disruption rethinking stories and histories

a thief is made, they don’t become one by mistake

“A thief does not become one by mistake. A thief is made.” This is one of the conversations I have just had with a youth empowerment and alternatives to crime activist on my first day at a non-violent communication training. Within the past few hours I have met 2 people, including the activist, who are from Ongata Rongai, the town on the outskirts of Nairobi where I was born and brought up.

Mabera, the activist, shared his story of growing up with ‘neglectful parents’. At a young age he would regularly sleep away from home, in market stalls and such. On his return home say after a week, his parents would not mind or try to find out where he had been. He would run away from school often, and even when he got to high school, he was expelled from 8 different schools. But through an organisation that he met after high school he began to reform his life.

By his own admission, he would not be alive today were it not for the fact that he had gone to school, even if with much difficulty. As we sat around the table after supper he gave us a profile of just how a thief is made, one that is pertinent in a Nairobi rocked by the extrajudicial killing of 2 young men in the Eastleigh neighbourhood. One doesn’t start off by stealing, Mabera says. On the roads you see children selling groundnuts, and this gives kids the first taste of money. Soon after, the child will stop having their meals at home, and begin eating in hotels. They won’t come back home in the evening, but choose to sleep elsewhere. Once they grow older the children will no longer be able to sell groundnuts (there’s an aspect of pity or cuteness that makes Kenyans buy groundnuts from children. At Galleria Mall I have seen older siblings instruct the younger ones to do the selling since people buy more from the younger kids).

At this point, they will upgrade to larger items to keep cash incoming. The child begins by selling things that they find and pick up from their parents’ house, from the neighbours, and eventually from the whole community. They don’t go straight away to mugging. But once they develop a body that can fight then they will begin to wait for you at night and steal from you violently with whatever rough tools they have. “You know the thing with money,” Mabera reflects, “is that once you have some you want more.” So the no-longer child begins to wonder, where can I get a pistol so I can get more money. They target people with cars driving into their houses at night and mug them (my family has experienced this kind of mugging in part due to the drunken shouting of a family member driving in at 3 am).

In 3 years, Mabera estimates that his medium-sized community in Ongata Rongai witnessed the killing of more than 60 youth (in my part of Rongai, a few years back my brothers and other men formed a neighbourhood patrol because muggings were happening left, right and centre). It is in part this stark reality of extra-judicial killings, along with his own personal history that drove Mabera to start the Crime si Poa initiative (Crime isn’t Cool). Through this initiative youth come together and are offered alternatives to crime such as developing talent, support to go back to school and mentorship. His initiative also works with parents to sensitise them on the need to support their children in seeking education. In research that Mabera and his organisation did into the causes of crime in Ongata Rongai, they found that contrary to what many would think, the vast majority of what pushes children and youth into crime isn’t poverty but neglect. I wondered about what makes parents neglect their children and he answered that in part the parents don’t value education. They don’t push their children to go to school, and may tell them “after all, I didn’t go to school and I am surviving, so what’s the big deal?”

I would like to think more on this and welcome your thoughts.

If criminals don’t exist by mistake and are made, I want to believe that parents aren’t neglective by mistake and want to wonder what makes parents neglective.

What I think is true is a community wide shift is required. Mabera says that one of the things they do with youth who are beginning to turn to crime is to “ambush” them and have a dialogue with them. Because of his past and personality, these youth respect him and those he works with and listen. This idea of the need of parenting also puts me in mind of a talk by Nikki Silvestri in which she shared that when her father contemplated what his contribution to his African-American community was going to be, he decided that the answer was to be a parent. So he converted his family (with his biological children) into a foster family and ran a foster home in which he parented African American youth, in particular boys.

I remember a time when I would say that I raised myself. In my early years my parents were not often home, both of them working and the structure of my school holidays was such that I would often be home for long periods alone. Once when I snuck out of the gate to go play with the neighbours having found the keys, my mum found out and I was beaten….(I still remember the tree branch had no leaves after she was done). Having nothing to do and not being allowed to go out I turned to stealing my brothers’ school textbooks and reading these to keep myself occupied. I built up an imagination and an awareness of the world outside. My parents’ favourite story to tell is that I could tell all the countries and capitals of Africa on a map at age 5….which was thanks to the class 7 Primary English textbook which contained a map of Africa. And until high school I wanted to be an astronaut, thanks to a story in the class 8 textbook. Good can come out of troubled times. Had I not learnt to love reading from this early age, I don’t think any of where I have been would have happened.

When I think of Mabera’s story, I can see how his hardship is serving as a beacon for other youth in similar circumstances. He tells a story of a young boy who had funding support to go to school but was skiving. He had a stern and then a loving talk with this schoolboy. At the end of the loving talk in which he shared his personal story, Mabera says, the boy was on his knees and promised to go to school.

Talk to me