Pastor Stephen Gichuhi Mbugua, 35, was once a hardcore criminal. Raised in an area famed for criminal activities, Steve, as he is popularly referred to, knew no other life until 2000 when, by divine intervention, hesaw the light and turned his life around, as he shares with FAITH MATHENGE-MURIGU in his office at Riverside Estate, Baba Ndogo in Nairobi.
“If transformation happened to me, I believe it can happen to the most evil in our midst,” says Steve, a pastor with the Faith Evangelistic Ministries (FEM), Korogocho. Steve goes on to share his story of growing up in poverty, engaging in crime and turning to Christ at the most unexpected time, and his transformed life of ministering the word of God.
“I was born in Korogocho slums. My father was an unemployed drunkard. My mother was the sole provider for the family. She collected recyclable items such as discarded soap remains and polythene bags from dumpsites close to our house. She hawked these items to other slum dwellers to earn a little money for food. I grew up surrounded by changáa (illicit brew), prostitution, drugs, robberies and other forms of violent crime. Life was tough. Sanitation was poor, there was no clean water and we walked and played on raw sewage.
My parents didn’t have money to send me to school, but one day while rummaging in the dumpsites with my brother, a good Samaritan came to us and offered to take us to school. He enrolled us at Ndururumo Primary School in Huruma, but his efforts came to nought. We were the poorest in the school and often wore tattered clothes and this elicited bullying, isolation and stigmatisation by other pupils, mostly well-to-do kids from Huruma and Buru Buru neighbourhoods.
When life in school became unbearable, I dropped out at the age of eight. I rejoined my mother at the dumpsites to eke a living. When I look back, I still wonder how we survived all that filth, the pungent smells, the toxic waste, broken glasses, hospital waste including used syringes, soiled bandages and surgical gloves, amongst other nauseating and poisonous waste.
To operate in the dumpsites, one had to belong to one of the numerous gangs that controlled them. The gangs were dangerous and territorial over the ‘best’ spots at the dumpsite. The most desired spot was where the Nairobi Airport Services truck offloaded rubbish from the airport, as there was much to be salvaged and sold from this rubbish.
The gangs identified themselves with scary names such as ‘mau mau’ (freedom fighters), mapanya (big rats) and machizi (lunatics). The machizi gang leader accepted me into their group. I was expected to be obedient and never question anything. At first I was appointed ‘kitchen boy’ because I was very young. My work was to cook for other gang members. The older boys would bring discarded foodstuffs from surrounding markets and butchery bins and I would make these into a meal fit for the gang members. At the end of each day, I would be given a few coins, which I would take to my mother.
After turning 16, I was promoted from ‘kitchen boy’ to keeping watch over stolen goods. These goods would be sold to earn the gang members money. While I was fearful because I knew what we were doing was criminal, I admired the senior gang members bravery and their lifestyles. They lived in better homes than ours, had TVs, radios, sofa sets and beds, and that was what I aspired for. I wanted to move my family from our shack and live well, and so I asked the gang leader to recruit me into active crime. I was willing to do anything that would make some money, at least to support my family.
After persisting for a long time, the gang leader told me he was ready to try me out. He gave me what he called a jembe and asked me to go dig the shamba and provide food for my family. Indeed, what he gave me was a loaded pistol. I had not held a pistol before, nor had I stolen anything or robbed anyone up to that point. I was also dramatically forced to exit from the machizi gang and operate on my own but ensure I give back to the gang from my bounty. I didn’t know where to start so I returned home to my mother after hiding the pistol safely in a toilet.
Yearning to learn how to execute robberies, I started watching crime videos and planning how to get started. One morning in February 1991, just around the busy Christmas time, I discreetly tucked the pistol in my trouser and went to Soko Mjinga, in Korogocho, with plans to buy myself a pair of jeans with Ksh700 I had. The market was very busy and money was changing hands very fast.
My attention was drawn to the women selling second hand clothes and who were receiving a lot of money and putting it in containers. I coveted the money. I felt my gun and asked myself why I couldn’t use it to make that money mine. And in a split second, the gun was in my hand and I shot twice in the air and people scampered for safety. In the melee, I emptied as many tins as I could into my pockets and escaped on foot.
It was not a bad harvest – Ksh30000 in total when I counted the bounty back in my mother’s shack. I had never, in my whole life, seen so much money, a lot of money in the 90s. I gave the money to my mother, lying to her that I found it in the dumpsite. She was overjoyed and blessed the work of my hands. That first robbery was so easy to execute and gave me a lot of confidence.
I became bolder and committed other crimes before recruiting other members to my criminal gang. We became high profile criminals, robbing banks, shops, supermarkets and individuals. Many of my gang members lost their lives through shoot-outs with police, while others got lynched through mob justice, but I was lucky as I always managed to escape. My family got to know of my criminal activities but were less bothered as long as I was providing for them.
The turning point…
One day in 2000, I was with some gang members from Kahawa West in Nairobi planning to execute a crime after a crucial tip off. We had information that a top businessman was expected to be at the Serena hotel in Nairobi the following day and would be in possession of Ksh15,000,000 in cash for a business transaction with an unidentified person. The gang members wanted me to oversee the operation and in return get a large portion of the loot. My name in the criminal world was larger than life – I was known as a fearless, ruthless, smooth operator who acted with precision and ensured the mission was always accomplished. After assessing the risks and practicality of this operation, I agreed to lead it. We were to meet at 4.30pm the following day, a Sunday, at Uhuru Park, a convenient location because it was close to Serena.
Strangely, I woke up this Sunday morning a bag of nerves. To calm my nerves I went to a place in the slum called ‘Devil Killer Base’ where illicit brews and illegal drugs were sold. I took a concoction of a lethal drug known as Hitler mixed with bhang. I had never used drugs before. I became completely intoxicated. I asked someone the time and he misinformed me that it was 3.30pm. In a panic I rushed home, got my gun and took a taxi to Uhuru Park where I was to meet other gang members in a public toilet. I got there and realised it was only 2pm. I got nervous because I was armed and it was too early to hang around the busy area.
I left the venue and went to a spot near Afya House where I had a good view of our meeting place. Still reeling from the effects of the drugs, I put my head down to rest as I passed time and fell into a deep sleep. I was woken up by loud noises coming from Uhuru Park where there was a gospel crusade by Faith Evangelistic Ministry scheduled for that afternoon. There were many people gathered in the park for the gospel meeting. At around 3pm, a woman’s voice came on the powerful speakers announcing, “Everybody rise up to your feet, its time for the word of God.”
Not wanting to draw attention to myself, as most people around seemed to have come to hear the word of God, I stood up and started walking back to Uhuru Park to be close to the worshippers. A smartly dressed woman, whose picture I had seen on posters before, was on the podium screaming at the top of her voice words that were not familiar to me – I had never been to a church service neither had I read the bible. She was Evangelist Teresia Wairimu, and as she continued with her ‘dramatic’ preaching she said something that almost caused me a heart attack.
“There is a gangster in this place. The Holy Spirit tells me that God wants to deliver him. If he doesn’t surrender his life to God, he will die today.” At first, I thought I was hallucinating because of the drugs I had taken earlier. When I looked around me, all the people appeared like police. My first instinct was to shoot in the air to get an escape route from the place. Then the preacher continued, “Everybody pray for this gangster to know Jesus Christ.” And people began to pray loudly, some in strange tongues. Then I thought I heard the preacher mention my name asking me to go forward and surrender to Jesus. I started trembling in fear.
At that point I felt completely weak and helpless. Not even my gun could save me if I didn’t heed the call from the preacher. Head bowed in indignity, I slowly walked to the podium. When Evangelist Wairimu saw me coming up, she was overjoyed as she announced God’s victory in giving me courage to come forward. I stood at the podium and wept my heart out. I surrendered my gun, and in front of the many people present, gave my life to Jesus Christ. I missed my appointment for the violent robbery at 4.30pm and instead got a divine appointment to become a citizen of heaven. Evangelist Wairimu and other ministers present prayed for me and gave me a bible to replace my gun.
Later that evening, news broke out that three robbers who were about to commit a crime had been gunned down. Those were my gang members and had I not answered the call from Evangelist Wairimu, I would have been among them. God spared my life because my mission on this earth had not been completed. Evangelist Wairimu nurtured me in my faith and with her assistance I was enrolled in a Bible college. My faith grew deeper and I completely abandoned my old life of crime.
I am a pastor at FEM, Korogocho, where I minister to reformed people who were once gangsters, prostitutes, drug addicts and street urchins. Reaching out to former criminals and poverty stricken people opened my eyes and I saw the need to empower them. I started a programme known as Faith Rescue Network with the aim of reaching, teaching and equipping slum dwellers with vocational training to keep them away from drugs, prostitution and crime. Evangelist Wairimu and the FEM ministry have been very supportive but the challenge is enormous due to lack of funds. We have a feeding programme, which provides free meals to the poor in the slums. This way we touch people with the love of Jesus.”
Steve is married to Pastor Mary Gichuhi and they have three children – two boys and a girl.
Phone – 0724573737 or 0710339907
Email – [email protected]
Published in March 2012