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With school suspended, Kenya’s children become students of gang culture

“I have been earning at least 500 [Kenyan shillings] through the scams,” 13-year-old Brian* says. “Why do I need to go to school if I can already make what my mother makes in a day?”

This year Brian was supposed to complete class eight and proceed to secondary school. However, he does not see this happening, even when school reopens because, according to him, he has already achieved what school would give him. 

Criminal activity among children has increased in areas such as Kivumbini, Flamingo and Kwa Rhonda in Nakuru. These low-income estates have become hotspots for Confirm, a gang made up of young people that specialises in cellphone-based crime and phone- and bag- snatching. 

One popular scame is to send false messages, supposedly from M-Pesa, the mobile money service, to unsuspecting members of the public. The messages are designed to look like a genuine confirmation of receipt of funds. 

A gang member will then call the number and ask the unsuspecting victims to send back the “money”, claiming it was sent erroneously. Not everyone falls for the scam, but enough people do to make it a profitable endeavour.

The gang also snatches phones and bags from people in Nakuru and in some nearby neighbourhoods.

Members of the gang use boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) to carry out the snatchings. One person drives the boda-boda, while another sits at the back and does the snatching. They mostly snatch cellphones,which they then resell for a throwaway price. One gang member says a phone that costs Ksh20 000 ($200) in a shop would be sold for as little as Ksh4 000 .

A recent recruit to the gang is 14-year-old Christopher*. One of his first tasks was spying. He rode his bike around, spotted where the police had camped and alerted his bosses. He was tipped about Ksh100). Christopher says he does not feel any guilt because, unlike some gang members, he does not harm anyone. “I don’t hold a knife or a gun to anyone. I do not snatch from them.”

The Kenyan Constitution spares children who are eight years old or younger from prosecution. Children between eight and 12 year old must be subjected to questioning to establish whether they understand the repercussions of their contributions to crime.  

Some parents even know of their children’s involvement in the gang, but turn a blind eye because it helps them to meet needs in the home, they told the Mail & Guardian. In areas in which crime is rampant, some parents actually prefer that their children conduct telephonic crimes because they can stay at home.

But the consequences for the children involved are potentially very high. Because the government has directed that schools will reopen only in 2021, the remaining four months of the year might be too long to wait for redemption for some of the school-going gang members. Some might not make it back to the classroom — a catastrophic end to a snatching incident might find them holed up in juvenile detention, or worse.

This article first appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Pierra Nyaruai
Pierra Nyaruai is an agricultural blogger, farmer, and freelance journalist based in Nakuru, Kenya.

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