• Medical drug scopolamine is being misused to rob Kenyans
• Some victims share their testimonies and experts give advice
In September last year, Don Bosco Orina found himself standing next to a shop in Langata.
The Daystar University student could not explain how he ended up there.
The last thing he could remember was that he was in a matatu going home from school.
He had only one class on that fateful day, and so he figured he would head straight home since he had no other engagements in school.
“I boarded this matatu that was all pimped up. It was around mid-morning and as I entered the bus. I sat next to some middle-aged guy who had bloodshot eyes and unkempt hair,” he said.
Don Bosco says the man started asking him lots of questions and was annoyingly chatty.
“The guy was trying so hard to get my attention. It got to a point I was no longer responding to him because I suspected he had ill motives,” he said.
That’s all he can remember. As he found himself standing next to a shop in Langata, he fumbled in his pocket to get his phone, only to realise his phone, wallet and wireless earphones were missing.
“That’s how I realised I had actually been drugged and mugged at the same time. I was feeling nauseous and I had a headache. I borrowed a phone and shared the ordeal with my mum and she immediately came to my rescue, after which we headed straight to the hospital,” he said.
Incidents of Kenyans being drugged and mugged have been on the rise, with experts blaming it on a medicine called scopolamine.
Daniella Munene, the vice president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya, said the trend is fuelled by easy access to the medicine.
“That type of crime is increasing because these drugs are becoming more and more available. Number two, not all pharmacists are practising ethically,” she said.
Corporate MC Israel Lugadiru* (not his real name) had a close shave with this mode of robbing.
In November 2021, Lugadiru was in a matatu with his earphones on. He was on his way to work.
“I was just listening to some upbeat music and I remember there was this lady seated next to me who also seemed to be minding her own business. Oddly enough, I noticed she was looking at me out of the corner of her eye,” he said.
For minutes on end, they were stuck in traffic and he was running late for work. He suddenly had a choking sensation in his throat.
“I suddenly started feeling dizzy and started coughing uncontrollably. I opened the window and stuck my head outside as I gasped for air. The whole time I could feel the lady seated next to me nudging me, desperately trying to get my wallet,” he said.
He quickly sprung up from his seat and moved to the seat next to the door. This drew the passengers’ attention and they all immediately knew something was amiss.
“I did not even cause a scene, I just alighted at the very next stage, which was where I was a stone’s throw from where I worked at the time. I knew without a doubt that I had missed being drugged by a whisker,” he said.
In June 2020, two robbery suspects were arrested in Narok town moments after they blew scopolamine on an M-pesa attendant, Margaret Mantaine, and stole Sh400,000 from her shop. The two men tricked the woman into believing they were customers seeking to record a transaction.
In Kenya, scopolamine is used chiefly in surgical procedures, but it has been found to be a dangerous drug in the wrong hands used mainly to commit criminal acts.
Scopolamine has been nicknamed the Devil’s Breath due to its dangerous side effects. When it is blown on the face, it hypotises the victim and leaves them in a zombie-like state with no ability to control their actions.
This leaves them at risk of having their bank accounts emptied, homes robbed, raped by a street criminal or mugged while commuting.
Scopolamine, is odourless and tasteless. This makes it hard for the victim to easily detect. When blown into the face of a victim, they are under the influence in a matter of minutes, becoming easy prey for a robber.
Devil’s breath is said to cause hallucinations and eat away at the victim’s free will. It is also highly likely for amnesia to occur, leaving the victim unable to recall events or identify perpetrators.
The drug can be administered in several dosage forms, including oral, injectable and a transdermal patch.
Accounts of scopolamine being used in Nairobi, especially on unsuspecting commuters, are available on a grand scale.
Mberia Gitonga, a security expert and the founder of Universal Safety Centre and Consultancy, said attackers will always study their targets and calculate accordingly.
He recommended several measures to protect oneself.
First, have a safety procedure and plan your activities beforehand. This includes where you will go, who you will be with and how long your stay will be.
“Let your close friend be aware of your movements at any given time. If you feel intoxicated or drowsy despite not having abused any substance, seek help immediately,” Gitonga said.
He also advised sticking with people you are familiar with and who are protective of you.
“Always watch your drink. Leaving it unattended may increase the chances of having it spiked,” he said.
Finally, you should practise situational awareness and be wary of those you are seated next to who have suspicious behaviour, particularly in an Uber, matatu or house parties.