At Eddie Baraza’s agent banking kiosk near Kayole One market, a highly reflective glass fortified with closely spaced two-inch steel bars and wire mesh ensures that he can see any customer who walks in. But the customer cannot see him.
To carry out a transaction, the customer slips his ATM card and ID through a small opening in the glass into which the hand of an adult can barely fit and says how much money he wants to withdraw or deposit.
A few seconds later, the Point of Sale machine appears at the hole, and Eddie tells you to key in your PIN to complete the transaction.
For the last seven months, his customers have not seen his face. And since the kiosk is in a residential flat, he uses the back door to enter and leave it, and only when necessary.
“I did this to protect myself from Gaza,” he said, referring to Kayole’s new, fearsome gang. “Initially I only had a wire mesh to protect me, but when I was approached one evening by three teenagers with knives demanding that I give them money, I had to do something.”
He lost Sh60,000 in that robbery, including the day’s profit, and it forced him to rethink his security.
Nevertheless, since last year business for him, as for most people in a similar position, has lost its allure, and he has even contemplated closing down.
“The gangsters know that unlike other businesses that sell goods or services, we deal with money. There are simply too many risks carrying out this kind of business in Kayole, and many have been forced to close shop,” he said.
The Sunday Nation has established that most businesses in Kayole close before darkness sets in while some, especially those dealing with money like mobile money or agent banking kiosks, have been forced to install extra security measures. Some have closed altogether or switched to other ventures.
A number of shops branded with mobile money logos are now selling different products. The owners say they opted out because of an upsurge in crime targeting such businesses.
The sudden increase in such crimes committed by teenagers has left everyone, including the police, baffled. Their darkest dealings often go unreported. And when they are, they often appear as routine muggings or murders committed by inexperienced gangsters when their victims refuse to cooperate.
On December 8 last year, a 14-year–old girl stabbed a man, killing him instantly. According to the police, the teenage accosted the man demanding his phone and money.
The man, perhaps thinking it was a joke being robbed by a girl young enough to be his daughter, did not take her demands seriously and tried to walk away. He was stabbed in the stomach several times and left to die, police say.
Kayole OCPD Samuel Mukindia described the incident as “a normal robbery”.
But then he confessed there were “a lot of unanswered questions because it is not normal for a grown-up to be robbed by a teenage girl and even get killed.”
Residents say the killing had all the characteristics of Gaza — a ruthless, mushrooming gang whose sophistication and brutality has been keeping Kayole and its environs in fear for the past year.
“These are not just kids; they are criminals with the bodies of people we think are our children,” said an angry Beatrice Kanini.
“They are everywhere from the buildings we live in to the markets we buy our goods from, and even in the schools that our children go to. And the police know they are there but do nothing.”
Using Kayole as a hub, the gang is thought to have silently recruited youths — mostly school dropouts — and used them to carry out criminal activities under the watchful guidance of its highly structured chain of command whose real leaders are unknown, even to some of its members.
Gang members are given assurance of protection by their leaders. In return, they share the loot with the gang’s honchos.
Like the many impoverished neighbourhoods across the broad expanse of Nairobi’s Eastlands where the hopelessness of the youth stares you in the face, Kayole has been a breeding ground for gang-related activities for a long time.
Investigations by Sunday Nation revealed a worrying development. The gang is now recruiting primary school pupils and is alleged to have scouts in every school in the area whose sole responsibility is to lure new members.
“New members are recruited by being told to be defiant,” the OCPD said.
“They start by being instructed to be disobedient. All this time, their leaders are watching, and once they successfully disobey their parents, they start disobeying teachers; those who have succeeded are taken for oathing in Dandora,” Mr Mukindia said.
Membership qualifications include being able to keep secrets. And since the recruiters are fellow students it is difficult to report them. Mr Tom Mwajera, the headmaster of Achievers Education Centre, an informal school in the area, said it is difficult to pinpoint students who have been recruited unless parents point them out.
“This is just a school, and the main business carried out here is learning.
“It is hard to tell who is Gaza and who is not since it is not written on their foreheads. We don’t have metal detectors to tell who is carrying a knife; but I have been told that some learners in local schools belong to the gang,” he said.
Some students in his school have recently reported being robbed of new textbooks on their way home at the beginning of the term by a gang of knife-wielding youngsters.
The books belonged to the school and to prevent further losses Mr Mwajera said he has no longer allows the books to be taken home, even though he knows this will negatively affect performance.
For a long time, Kayole had been associated with the Mungiki, a gang that levied protection fees on residents of areas that it controlled, matatu and business operators. But it is thought to have been crushed by the government but not before receiving widespread media attention.
At the height of its operations, the Mungiki is said to have had more than a million members, an elaborate tax collection machinery and a kangaroo court system; it was also implicated in the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
When the government launched a crackdown on the sect, most of its members went underground. Some were shot dead in confrontations with police or arraigned in court.
The resulting vacuum, as revealed by some of the gang’s members interviewed by the Sunday Nation, led to the rise of Gaza. It’s an offshoot of the Mungiki created last year by remnants of the sect, but it does not have an ethnic dimension like its predecessor.
Gaza takes its name from Portmore, a shanty town in Jamaica that is said to be controlled by a gang with a similar name that steals and kills at will under the command of Jamaican dancehall artiste Adjija Palmer Vybez Kartel who is currently facing trial in connection with two murders, illegal possession of firearms and armed robbery.
Though he has spent the last three years in prison, he is still considered the most famous artiste of the dancehall genre, and his music is hugely popular and has a huge influence among the youth.
The common denominator among Kayole’s Gaza is their love of dancehall music — a music genre originating in Jamaica that is associated with violence, bhang smoking, gang warfare, nudity and vulgarity that has become a fad among the youth in the area.
Most matatus, barbershops, salons, and bars in the estate are decorated with dancehall themes and play dancehall music round the clock.
Unlike the Mungiki, whose members often wore dreadlocks, it is hard to distinguish members of the gang from other youths by their appearance, although most prefer wearing caps facing backwards, carry concealed knives at their waists and have identification tattoos on their upper left arms usually inked when they are being oathed in a location that is a closely guarded secret in Dandora.
The tattoos are drawn with a hot wire and daubed with an ink solution.
“There are so many young people trapped in poverty and hopelessness facing police brutality every day, but Gaza offers you an option to either continue being poor or make some money,” said a member who said to call him Johnny.
“Furthermore, you are offered a family that you can fall back on whenever you have a problem. This is Kayole, and anything can happen at any time,and you need people to watch your back,” he added.
For two days, Johnny offered the writer access to some of the group’s activities such as extortion from matatus at Kayole One area and B3, although he claimed that they also extort money from other routes on Kangundo Road, as far away as Ruai.
Johnny sat with three of his colleagues in a hired van parked strategically on the road, chewing miraa and eating groundnuts as each passing matatu paid Sh100 for every trip. The van provided the perfect cover from the police or curious passers-by.
And for the whole day, not a single policeman demanded to know what the occupants of the van were doing there, although a police patrol van drove past every now and then.
“Each matatu that gives money is recorded, and at the end of the day we will reconcile our list with that of our patrol guys,” Johnny said.
The “patrol guys” he was referring to are members of the gang who pose as conductors on the street and demand “squads” – a mandatory temporary shift as either a conductor or driver to solicit a fee from passengers going to town from all the matatus that run in Kayole and its environs.
It is mandatory for all matatu crews to give “squads” to members of the gang whenever they make a round trip from town. Each squad is paid at Sh100 for a driver and Sh50 for a conductor.
Matatus that fail to comply are not be allowed to operate on the routes Gaza controls. The gang members who idle around all passenger pick-up points enforce such orders.
“Owners of all vehicles must pay operation fees before being allowed on the road, and all drivers and conductors must be vetted by them,” said Michael, a conductor on Route 17.
“If they don’t like you, then you better look for another job because you won’t be allowed to work. So in order to be in their good books, just give them whatever money they want.”
The police deny that matatu operators are being extorted and instead blame them for tolerating the gang by giving them money.
“I have not received any report of people collecting money from matatu operators. If there are any, let them come and report to us because we have a mechanism of getting those criminals,” said Mr Mukindia.
“And if there is any form of extortion, then the matatus are collaborating with those thugs. Why are they not reporting to us?” he asked.
A report by The National Crime Research Centre released last August listed Kayole as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Nairobi. The report called the area a gang infested area notorious for kidnappings, illicit arms trade, muggings and armed robbery.
According to the report, 50.2 per cent of criminal gangs engage in drug trafficking while 34.4 per cent engage in extortion of money while a further 33.2 kidnap for ransom.