I can hear them breathing. Panting like hunting dogs. Each of them. Dusty air rushing through tensed tracheas. Blood pumping through strained jugulars. Feet pounding the pavement. Startled passers-by turning to locate the source of the commotion.
I can hear each of them shouting. “Mwizi! Thief! Catch him! Stop him!”
I have no time to process all this information though. All I want, right now, is to get as far away from them as possible in the shortest amount of time. That’s why I’m running, barefoot, across Tom Mboya Street, having not stopped to look right or left.
I hear a loud hoot, the screech of brakes. A stiff puff of wind lifts strips of my tattered black t-shirt off my skin. A rough voice spits out, “Nugu.” Monkey. I know I have just missed being hit. By what, I don’t know. I don’t have the time to check either. I keep running.
I finally stop on the banks of the Nairobi River behind Kirinyaga road. I bend double and try to catch my breath. I can’t seem to get air into my lungs fast enough. My vision is blurry. The sun is hot on my back. My heart pounds away in my chest like a jackhammer.
Slowly, I realise I have successfully eluded my pursuers. I’m still alive. Thus assured, my mind goes back to the reason for my hasty flight. I’m still clutching it tightly in my right hand. The screen is still on.
A string of text sits across the bottom. The cursor pulsates at the end, waiting for the next letter. I haven’t had much schooling, but I can read it. The girl whose phone I now have was communicating with someone called “Babe.” She had written, “I can’t do this anym.”
Ordinarily, this should have happened without a hitch. And it was going according to plan until I snatched the phone. I marked the girl for minutes before I made my move. I had seen her walk into the matatu, a distant look on her face, clearly distracted from what was going on around her, the perfect target.
I saw her plop resignedly onto a seat next to a window. She dug promptly into her pocket, pulled out the phone and started thumbing away at its screen. After dispatching each of her messages, she stared vacantly out the window, still holding onto the phone with its screen still on.
On some of those occasions she looked directly at me. I was leaning unassumingly against the sole tree on this section of Moi Avenue. I looked at her eyes in these moments, and I could tell she wasn’t seeing me. She was in a different world.
Every time she looked down to read a new message and type out her response, she focused so intently on the phone, the rest of the world could as well have stopped existing. All sorts of emotions played on her face. Mostly though, I saw confusion and anger. I could tell she was having an argument, a painful one.
At one point, a thought crossed my mind, a thought of pity. For a quick moment, I questioned my resolve to go on with the plan. I dismissed the thought quickly. You don’t survive on the street if you are weak. You cannot afford any weakness if you sleep under the open sky at night. Doubt is the enemy.
I waited until the last passenger went aboard and the driver nudged the matatu into gear. I walked unassumingly towards it as the matatu lurched backwards. The driver was making a little room out front through which he could then nudge it out of the parking spot into the traffic. I waited until he shifted from reverse gear to drive. Then I pounced.
I had done this enough times to be pretty skilled at it. Though each case is unique, they also have certain common elements. If the window is closed, the trick is to push it inward gently, to lift and disengage the hooked lock, then to push it backwards with one hand while the other hand reaches in and grabs the phone.
The key is to pull off the entire routine in less than half a second. And then to take off without looking back, whether I get the phone or not. Sometimes I hit the phone instead of grabbing it, jolting or knocking it off the owner’s hands. If that happens, I can’t stay behind to try again. A disrupted attempt is a failed attempt.
If the window is open, the first steps are unnecessary. All I have to do is grab the phone and take off. Fortunately, this was the case of the girl. She was so distracted, she hadn’t noticed that the window was open. She didn’t see me coming either. She was still typing.
It was the portly old woman sitting next to her who saw me, at the last minute, reaching in for the phone. She startled the girl, who turned to look at her. By the time she became aware of what was going on, her phone was in my hand, and I was already revving up to full speed.
She shrieked. That was normal. All of my female victims shrieked. What wasn’t normal was that the world reacted. In the centre of Nairobi, it is abnormal for anyone to react to cries for help. We once surrounded a young man in a pack, and relieved him of his photography equipment and phone in broad daylight, while everyone around us walked on.
Clearly, someone woke up on the wrong side of his bed today. A man shouted “Mwizi!” And another answered with a similar shout. From the corners of my eyes, I sensed the commotion that told me the crowd had risen up to the young lady’s cry.
I have seen more than one lynching. Just last month, my friend Njugush got stoned and burned up behind Muthurwa for pulling a side-mirror off a car stuck in traffic on Landhies Road. I watched from a distance, helpless against the mob. I was still crying when the police loaded his disfigured body into the back of a lorry and took him away.
As a street child, I know lynching is not far outside the realm of the many ways I could die. We get a lot more options than regular people. But I never really have them all at the centre of my consciousness. You don’t move around thinking of all the ways you could die.
Nevertheless, when the first man shouted “Mwizi!” I knew the time had come for me to keep it very much in mind. And I had to avoid it at all costs. If I was to die today, I would do my best to give death a run for its money. I wasn’t going to give it a free pass.
So I ran. I avoided turning into the alley where my companion were waiting for me to share the spoils. It had a dead end, and there was no way I could escape the mob from there. Heck, maybe they would lynch all of us. So I ran all the way up the street, turned right. The crowd behind me grew and shouted louder.
None of them got to me though. And I think I shook them off when I ran straight into the traffic on Tom Mboya Street. They had to stop for a second because, unlike me, none of them was fighting for his life.
But that second seems to be all I needed. And I went on running until I found myself here, standing on the banks of Nairobi River, holding this phone, with its unfinished message of distress and pulsating cursor, nearly having died for it.
My heartbeat has now calmed down. The phone vibrates. “Babe” is calling. I cut the call, turn off the phone, and turn around to walk back into the centre of town. I need to find my friends. We need to look for Njoro. He will take the phone for three full bottles of glue.
Feature image: By Jorge Láscar on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.
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