From life of crime to environmentalist: the man cleaning up Dandora is on a mission

EVANS OTIENO reformed from crime to environmental conservation. He narrates his journey from grass to grace:


How did you end up in crime? 

I was born and raised in Dandora way back in the nineties. Growing up in slums came with its own challenges. I lost both my parents at the tender age of 10, that’s when I was in Class Three. Two years later, my elder brother who was caring for us also passed on. Having been left with my younger sister, survival was tough; we had no one to look up to, so crime was the only way that we could survive. Unfortunately, I was deep inside a toxic environment where no one could warn me of the pending consequences. So I got into crime fully and that’s where my source of school fees and food came from.

How was your life as a criminal? 

It was the most dangerous life I have ever lived. I used to lose friends each and every passing day. It reached a point where death became like a church service; we would attend a funeral every week.

It never frightened you that you might be next? 

When I lost my parents and my brother, I had nothing to live for. Death never scared me, I was ready to die. I had already given up on life, so death was just an ordinary thing to me.

Did you ever think about changing your ways? 

It was not really an option for me. However, all the times that my friends were killed, we were never together; the incidents either happened when I was off-mission or I was in a different place. But the one that shook me and got me to think twice about my life was when I witnessed my two close friends taking their last breaths after a botched deal.

What exactly happened?

I had gone on a mission with my two friends where we stole phones and some cash, and then we left heading to our dealer who used to sell for us the stolen items. We did not know that we were being followed. But a few minutes after we had arrived at the dealer, I just felt an urge to go for a short call. I excused myself and in the blink of an eye, my two friends were already surrounded by a mob. Before I could realize what was going on, they had been killed and burned to ashes.

What happened next? 

At that moment, some people recognized me from the crowd and pointed out that I was part of the gang. But miraculously, I took off at lightning speed. The angry crowd followed me baying for my blood. Luckily, I managed to survive after disappearing within the dingy mabati houses.

What did you do after this? 

I went into hiding in Mathare estate for three months. But during that time, the torment of my friends’ deaths couldn’t give me peace. Their last moments used to haunt my mind and dreams, I couldn’t even take a nap. Three months later, things went back to normalcy and that’s when I relocated back to Dandora and chose to turn over a new leaf.

How did you do this? 

When I returned to Dandora, I first distanced myself from bad company. Secondly, I thought of finding something to keep me busy and that’s when the idea of cleaning the estate by unblocking sewer lines and clearing trenches at a small fee came up. When I settled on this, all my friends thought that I had lost it. They even suggested that I go to a mental hospital for checkup.

Was the community ready to take you back? 

At first, no one trusted my reform, they even paid for my services out fear of being harassed. But with time they saw how the estate had transformed, and they slowly started accepting the new me. It’s there that even some boys also saw the need to change and joined my cause.

How did you incorporate them into your agenda?

We created a group that was meant to provide security at night and clean the estate during the day. We secured a space that used to be a dumpsite and turned the space into a parking lot. I had more than 10 clients who used to park their cars there every night and pay me Sh100 every month. From there, I introduced garbage collection, and later, estate clean-ups.

Who was your mentor throughout this transformation?

His name is Robison, he is now the chairman of Public Space Network. Actually I consider him my guardian angel and my main mentor in environmental conservation. He’s the one that gave me the idea to convert a dumping site to an ever-green friendly park that helps create income and is helpful to the community as children and the entire community and come and enjoy the feel of fresh air. 

Tell us about your group.

It is called The Believers and helps to manage the green park, where we also have a library for kids as well ample space for events. Through this initiative, I have won several awards both nationally and internationally, and I have also managed to reform several youth from criminal activities to give them jobs and support their families.