Nairobi pickpockets consider themselves the ‘elite’ of petty crime. They combine human psychology and dexterity, spurred on by itchy fingers. They not only target cash, but other valuables as well, like phones, cameras, anything that can be snatched on the go. And when they steal your expensive smartphone, credit cards, driving license or wallet, it is often a painful affair—sometimes taking months to get replacements. One other thing, unlike their more violent cousins who rob and mug, these ‘pinchers’ tend to get way easy when caught, if at all. At the end of the day, each of the over 1,000 pickpockets in Nairobi will pinch at least Sh5,000, meaning city residents could be losing up to Sh5 million daily!
The Nairobian spoke exclusively to a self-confessed pickpocketing ‘professional’ going by the name Juma after much coaxing. When he finally agreed to this interview, he insisted we meet at a location of his choice. He shows up smartly dressed in a white tee and side-pocket shorts. He sports an expensive watch and his neck is decked in a collection of chains. To the unsuspecting, he is a typical middle class Nairobian, one you wouldn’t mind sharing a seat with in a matatu. But that would be your first mistake. The skill and speed with which the ‘game,’ as he calls it, is executed, is so precise, the chances of catching a ‘picky’ is probably one out of 10.
As a matter of fact, it is a long held belief that to learn the smooth and mercurial precision of the craft, new recruits had to pass through ‘Jericho School of Pickpockets’ where they perfected their skills and were taught to anticipate all sorts of scenarios, including how to escape a botched ‘pinching.’
“Even if they are caught, a panja (pickpocket) can just return the loot or stand his ground and deny, with the intention of turning the heat on the victim. In most cases, it’s your word against his,” says Juma, adding: “In this game, image is everything. The mentality of many Kenyans is that a pickpocket is a shabby rascal, who makes no secret of the fact that he is a thief.”
The 32-year-old plays on this wrong perception Kenyans have of pickpockets. “When I am dressed in a suit, which is often the case,” continues Juma, “the person seating next to me in a matatu will feel safe. Even If I pick him and get caught, I can confidently deny and challenge him, all the while asking if I look like a petty thief.”
How does one become a pickpocket?
In Juma’s case, he was inducted by neighbours after high school while living with his cousin in Kawangware. Day one of duty realised Sh10,000 after working on several matatus. Juma was rewarded with a Sh1,000 pay. There was a rule to that ratio. According to the pickpocketing gang rule, the ‘picker’ of the actual loot pockets (pun intended) 50 per cent of the collection, while the rest (usually two or three ‘panjas’ who act as decoys or detractors) keep the remainder. Pickpocketing is largely a one-man operation, but working in a group has its benefits, particularly when targeting on ‘prime victims’ like stranded tourists.
“I will never forget my first day as a panja. I was really scared and sweating. But I executed it so efficiently, it made me realise that I had some sort of gift for deftness, which is a must in this business,” recalls Juma. “Besides gaining respect from my colleagues, I rapidly became a pro in one and a half months.”
Don’t think that pickpockets only target the smartly dressed ones
No panja worth his itchy fingers dismisses a potential victim at face value. Says Juma: “Some of the shabby looking people in town are messengers who deliver valuable items. I have worked on a number of ragged looking individuals, some with slippers, and hit a jackpot.”
He adds: “Over the years, we have learnt to instinctively tell a man who has money. Time has honed our eyes so much, we can even estimate how much money a victim may have by just looking at their shirt pockets or swell in their trousers holding the wallet. The ‘game’ is so efficient and flawless that the victim only discovers his loss long after we are gone,” Juma brags, “but for victims who catch us in the act, we are willing to return their belongings, to prevent them from raising the alarm.”
There are different categories of pickpockets. There are those who target low-income acts like estate gatherings and those who frequent high-traffic areas like Westlands, Eastleigh, Embakasi, Kimathi Street and Kencom bus stops, where some conductors who know them let them to ‘act’ on passengers.
Asked about tales of pickpockets using voodoo, Juma grimaces in denial and responds:
“There are claims that mapanja use juju to be undetected, but those are mere lies propagated by some of us to create an element of fear and mystery. It’s all just about mind games.”
He reveals that, “There are at least 1,000 plus pickpockets actively working in the city at any given day, and assuming each gets about Sh5,000 a day, Nairobians could be losing up to Sh5 million daily to pickpockets,” Juma claims. Some pickpockets have actually invested their money and are well-off, while others survive on a daily basis, which makes them stay longer in the crime.
“While some are bold enough to tell their families the nature of their ‘work’, I have never told my wife what I do for a living. She thinks I am a ‘broker’ in town,” says the father of three who claims he wants to get out of the ‘game’ soon.
“I hope to get out of this ‘industry’ soon, since I have enrolled in one of the colleges in town where I am studying for a management course. I won’t let my kids grow up while I am still in this industry.”
Juma says that they also give back to society by visiting children’s homes.
“Many might not believe this, but we do that often. We also support our colleagues when they are incapacitated by sending them some money after a good day’s work,” he explains, “We recently raised Sh50,000 and donated it to a children’s home in the city.”
Unlike other crimes like bank robberies, there are no hierarchies or structures in this ‘game’. The alliances or team are simply a matter of mutual agreement.