• They are members of 3 West, an organisation of 24 reformed criminals in Kibra who call themselves Big Brothers.
• Women are the criminals easiest targets due to their vulnerability. Soweto is one of the most dangerous places for non-residents.
Jonas Ombathe is an enterprising young man from Soweto in Kibra constituency.
Until four years ago, Jonas was a notorious criminal specialising in muggings. He chose to be a criminal after high school due to poverty and joblessness.
“We never spared even ‘mama mbogas’. We waylaid them especially in mid morning as they came from the market. I used to threaten them with knives and guns,” Jonas recalls.
But for him, things changed after two of his friends were killed by the police and the mob. "I did not see any point of risking my life. That is when I reformed,” he said.
Soweto criminal gangs easily pick out those new to the area any time of the day. Visitors are regarded as ‘hot cakes.’
The criminals approach the visitor beseechingly to borrow his/her phone to make an emergency call to a ‘relative’, claiming to have lost theirs.
If you fall into the trap, the criminals simply walk away with the phone and melt into the populous slum. If you refuse to give them the phone, they beat you and rob you in the open.
Women are their easiest targets.
Soweto is not only dangerous to pedestrians but also to motorists in private vehicles.
The criminals purposely create a traffic situation while inspecting what valuables you have in the car.
Woe unto you if the car window is open or the car door is not locked. They will simply pick the valuables and walk away.
Other criminal activities are pathway gambling, notoriously known as karata (pata potea); and theft of copper wires for sale at between Sh400 and Sh800.
Jonas was part of that life. He has since reformed and is now a car washer.
He is glad that his life has changed for the better. He is happy too that the community he used to steal from has accepted him.
The former criminal is a member of 3 West, an organisation that encourages self-employment for reformed gangsters such as car washing and boda boda operation.
3 West has a membership of 24 reformed criminals in Kibra who call themselves Big Brothers.
The organisation's leadership identifies a reformed criminal by a pair of shoes hang on an electric post.
Kevin Bernard is the chairman of 3 West. He told the Star he approaches criminals through information provided by the public.
“We conduct a search and give them advice on the dangers of crime before offering them job opportunities. We inform the police on whoever refuses to listen and he/she is arrested,” Kevin says.
The organisation assures those reformed of their daily bread. "However, we are facing the challenge of space. It is tiny and can only fit about 10 cars,” the 3 West boss says.
They have sought support from the government and non-governmental organisations. They also require more equipment to attract more youths to abandon crime.
On average, each member makes Sh500 daily. The most important thing is the trust created between themselves and clients - owners of the vehicles they wash.
Covid-19 has slowed business. They are yet to figure out what to do to ensure steady business.
What they know is that they will never return to the life of crime.
- mwaniki fm