworld, a fixer. The acquaintance brokered a meeting with another kingpin who said he would fix Ng’ash’s problem. For 30K per person, he would send a rival gang- a kamjesh – to finish the men after him. The kingpin needed 10 men for that job. Ng’ash neither had the money nor wanted to have those men killed.
You must be thinking, but he could have gone to Jesus, right? Isn’t that what Psalms 25 says? Does David not say in verses 18-20, “Look at my trials and troubles/ forgive me for all the sins I have done/ look at all the enemies I have/ they hate me and want to hurt me/ protect me! Save me from them! I come to you for protection…”
“Eventually I went to boss lady in the slums. I went and begged her to call off her hitmen. She refused. She said it was complicated. That you don’t walk away simply because you’ve changed your ways. ‘You know too much,’ she said, ‘you are a problem now.’ I pleaded for my life, promised that I would not snitch on them, that I was putting my life in her hands and that my word was good.” She finally relented and promised to call them off under two conditions; one he gives her his gun. The other condition was that she would one day call him for a big favour and when that call came he would have to honour it. She said, “If you ever snitch on us, know that I can always leave this place and start off another life in a different part of town, but you? I will have you hunted down; I know where you live, I know where your children go to school, I know where you work, I know your wife’s workplace, we will come for you. You owe me, always remember that. One day I will call.”
He kissed her ring, like you would the Godfather’s and he was free. Kinda.
The phone calls stopped coming. Peace prevailed. Njeri’s prayers worked. That was X years ago.
Now they have four children. Ng’ash doesn’t look over his shoulders anymore. He wakes up and goes to teach. When he comes back home, he’s a father and a husband. He doesn’t miss the violence. “Only when someone wrongs me and I have to walk away, then the anger smoulders as I feel the temptation to go rogue again. But my wife’s words ring in my mind. ‘If you are tempted, remember the kids and I and that your actions, arrest or death will hit us the most. We need you alive.’ That calms me down. I then pity the person as they don’t know how close they were to pushing me to their hurt. I still carry something whenever I travel, go out with my wife or out on my bike. Old habits.”
“Do you miss the money?”
“Oh, yes. The pay I have is good and my wife makes good cash but I miss the lifestyle. I used to take her to town boutiques and ask her to pick as much as she wanted without checking the prices. I could also afford frequent travels with the family. Then again, that cash has no peace. You are always watching your back and are constantly on edge. If it were not for Njeri, I wouldn’t be alive today,” he says. “Through her I discovered church and although I initially joined it to keep her, I found the Lord in it. I repented and gave my life to Him. I’m now very free. I’m an involved father to my kids, a good husband ( I think) to Njeri and a great teacher to my students.”
“Did you manage your anger issues?”
“It’s taken so long to handle them, mostly through prayers. But I still have some residual anger issues, only that I now know how to contain them.”
“How did the anger play out in your marriage?”
“You know, with all the violence out there, I have never even pointed at my wife with my finger. But I’m the kind of guy who if you crossed you would never forget. I would plan on how I would hurt you, taking my time to plan everything to the last detail and then execute. My wife knew. Sometimes when she angered me, I’d not say anything, I’d wait for my revenge.”
“How would you revenge?”
“I’d wait until she wants me to do something for her, like take her to a wedding or shopping, then I’d just say I’m tired and can’t go. My vindictive strain is still there but I’m handling it better now. I’m very lucky to have a wife like her. There aren’t any lengths she hasn’t gone to for me.”
I asked him why he’s risking talking to me about his past. Why can’t he let it go and live a quiet life?
“I have accepted that they can kill me if they want to. I have accepted to live under the shadow of ‘you owe me.’ But I was prayed for and the oath cancelled. A friend told me to write a book but I can’t, so this is the closest I can get to a book. I also wanted to let people know that not everybody who joins a gang does so by conscious choice, circumstances are powerful. I think the story needs to be heard; what you were before shouldn’t hold you prisoner. I’m now a father, a husband and a kick-ass teacher. When I stand before my class it comes to life.”
“What will happen when boss lady calls you?”
He thinks about it.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen. I pray that she never has to call me, but I’m no longer afraid. I have no fear of what may happen to me because my life is in the hands of the Lord and my wife prays for me.”