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A handshake that wipes bank accounts clean

By Akello Odenyo | Published Mon, February 26th 2018 at 00:00, Updated February 26th 2018 at 09:36 GMT +3
Victims have recounted stories of losing money and other valuables after innocent handshakes from strangers [Courtesy]

“If the most basic African cultural symbol of peace can turn out to be so hostile, then all our values have gone down the drain,” said Mary (not her real name).

Mary’s neighbours described her as a self-confident and cheerful woman, but that is not what I saw when I met her. She looked fearful and only agreed to narrate her ordeal after some persuasion. Her only condition was that her identity be kept secret because she was still traumatised.

Even then, she spoke slowly and took deep breaths in between her narration, her gaze fixed just above my head. This is what she shared.

“I was going for a meeting at Mbagathi School at around 11.30am on January 29 and had decided to walk from Ngong Road through Muchai Drive to Kenyatta Market. The previous week, I had had a motorcycle accident and the doctor advised me to walk more.

I had only gone a short distance when a grey car approached me at low speed. The driver stopped and a woman in the back seat rolled down the tinted window to speak to me.

Medical centre

She asked me where she could find a medical centre offering cancer screening in the neighbourhood. I told her I was not familiar with the place and advised her to ask a man who was walking behind me.

The woman then stepped out of the car and stood between me and the man, then she offered her hand in greeting. Instinctively, I reached out and shook it. I became engrossed in the conversation, trying to figure out which medical centre she was talking about.

Abruptly, she told me that she could see I had a heart problem (which is in fact the reason I retired early from teaching) and that my legs were in pain.

I cannot explain why I stayed tuned in to the conversation even though I really had no interest in it, but I simply couldn’t leave my new ‘friends’.

In fact, I was so engrossed that a driver who was supposed to pick me up passed, saw me with my ‘friends’ and kept driving. I wanted to stop him but my arms were too weak and my voice too low to shout.

The woman ordered me to get into her car so she could pray for my heart and legs. Like a puppet, I got in the back seat. The other pedestrian whom we had stopped to ask for directions also got in and took the front seat.

The driver, a slender brown man, started the engine and started talking to the other man. The woman sat next to me, held my left hand and gently rubbed the back of it as a strange vapour came out.

The more the smoke came out, the more confused I felt. We hadn’t gone far when she said she had a request to make, but outside the car. So we both got out, leaving the two men chatting inside the car.

Outside, she had barely started talking to me when another woman rushed towards us. She approached my ‘friend’ and thanked her for healing her ailing mother at Afraha Stadium (in Nakuru).

“I never got a chance to thank you for saving my mother’s life. You left in a rush that day and I had no chance to thank you,” said the other woman.

The three of us got in the car and our mysterious journey continued. The first woman kept rubbing my hand as she asked me details about my family, which I willingly responded to.

By this time, I could tell that all four occupants in the car knew each other from the familiar tone they used with one another. They referred to my ‘friend’ as Wangui and the other man as Kiarie. I cannot recall the names of the other two.

Switched roles

Throughout the journey, Wangui switched roles — from friend to master. And like a loyal servant, I did everything she ordered without questioning or resisting. In fact, whatever she forgot, I volunteered dutifully.

Wangui asked which bank I used and how much I had in my account. I didn’t know how much was left but I told her that I had an account with Co-operative Bank, and we drove to the nearby China Centre, where the bank has a branch.

“Go, withdraw all the cash. Just leave Sh5,000. Bring me the money,” she ordered me.

When I explained that I did not have my ATM card, she retorted that I had my national identity card and so I could withdraw the cash over the counter.

The driver parked the car at Coptic Hospital across the road. Looking back, I realise they were avoiding the bank’s CCTV cameras. I went into the building alone, withdrew Sh14,000 and went back to the car.

Wangui looked disappointed but accepted the money anyway. Then she told me that she could see I had another account with Kenya Commercial Bank.

I nodded in agreement and we started driving towards Prestige Plaza. On arrival, like the puppet she had turned me into, I was the one now asking how much I should leave in the account.

“Leave Sh1,000,” she commanded and obediently, I made my way into the bank and withdrew Sh15,000 from the bank and brought it to her where the car was parked outside.

Again, Wangui did not look excited by the amount of money I handed over. We drove towards Greenhouse Mall and they parked at Smile Hospital nearby, again avoiding any surveillance cameras.

“Ask one of your sons to send you Sh20,000 now. Tell him it is an emergency but you will refund him at the end of the month,” barked Wangui.

I took out my phone and called my son, who sent the cash. But Wangui asked me to call another one of my children and ask for the same amount of money.

Without any resistance, I called my daughter and in no time, another Sh20,000 was in my M-Pesa account.

Wangui then asked me to jump out and find an M-Pesa shop to withdraw the Sh40,000, clearly warning me against going into Greenhouse Mall. But this time, the other woman was sent along as an escort.

After a few minutes of trying to find an M-Pesa shop with that amount of money, we succeeded and headed back to the car. Wangui responded by giving me a spiteful look as if to tell me I was lucky to still be alive.

Mama, you are a very prayerful person and your faith has saved you. You will not die easily. Now, sing the song you sang in church last Sunday,” she commanded.

‘Iende mbele, injili ooh, iende mbele. Iende mbele injile ya Yesu iende mbele,’ I burst into the chorus while clapping my hands and shaking my head to the tune.

Lord’s prayer

But it was difficult to please my ‘master’ despite doing everything she asked me to without any defiance.

“Mum, we are not here to pray,” she shut me up. “Here is the money you took from your children, return it to them.”

She asked for my handkerchief, which she used to wrap some notes and passed it back to me. I put it inside my handbag without checking how much the money was.

Convinced that their business with me was done, we started back towards Coptic Hospital.

“Mum, I can see that you still have Sh200 in your handbag. Take it and go to Coptic Hospital, first floor. There you will find a woman whose has a patient. She has not eaten anything all day. Say the Lord’s Prayer four times, then ask her to go buy herself something to eat,” said Wangui, again wearing a different face.

Sure enough, there was such a woman at the hospital and, after keenly following Wangui’s instructions, I returned to my ‘master’ but there was no car where we had parked.

I looked around, crossing the road several times as  I tried to locate the car in vain. I was almost hit by a car in the process. After more than 30 minutes of waiting, I left.

It wasn’t until I got home, at around 7.30pm that I began to wonder what I had done. The ‘notes of money’ Wangui had returned to me were nothing but a pile of paper bundled together.”

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