“I’ve done all that shit.”
40-year old Steve Kyenze’s matter-of-fact response to me as I shoot questions at him about his past. Specifically, whether he has been in prison. Whether he has served time in prison. Was he addicted to drugs? What’s the worst crime he committed?
His voice when talking about his past gives away the emotion of a person who has told his story before. His tone is even, rising and falling for emphasis on the lessons he wants to leave with me, but without exaggerating anything.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this man has seen it all. The tall chocolate brown man, now a father of three, had escaped death on several occasions, when he was a gun-toting gangster, preying on Kenyans in different cities and towns across the country. The confessed drug-trafficker talks about the crimes he committed, the people he was responsible for getting hooked on hard drugs, and the people he seriously injured in numerous robberies. That’s all behind him now, he says. Steve Kyenze is now a youth mentor, trainer and human rights defender, living in Kibera, the same neighbourhood where his past reputation was built.
We are seated in Kyenze’s art gallery, the Nyota art gallery from where he gives lessons in art and music to young people from backgrounds like his. Kyenze’s father died early, leaving his mother to raise him. Then she died. Kyenze dropped out of school at an early age before joining the streets. Many of the young people who drift in and out of his care are living versions of Kyenze’s story.
Without parents, brothers or sisters and no breadwinner, he struggled to make ends meet. An empty belly and many hungry nights were common. It wasn’t long, Kyenze says, before he would start using drugs, “to escape my life.”
In 1993, Kyenze was young, without support or direction, smoking marijuana and cigarettes, and drinking. Advice from friends would lead him to crime. Kyenze became a master in petty crimes, and the mega-slum, Kibera became his new hideout.
A few years later, Kyenze had begun using hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. By this time, he had also met all sorts of criminals, who influenced his becoming a drug trafficker. He knew and worked with Arabs, Nigerians, Tanzanians and fellow Kenyans in illegal drug networks, who he says worked closely with rogue Police to serve demand and supply for the drug market. Money was good.
“Kila Wednesday lazima ungetoa posho. You fail, Unashikwa! (Every Wednesday, you had to pay a bribe to the police. You fail, you get arrested!)” says Kyenze. This isn’t to say that as long as you paid up, you’d deal drugs without problems. Drugs are illegal, and the police were pursuing traffickers like Kyenze on a daily basis. Soon, Kyenze’s commitment to hiding his trade would push him to do dark things.
Concealing the drugs he sold was made easier by hiding them inside his children’s diapers.
“You just needed to fix the product well and travel with the kid to the point of delivery, nobody checks inside the children’s attire” Kyenze reiterates. Despite the risks, the business became bigger.
“We made money! I could afford to spend Ksh. 20, 000 per day”.
The well established and dangerous criminal gang visited Cities and towns such as Mombasa, Malindi, Ukunda, Nakuru, Voi, Machakos to commit crime and traffic drugs. They had guns, pangas and knives. Again, he claims that most guns were hired from the police officers. “We ate together with the police, Hakuna crime hufanyika na karao huwa hawajui (no crime is ever committed without the knowledge of the Police). Especially the officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation-DCI and the anti-narcotic departments” says Kyenze.
Co-operation with rogue Police officers, Kyenze remembers, gave them a sense of security in criminality. He claims that his gang could hire any type of gun from specific police stations, and bribe to bail out arrested accomplices. “Hata watu tulikuwa hata tunawatoa kwa cell (we would take our accomplices out of Police cells ourselves), every week” adds Kyenze.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing though. Kyenze remembers one instance when a Police officer who allegedly wasn’t on his network’s payroll demanded Ksh. 200,000 as a bribe to release a member of his gang. The man had been arrested at a time when their Police partners were not on duty. That was not the worst of his life in crime.
He has seen his friends killed in gunfights against the Police, with others serving time behind the bars. For a while, Kyenze was able to evade arrest and jail time. Kyenze tells me he escaped Police custody on several occasions and was once listed among Kenya’s most wanted criminals in the late 2000’s.
“Niliona imekuwa noma sana hata nikaanza ku-hide-hide (Things got so bad for me that I had to start hiding from the Police), it wasn’t easy man” says Kyenze. He was living free, but even he knew that his time outside confinement was borrowed. Soon, the noose grew tighter.
One day, his drug trafficking team of five men and one lady was set up by a rival ‘Mzungu’ (his crew’s slang name for a drug lord). Kyenze’s rival controlled a certain territory in the city, and was uncomfortable with competition. It was late afternoon, and they were packing drugs in preparation for their users when they heard a knock on the door. The Police had come for them.
“There was silence, you could only hear cockroaches and bats”.
It was a tense moment in the room. They shot knowing looks at each other without uttering a word. There was nowhere to hide in the small cubical. Kyenze says he gathered the courage to creep towards a window and peep through a sliver in the curtain. He saw three uniformed Police officers, armed to the teeth, ready for action. It looked like there was nowhere to go, he remembers. Just then, Kyenze noticed that all three officers were carrying G3 rifles with them. These were standard issue rifles that beat policemen carried with them. They are powerful weapons, but difficult to manoeuvre in tight spaces or in close combat. His only chance would be to count on a slowed reaction from the Police owing to their guns.
“Fungua mlango! (Open the door!)” the policemen barked from the other side of the door. He unlocked the door and waited for the inevitable. The door was kicked in, and fire breathing Policemen burst into the room. The drug peddlers created a distraction, and Kyenze acted as if he was going to snatch the gun from the first officer, and the officer recoiled, pulling the gun away from Kyenze.
“At close range, the Police couldn’t shoot and I knew that. They all held their guns close to their chests, and within a second I was nowhere to be seen. I escaped,” says Kyenze.
Some of his friends got arrested that day, and are still in prison.
Kyenze made what was to him a lucky escape, but luck would soon run out. One moment Kyenze won’t forget is when he got rearrested while trying to escape while being taken to court.
Kyenze had mastered the art of picking handcuff locks and fleeing, but this was not his day.
He draws a long breath, looks me in the eye and goes straight to the hardest memory from that day:
“I was beaten, Oh my God! I cannot forget, it was a very painful experience.”
He was then taken back by the police to a nearby station, with the armed officers hurling all manner of insults in between kicks and blows. “Wapi ile mtu ilikuwa inatoroka? Leta yeye kipande hii Afande! (Where is that man who tried to escape? Bring him here!”) Kyenze mimics one of the officers heavy accent, perhaps to bring some light to a very dark memory for him.
The officers would spend what felt like an eternity thoroughly beating Kyenze.
“I faked unconsciousness and they slowed down, it was the only way to save my life, perhaps I could have been killed under the law enforcers’ custody,”Kyenze says. At this point in our conversation, his glassy eyes danced in their sockets, as if to say that there was yet one more memory he wanted to talk about on his long road to Damascus. Another breath, then Kyenze launches into his past once more.
His worst memory from his time as a gangster was when he saw one of his friends burnt to death by a mob. Beka is the only person from his past who he calls by name in our conversation.
“What pained me most about Beka was me seeing his brother watching helplessly as Beka died slowly, with people celebrating while chanting Mwizi! Mwizi! Achomwe! Kufa kabisa (Thief! Thief! Burn him! Die!) I shed tears”. Kyenze’s voice is now deep and solemn.
The year 2012 marked Kyenze’s turning point. He says he finally understood the saying, a crime against one person is a crime against all. Kyenze says he called a meeting with himself, quietly listened to his inner voice, and chose to visit the Kenya Assemblies of Gods Church in Kibera (Olympic). He engaged a Pastor, Eliezer Kiratu, over his decision. He confessed, quit crime and dedicate his life to God and service to humanity.
According to Kyenze, his Pastor was very patient with him.
“It’s good you’ve decided to change, what can you do?” He recalls Pastor Kiratu asking.
“I have a talent” He replied. “Art”.
Pastor Kiratu offered him a cleaner’s job at the church, also giving him a token of Ksh. 1,000 to feed his family and buy some paint for his art gallery. Months later, Kyenze joined the church choir.
“Slum tourism” helped Kyenze get to where he is today. A Belgian tourist, impressed by his work, bought some paintings from him for exhibition in Belgium. He invested the money from that sale in the art gallery we are sitting in for this conversation:
“I officially saw the light and quit cleaning for art”.
He partnered with a local foundation, the Uweza Foundation, to teach art to children. He got inspired by the outcome (together, they trained 20 children) and became more ambitious. In the same year, he founded the Nyota Art. His greatest motivation was to help in changing the society that he believed he had hurt through his actions.
“ I decided to give back to the society because I was part of spoiling it through crime and drugs”.
“I have hurt people, I influenced innocent people into drugs and they ended up becoming zombies” he says with regret. Kyenze has since extended an olive branch to ‘enemies’ and created new friends.
“I thank God that I’m alive, niliacha ujinga (I stopped my foolishness), I have reconciled with people who knew my past and we forged a new relationship” adds Kyenze.
“Nobody is beyond redemption”.
The ex-criminal believes that God Give him a lesson and transformed him to his current reformation. “I compare my life to the biblical transformation of Saul to Paul,” says Kyenze. “I don’t have a car but I have a clean life, that’s all I can say”.
Kyenze’s art gallery has since expanded to accommodate the increasing demand for his pieces from art lovers, also becoming a space for young men and women living difficult lives in Nairobi.
He practices and offers lessons in fine art, abstract art, graffiti, murals, digital photography and digital painting to earn a living. He also does graphic design and music production that has seen several talented creatives from Nairobi’s informal settlements discovered. Their work is usually displayed on their online page, Nyota Art Gallery where clients can place orders. They range from Ksh. 30,000 to Ksh. 200,000.
In 2014, Kyenze was selected by Google as one among the top ten entrepreneurs in Africa for transforming his community. His creative artistic work has also seen him participate in a human rights defenders exhibition by the University of New York dubbed ‘expressing through art’ among other exhibitions.
However, he notes that some young people aren’t able to quit hard drugs due to addiction and poverty. He points out idleness as a major factor leading to criminality. He says the biggest challenge in the slums is lack of skills, lack of income and police harassment.
Steve Kyenze turns to his hopes for the future, best expressed through his wishes for his three children. He wants to see his children outgrow peer pressure that lures young people into drugs and crime. They all know his past and his future ambitions.
“My daughter in class 7 doesn’t like that I no longer sing at the praise and worship team, but I stopped being in the choir after some church members started discriminating me,” says Kyenze. He hasn’t completely outrun his past, but maybe his children can.