By Judy Makori; Senior Writer MOHI on Dec 20, 2019 9:45:00 AM
Missions of Hope International (MOHI) has a skills training center where community members receive vocational training. The center located in Nairobi’s Kariobangi area has a number of courses available to both men and women.
It is a hot Tuesday afternoon when we visit the center. Our mission is to conduct interviews and take photos of the activities that go on there. One of the interviews we are set to conduct is that of Jill Chanzu who is studying the fashion and design course.
At first glance, Jill does not look like he could possibly have a tale to tell until he starts talking.
His story is one that is full of intrigue; with twists and turns that tell of a life lived on the edge. He may still be a teenager, but Jill has gone through experiences that some may not undergo in their entire lifetime.
This is his story.
A difficult childhood
I was born 19 years ago as the last child in a family of three boys. I was raised in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley by my parents who later separated and the three of us remained with our mother.
My mother was sickly and at some point she got really sick and had to move upcountry where there were people who could tend to her.
I went to live with an aunt who had 13 children of her own. I grew up calling her ‘mum’ because I ended up living with her for many years.
My aunt was not wealthy but she opened her door to me and treated me as though I was her child.
There were times we barely had enough to eat and once we had the landlord remove part of the roof when she failed to make the rent. It rained heavily that night and we had no choice but to sleep huddled together trying to stay away from the rain.
In 2006 when I was six-years-old, my aunt took me to MOHI’s Pangani center. Being in school became a lifeline for me because I was at least assured of two nutritious meals every day. When I got to grade five, I was moved to Joska boarding school where I sat for my primary school exit exam in 2013.
Being in a boarding school kept me shielded from some of the vices going on in my neighbourhood but it could not keep me away from all of them. I was a child seeking a place to belong and this led me straight into bad company, people who I considered my friends and who introduced me to smoking bhang, which is the local term for marijuana.
A crazy addiction
I was not a bad child but smoking bhang changed me. I became a person who became angry very easily and I was constantly getting into fights. I had started selling t-shirts to supplement my family’s earnings. I got really good at it and would often have money on me which made it easier to finance my bhang taking habit. It seemed the more bhang I smoked the more aggressive I got and the more fights I got into.
By the time I joined Ndovoini boys school for my high school education, bhang was part and parcel of my life. I was quickly becoming addicted and I would always look forward to going home over the school vacation so I could enjoy bhang. I joined the wrong company and was often at odds with the school administration due to my aggressive tendencies.
By the time I got to grade 10, it had gotten to where I could not function without using bhang. So desperate was my need for weed that I asked a student, who was going home for a short break, to bring me bhang when he came back. I did this knowing that his items would be searched once he reported back to school. I knew the risk but I was desperate.
Sure enough, when the teachers looked through his luggage, they found the contraband and when questioned, the boy revealed that I was the one who had sent him. I was already at loggerheads with the principal and I knew things would not go well for me. Rather than face the consequences, I ran away from school and made sure the social workers could not find me.
From bad to worse
During this period, my mother was doing better healthwise and she had come back to Nairobi. She had resumed her work as a salonist and I was living with her. I could not bring myself to tell my mother what had happened at school so I stayed away from home most of the time. I also managed to evade all her questions and to dodge the social workers who would come looking for me at home.
Come 2016, when I should have been going to grade 11, my mother became very sick once again. Her family came and took her away to the rural area. A few days later, two of her brothers - my uncles - came to our home to throw my older brother and I out. They said we were old enough to fend for ourselves without relying on our mother.
These men had always seemed to bear some kind of grudge towards us. We came to learn that it was because of the hatred they had towards our father who they accused of mistreating their sister. My father died in 2007 but my uncles were not willing to put aside their intense dislike of him. Instead, they took out their hatred for my father on us his sons.
When they started throwing our household items out, the confrontation became physical and I lashed out hitting one of them. They in turn unleashed a machete and wanted to attack me. I ducked and grabbed a piece of wood which I used to hit one of my uncles hard before I fled. Left without a place to stay, I went to seek refuge at my aunt’s home.
Although my aunt had offered me shelter when I was much younger, I felt that I could not keep on living with her now that I was older. I wanted to venture out on my own and be independent. I started doing casual jobs and became more aggressive in selling my t-shirts.
I started hanging out with thugs because they would buy my merchandise and we slowly started becoming friends. I noticed that they always had money on them and this got me interested, I wanted to know how they were making their money.
Initiation into crime
At the time I used to sleep out in the cold because I did not want to be an added burden to my aunt. It was during this time that I started stealing, I was desperate to be able to take care of myself. I joined forces with a boy who used to rob people using a knife. He was very cold and had no qualms about stabbing his victims if they did not cooperate.
This boy convinced me to set-up my friends so that he could steal from them and then we would share the loot. I did this for a while until I realised I no longer had friends because no-one could trust me. I had to change my approach.
I decided to change my base of operation from the neighbourhood where I was living to Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD). I had been doing my research and already had a buyer willing to purchase stolen mobile phones and laptops. These items were readily available in the CBD and I decided to make this my niche.
Relying on my agility, speed and strength, I decided to use the snatch and run tactic and I was soon pretty adept at robbing people. Very soon I was making a lot of money and started living the high life. I would spend money on entertainment joints and on women, throwing cash around to show my lavish lifestyle and make a name for myself.
The more money I made, the more greedy I became and the more daring my antics.
Pretty soon I was walking around with a Somali sword which I would wield at the slightest provocation or resistance. I could never bring myself to stab a person but it did not stop me from threatening my victims.
My activities soon attracted the attention of both the police and my fellow thugs. I started receiving respect from fellow hooligans who had initially dismissed me with some expressing their interest in working with me. I was keenly aware that the cops were after me and that made me jittery, constantly looking over my shoulder.
But, this did not slow me down. If anything, it gave me some kind of ego boost to think I had managed to outsmart and out manoeuvre the police. It seemed that I was on an upward rise and nothing could stop me. Well I was wrong.
No lesson learned
During a snatch and run escapade gone bad, I had my first taste of public wrath and escaped - barely. I nonetheless endured a thorough beating that made me think seriously about my life. This was the first time it hit me that the lifestyle I had chosen would lead me directly to my death - there was nothing good that would come from it.
That experience caused me to lay low for a while as I licked my wounds. When I felt strong enough, I decided to stop the snatch and run mode of operation and instead rely on smarts. I had still not learned my lesson.
I teamed up with a gang that was using guns to rob. We would hit businesses and rob them, we would target public service vehicles and rob the passengers at gunpoint. The amount of money we would make from these escapades was insane! It made me realise that what I had been doing before was child’s play. It made my thirst for robbery insatiable and I can say I became addicted to this lifestyle.
With time, I became a trusted team member and was entrusted with my own gun. I cannot even explain the kind of power boost I felt when I would see the fear in my victim’s eyes as I held the gun to their head. With the feel of the cold metal against my skin, I felt indomitable, untouchable.
During this time, my mother had recovered significantly and was back in Nairobi. While I did not live with her, I would use her house to hide my gun. She remained oblivious to my activities and although she questioned where I was getting the money to support her like I did, she believed me when I told her my t-shirt selling business was thriving. Little did she know that her son was not only a school drop-out but also a hardcore thug.
One day, I was at the club having my usual bhang smoking and drinking spree. I became very high and did not want to leave the club with my gun. I decided to confide with the barmaid that I had a gun and to request her to keep it for me with a promise that I would come to collect it the next day. She agreed but unknown to me, she gave my gun to another thug after I left the club.
I woke up to news that this well-known villain and his gang had been gunned down by police in a robbery gone bad. I was really shaken to learn that he had been using my gun when this happened. This caused me to take pause and consider my activities.
It was now towards the end of 2017. I had been robbing for almost a year. Within this period, I had seen very many of my friends killed by police and others by angry residents. I decided it was time to stop living this way.
I tried to make a clean break but the desire to commit crime was like a noose around my neck. I could not get away from it no matter how I tried - and I did try. I was like an addict in need of his daily fix, I eventually succumbed to the internal pressure and went back to my thieving ways.
Into the fire
This time I teamed up with a thug who would snatch bags from pedestrians and use his motorcycle to get away. We really terrorised residents and although we were not making as much as I did when I was a gun-toting thug, it was better than nothing. Or so I thought.
One day I attempted to rob a lady her handbag. She somehow managed to hold on to it and raised the alarm. I quickly got onto the bike but in our bid to escape, the bike hit a pothole and we could not get it out.
My friend asked me to get off in order to lessen the load and when the bike got back on the road, he took off without me. By this time, there was a huge crowd chasing after us and making a rather loud ruckus.
In certain areas, it's not uncommon for groups of people to take the law into their own hands. As a result crowds, or mobs, will often humiliate, hurt or kill an alleged criminal.
When my friend left me stranded and alone to deal with the mob, I took off running and found a place to hide.
Unfortunately, the mob spotted me and before I knew it, I had been dragged from my hiding place and thrown at the feet of these people who were baying for my blood.
I was beaten mercilessly; clobbered with whatever crude weapon they could lay their hands on.
My eyes were swollen almost shut, my lip was burst open, my ears were ringing, my legs were clobbered and I could barely stand. I was a bleeding, broken mass of human flesh. I knew right there that I was going to die in the hands of this angry mob.
In that situation, I remember that I cried to God. I told Him if He would save me from this mob that I would stop my thieving ways. God heard my prayers and sent help in the form of two security guards who saved me from the mob, locked me in a safe holding then called the police.
I was taken to the police station where the cops told me they were not going to deal with scum like me who had been terrorising people. They told me to tell them who my accomplices were and I kept on insisting that I was innocent; that I was a student and that it was a case of mistaken identity.
I ended up staying in the police cells for a whole week. They told me if I did not fess up to my activities, they would prefer robbery with violence charges against me which calls for life imprisonment. When they could not pin anything on me, they eventually let me go.
I had still not received any medical attention, had not been eating or sleeping properly while at the cell - I was a weak, broken mess in unbelievable pain.
I left that cell and went directly to my mother’s house. She almost had a heart attack when she saw me and I thank God for a mother’s love because she nursed me back to health.
During this time, I thought about what I had gone through. I thought about the friends I had lost and felt the sting of betrayal from one I thought was my friend but who had left me alone to face the wrath of a mob. I remembered my vow to God and promised myself that I would keep it.
But, as soon as I was strong enough - I was back to my thieving ways.
This was now 2018 and even though I was once again a thug, the taste of this lifestyle had started to lessen. I soon found that I did not find the same sense of exhilaration that I would in the past when a robbery was executed successfully. It seemed the more we stole, the more down in the dumps I felt and no amount of bhang smoking would lift my spirit.
The stench of death
At around this time, the guy who left me stranded after he took off with his motorbike was shot dead and soon after that a very close friend of mine was also gunned down. I also became sick, very sick with malaria.
I became bed-ridden, unable to move or do anything for myself. Once again, I was dependent on my mother’s help. I would lie in bed and find it ironic that me - a hardened criminal - would die from malaria and not from a bullet. I could literally smell the stench of death, it seemed my time had come.
Once again, I turned to God and asked Him to heal me, vowing to quit this lifestyle if He did. God is gracious because He heard me and He healed me. This time I was really done. The desire to rob had left me and I wanted nothing to do with that lifestyle. But, try as I might, I could not get away from the memories of the life I had lived.
During the day I was tormented remembering the things I had done and seeing the faces of the people I had hurt. At night I would hear voices telling me that I can never get away from this life. I would try to sleep and wake up choking.
I would sense the tangible presence of something evil that was mocking me; telling me I needed to go back to the job that was assigned to me and trying to smother the life out of me. I could not sleep, I knew no peace and the torment became too much that I started having suicidal thoughts.
Turning to God
Despite the darkness I was in, I knew my help would only come from God. I remembered how He had saved me numerous times and was convinced that He would hear me if I asked for His help. So, towards the end of last year, I woke up one Sunday morning, went for a church service and gave my life to Christ.
The first thing I experienced was peace. I had been without peace for so long I did not even know what I had been missing until I found it. The torment did not end immediately but it did not have a hold on me like it did before because each time I would sense it, I would read my Bible and pray out loud and it would flee.
I went back to selling clothes determined to make this my only source of income. I repaired the relationships I had broken with friends who I had set-up to be robbed. I eventually made the decision to leave the area where I was living and stay with my mother who lived in another part of Nairobi.
This was informed by the realisation that I was still within very close proximity of the people we used to thieve with and I wanted nothing to do with them. I was determined to make a clean break and live a life that glorifies God.
It was during this time that I reconnected with the people I knew at MOHI. Mrs Konje specifically played a huge role in helping me find my footing. She really supported my business by buying my merchandise regularly. She prayed with me and kept tabs on me, encouraging me that God has a plan for my life.
A new man
As I spent time praying and connecting to God, I started remembering that I would draw fashion designs when I was a child. I had always been fascinated by clothes and had a keen eye for fashion. When I shared this with Mrs Konje, she brought me to the skills training center in Kariobangi. I started the fashion and design course in February this year.
I can now honestly say that I am no longer the man I used to be. God has changed me from the inside out.
I was a person full of fear and rage. I was so paranoid and thought there was someone after me such that I could not relax; I was always jittery. I was hardened and cold - it was next to impossible to see a smile on my face.
Today, I smile easily, I am relaxed, I have no fear, I do not need to hide because nobody is after me. It feels good to know that I am living an honest life - I am no longer a criminal.
Although I am still a new believer, and I am still struggling in some areas, I have kept and will keep the faith.
On Friday November 15th, Jill was among the 31 students who graduated from the MOHI Technical Institute in our Kariobangi center. He looked resplendent in his graduation gown and wore his trademark bright smile.
Jill tells me that although he is not sure what will come next after this, he looks to the future confidently. He is putting his trust in this God who has brought him this far, believing He will make a way so he can earn an honest living.
We pray that you continue partnering with us as we work to bring holistic transformation to many other young people who, like Jill was, are caught up in a lifestyle they do not like but one they cannot break away from.
Your support makes it possible to rescue these precious souls and equip them with skills to help them make a better life for themselves.