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‘The people have power’: Kenya’s gang leader turned community builder

After rising to the highest of the prison pyramid in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, George Okewa rejected violence in favour of native management

A Kenyan woman walks past a sign calling for peace in the Kibera slums, Nairobi, Kenya
 Ex-gang members are channeling their vitality into group initiatives similar to soccer, theatre and cleanup operations. {Photograph}: Paula Bronstein/Getty Photos

George Okewa as soon as terrorised his group. Spurred on by violence, drink and medicines, he believed that at some point his life-style would trigger his demise.

The day he met Kennedy Odede, that modified. Following the realisation that their strongest weapon was not weapons however communication, they now use their abilities to deliver peace and assets to Kibera, Africa’s largest slum.

George Okewa, a the one-time gang leader who is now director of community relations at local charity Shofco.
 George Okewa, a one-time gang chief, is now director of group relations at native charity Shofco. {Photograph}: Atieno Muyuyi/The Guardian

On the age of 11, Okewa’s willpower to hunt out a greater life whatever the penalties overcame his insecurities, and he selected to depart his household, his 27 siblings, and all he knew.

“I made a decision: let me discover one thing within the capital metropolis. Together with my elder cousin, we got here to Nairobi each on the lookout for alternatives. I wished a highschool training however wanted part-time work to complement our earnings.”

Nairobi was the pure alternative for Okewa, who had watched numerous others depart his village for “the large metropolis” and by no means return. One thing he by no means fairly understood, till he acquired to Kibera.

Alongside his 25-year-old cousin, Okewa’s naivety took him away from college into a lifetime of dishonesty and crime. Ambition drove him from gang foot soldier, to turning into one in every of Kibera’s feared “12 disciples of crime”, adopted by a job as Kibera’s ‘crime overlord’ – an ‘honour’ corresponding to that of a mafia godfather.

“Within the gang management there are buildings, you needed to present your self as dedicated. It’s a must to do it in the suitable means and be dedicated to their ideologies.”

As we speak Okewa is director of group relations for Shining hope for communities (Shofco), a 514-strong charitable organisation, which he co-founded with Odede in 2004. Okewa and his fellow disciples spend their time constructing relationships with the police and authorities in an effort to maintain Kibera’s younger folks alive and divert them from crime, whereas constructing infrastructure that helps Kenya’s poorest. Okewa’s first lesson to the youth: respect for oneself and for girls.

Well dressed, quietly spoken, Okewa is just not what you’d anticipate for an ex-crime overlord. Born in Siaya, western Kenya, he has lived in Kibera for 25 years. His father had three wives and couldn’t afford education. “My mom and two stepmothers labored laborious to supply for us, however the variety of mouths to feed meant that each one [their] earnings went on meals.”

The one place Okewa and his cousin may afford to stay in Nairobi once they arrived had been the slums. They rented a shanty and carried out small constructing jobs. Enrolled in highschool exterior Kibera, Okewa made a promising begin however quickly faltered as he tried to stability the necessity to earn cash in opposition to an training. As their dream of metropolis life slowly fell aside, disillusionment set in.

“For me there was little alternative. I began skipping classes for a life on the road and the cash it offered. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than I used to be immersed in Kibera’s gangs.”

Okewa’s transient encounter with training had at the least enhanced his communication abilities and, alongside along with his ambition to succeed, this offered him alternatives.

“Within the slums we had been highly effective folks ruling over our personal. We ended up forming our personal gang. We used to ‘tax’ folks to guard them in opposition to landlords, the federal government and anyone who was interfering with their lives. We weren’t good associates with central authorities, the native chief or police. We weren’t given recognition or alternatives. We ended up within the slums and so shaped our personal authorities,” says Okewa.

By 15, Okewa had been inaugurated as “Serikali”, or authorities – chief of the gang – having made most of his cash from contracts commissioned by rich people exterior of the slums.

“Doing safety within the slums was fascinating, however very harmful,” explains Okewa. “Wealthy folks will at all times rent you to do their jobs [criminal activities]. Perhaps they’re having issues they usually need to settle the trigger and also you’d get employed … the perfect or most well-known politicians know me by title, we’re nonetheless associates.”

Protestors run from police in Kibera slum, Nairobi, during a 2016 demonstration
 Election durations usually set off violent uprisings in Kibera. {Photograph}: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Photos

Not happy with being the chief of a small outfit, Okewa started taking management of rival slum gangs. Because the variety of foot troopers grew, so did the robberies, the beatings of ladies, gang rapes, confrontations with the police and involvement with politicians who used the slum gangs as pawns to affect voting throughout Kenya.

It’s the persistent political affect over the gangs that Okewa believes continues to make Kibera a tinderbox, triggering violent rebellion throughout the nation throughout election time and resulting in clashes with police and lack of life on each side of the divide.

Okewa recognized the gang leaders and made them a proposal. “We had been the top-ranking cupboard who can sit down and resolve what all the gang did, go raid or who to protect, relying on the pay. I didn’t contemplate myself the perfect, however I ended up being the chief.”

He was now head of the “the 12 disciples”. “You needed to show that you just had been on the high of your sport, use additional violence. It’s not all about being tough, killing or doing extra crime – it’s a must to present management, getting them collectively, giving methods on the way it can work, the way you don’t intrude with the lives of the widespread folks, however on the similar time getting a safety price … management traits. There have been jobs that we wouldn’t take as a result of it might make us look unhealthy within the eyes of the group, so the 12 would sit down and resolve on which jobs to take.

“The common lifespan in Kibera is at present 30 years nevertheless it was once youthful because of illness and gang violence,” says Okewa.

He has misplaced foot troopers up to now. “The police killed some, again then we thought we had been proper however we had been doing improper. Some misplaced their lives in fights and thru different gangs in different slums. They used knives and pangas [machetes], generally you’d rent weapons, however not a lot, as there are lots of unfastened weapons. When employed by purchasers or politicians, they might pay for weapons that may very well be delivered inside two hours”, he says.

“The cash we had been making was a lot, however we used it straightaway for medicine, drinks and girls; then we had nothing, and would say: ‘Lets go do one other job.’ I might get the cream of it,” he says. “We had been many, 30–40 from all of the villages.”

From a “job” that made 50,000 Kenyan shillings (£385), those that carried it out acquired 5,000 shillings and the remainder went to “the rank” – principally himself and the opposite disciples. With the proceeds Okewa rented his own residence from the place he additionally ran a small store, offering an air of respectability.

However that modified in 2004 when an equally clever and impressive younger man, Kennedy Odede, approached Okewa, hoping to hitch his gang. Okewa noticed one thing in Odede and refused, hoping to discourage him from a lifetime of crime. Okewa listened as Odede informed him of his dream to deliver peace and assets to Kibera, admitting his first thought was: “Who is that this man?” who appeared to need to overthrow his empire. Realising Odede had little interest in undermining him, he noticed a problem providing the chance he craved. The 2 males debated the longer term, whether or not it may be doable to make use of their abilities to divert younger males from violence “to construct constructive aspirations, hope and safety”. Collectively they hatched a plot to make good what had been unhealthy.

Kennedy Odede, entrepreneur and co founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a non-profit organisation that tackles urban poverty and gender inequity, poses for a photograph outside a shop bearing his organisation’s name in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya.
 Kennedy Odede, entrepreneur and co-founder of charity Shofco, had a ‘dream to deliver peace and assets to Kibera’. {Photograph}: Kate Holt/The Guardian