By Florence Ndung’u – Bird Newsroom
For many people, photo albums are a personal reference to the past that brings back fond memories of places and times spent with family and friends.
But for John Ochieng, known as ‘Chair’, a former mobster turned boxer, turning the pages of his album brings back traumatic memories. Many of the young men in the photos are no longer alive.
Raised in Githurai, an area of northeastern Nairobi known for decades for its criminal activity, life threw few options Ochieng’s way. Without a decent education, the allure of crime became hard to resist.
To survive the fears of their deprived existence, Ochieng and his peers formed gangs and spent most of their early years terror on the inhabitants of Githurai, taking the area’s prominence in the 1980s, 1990s and early years. endorsed in the 2000s. one of the most dangerous places in the city.
“Growing up in Githurai was not easy. There was a lot of drugs and crime,” Ochieng recalled during an interview with the Thailand Boxing Club.
Before 1998, “Chair” and his friends used their boxing skills both to survive and to perpetuate violence. Today they say they use the same tool to right the wrongs they have done to the community.
“It was mainly used for defense and causing chaos in Githurai,” Ochieng said, adding that identification with the gangs and criminal activity was his only option if he wanted to stay alive.
“Joining our ‘big brothers’ was the only way to survive,” witnessed Victor Kubasu, another reformed former mobster and currently an administrator in the Kiambu County Governor’s Office.
According to Kubasu, many young people would have liked to go to school there were no role models and many fell easily into the attraction of crime as a way of life. “The people who came before us were not good role models. We used their system to fit in,” he said.
At that time, the Kenyan Police had formed several units to neutralize the increasing crime in the city. The Flying Squad, the “Kwekwe (Weeds)” and the Eagle Squad are today charged with the extrajudicial killings of hundreds of suspected mobsters after the units were called in to neutralize the gangs.
The Githurai bus stop was the center of much of the action. For decades, the stop served as a jumping-off point for young men, many who came to the city to start a new life, others who turned to crime and harass passengers.
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It is also a suitable transitional phase for many entering the job market, providing both small business opportunities and employment opportunities at the hundreds of informal kiosks that line the area’s streets. It is also here that young men earn a living guiding passengers to the waiting vehicles.
It was no different for Chair and his circle of friends. However, there was one problem. The stage was manned by hardcore criminals, who lured teenagers like him to crime.
“We had to follow in their footsteps to fit and work with the stage (bus stop). You were part of the system or became their prey,” Ochieng said.
In 1996, another illegal group in Githurai rioted – the feared Mungiki – which is said to have been at the heart of many of the atrocities committed during the post-election violence of 2007/08 that killed more than 1,000 people. thousands displaced and property worth millions of shillings destroyed.
The new outfit took over the stage, ousting the Kona Mbaya gang to which Ochieng belonged, on the pretense that it would eliminate crime from the stage and the neighborhood at large.
As a result, the community gathered their support behind the Mungiki, forcing the Kona Mbaya gang to withdraw.
For two years, Chair and his friends had nowhere to go or earn a living, leading to one of the fiercest gang battles ever seen in Githurai.
“I led the Kona Mbaya gang in beating the Mungiki. But to keep working on stage, we needed society to accept us. We had to change our ways,” Ochieng said.
Without choice, Ochieng would begin to wipe out the gangs that refused to embrace change, all in an effort to gain the trust of the community and the authorities.
“We have taken it upon ourselves to arrest those who commit a crime and take them to the police station,” he said.
Romantic relationships between men and women in Githurai also offered some protection to families whose daughters were affiliated with the gangs.
Ochieng met his wife, Elizabeth, with whom they have two girls, in 1999. Right now, crime decreased and some people like Kubasu and Ochieng were reforming, thanks in part to the government’s crackdown on the gangs. But gang leaders like Ochieng still offered significant protection.
“In order for a girl to be safe, you had to date one of the gang members. I had no choice but to become Chair’s wife,” said Elizabeth. Though her parents opposed the relationship, the union offered Elizabeth protection to her family, especially against those who chose not to reform and instead joined other gangs in areas like Dandora and Kibera.
Crime – and punishment – also increased when some unreformed members of the Kona Mbaya gang were introduced to guns. Most of them died from the gun when undercover “assassin brigades” launched an offensive against them. “It was so painful to lose our friends. One minute you’re with someone, the next they’re gone,” Akubasu said.
As this unfolded, Ochieng met a boxing coach and his life changed. He took his boxing to a very high level and later founded the Thailand Boxing Club.
Today, Ochieng spends three days a week at the Githurai Social Hall training budding boxers. As a result, many school-aged children are kept away from social problems through training and sparring tournaments.
“The first thing we do is discipline them when they participate in training. When they get here, they respect their coaches. They also love each other. We tell them that if they commit crime there, we can’t be friends. We have former boxers who are now employed by police forces and parastatals. That’s very encouraging for the young men and women,” boxing coach Timothy Oketch said.
“The chairman has been very consistent. He has helped many school-age children to keep busy. I’ve known him for a while and it’s hard to believe he’s a reformed criminal,” added Jura.
The real transformation can be seen in the impact Ochieng has made in his community through training and boxing tournaments. Robert Gachohi Ng’ang’a is a 20-year-old boxer, born and raised in Githurai. He was introduced to the sport at the age of 12.
He is one of the few young men and women to benefit from the Mtaani Impact Project founded by Ochieng. The program is intended to give young people the opportunity to develop their talents. “If I hadn’t boxed I would have been in bad company. The sport has taught me to be disciplined,” said Robert.
When Ochieng and two other Reformed gang members became devout Christians and were “saved,” even his wife Elizabeth was shocked. She said she laughed at him the day he told her, “Nimeokoka” (which loosely translates as “I’m saved”).
Ochieng now serves as an assistant pastor at Victory World Outreach Kenya Church in Githurai 45. However, residents of Githurai are wary of the former mobsters’ ability to bring about lasting change.
“A leopard never changes stripes. It is very hard to believe that a known criminal gang member has changed his or her ways. They have to prove themselves over time before I can trust them,” said a Githurai resident (name withheld), sentiments echoed by an entrepreneur in the area (name withheld).
“When they reform, we’re happy for them, but there’s always a fear that they’ll do the same things again. We are still afraid of them, even though they say they have completely changed. We’ll have to wait and see if they keep their word,” said the entrepreneur. He argues that sport in itself is not enough to clean up the years of crime in his neighborhood.
“Sports play an important role in helping young people fend off crime and drug abuse. However, is it sustainable? Could it be an alternative source of existence? I do not think so. Even if they train and go back home not to find food, they will be tempted to go back to their bad habits. Basic structures need to be put in place and stakeholders need to work harder to improve the state of boxing and sport in general,” said the resident.
However, both Kubasu and Ochieng offer a different point of view. “We have young men who have boxed and are doing well now. Many have been recruited into the military, the police,” Kubasu said.
“Change takes time… For some it is a process, but in the end we achieve the desired result,” says Ochieng. The busy gym of the Thailand Boxing Club shows that there are plenty of young men who want to prove him right.
**This story was created from clips from a video project being developed by the author.**
bird story agency