If you have lived in Nairobi for more than three months, you probably have been robbed or know someone who has fallen victim to the city’s marauding gangs.
The situation has particularly become dire over the past month - attributed to the growing high cost of living and the challenges with the transitions in the country’s top security management.
This article is based on observations made by the writer and narrations from robbery victims in the country’s capital.
The tips are meant to enhance your awareness of these thieves' common tricks and improve your self-protection.
This is one of the oldest tricks in modern city crime. I first witnessed it in 2013, a few months after I started living in Nairobi. The trick basically leverages on the chaotic public transport system - particularly on routes where matatus have excess passengers.
A group of passengers (usually smartly-dressed middle-aged men) board the matatu and sit or stand in different areas. One of them shouts that cops are checking for seat belts, masks, or excess passengers (the tricks keep changing depending on the time).
Amid the commotion, phones and wallets are snatched and the thieves quickly ask to exit at the next stage.
The most effective self-protective measure in this situation is to guard your valuables whenever there is a commotion in a matatu.
If unfortunately, you lose your valuables in such a situation, it is advisable not to apprehend the robbers as there have been reported cases of the robbers carrying knives and guns disguised in a newspaper or magazine.
This is common in densely populated areas in Eastlands and congested areas close to slums.
Someone will approach you with a friendly fist bump; you might even think they know you.
As soon as you extend, they quickly pull a gun on you and ask for your phone or wallet. They particularly target pre-marked targets, say they noticed you leaving the ATM machine or an M-pesa shop.
This is one of the oldest robbery tricks and has been around for at least four decades.
A woman will approach you, seeking directions for some “woishe” cause. Something like a certain doctor who treats children living with disabilities.
You will, obviously, not know the non-existent doctor, and the woman starts sharing her troubles. In the initial version of the trick, a young gentleman would pass by and be called to give similar directions, and voila, he will!
The woman will then ask if you guys can contribute to her fare - the gentleman will do so - prompting you to give something.
In the modern version, however, the elderly woman will distract you with a pungent smell as she will be using a stupefying drug - Scopolamine. She will also have cotton on her nostrils.
The drug, also known as devil’s breath, takes away your free will and turns you into a zombie. It has seen many Kenyans robbed millions of shillings - some taking their robbers home to fetch their ATM cars and draining their banks.
In my first month in Nairobi, a matatu dropped me at the OTC stage. I was rushing for a class, and as I crossed off to the road that connects to Bus Station, a man tapped me on the back, and I stopped to look back.
He was friendly at first and later became aggressive, claiming I had stepped on his shoe. I could not tell whether I had mistakenly stepped on his foot, so my initial reaction was to be pleasant and apologize.
Within a few minutes, I could tell he was a thief who had perfectly identified me as a freshman, complete with a babyface and without full awareness of the rugged ways of the city thugs.
He threatened to beat me up if I did not hand over my phone and everything that was in my pocket. Panicking, I gave him Ksh50 bob that was in my left pocket - saying that was all I had.
“There is no way a young man wearing such an expensive Italian shoe can have a mere Ksh50,” he told me in some deep sheng’ - referring to the Ksh3,000 kicks that I had saved for the entire two years as I waited to join campus.
I eventually noticed a cop and walked away from him, still afraid but courageous enough to dare him to do his worst in the presence of city dwellers - who, as per village folklore, never intervened even to save a fly.
The trick has been around for years - with slight variations over time. It was prevalent last year after several incidents happened along Thika Road.
It targets passengers who are in a hurry - by offering them a quick lift or cheap transport in a private vehicle.
A female passenger will occasionally pose as a passenger on the highway terminus - to encourage the target to join in (she will probably tell you about how the same car saved her last week!).
Once inside the car, the robbers deviate to remote areas where they steal your belongings - and in some extreme cases, demand ransom from your family or loved ones.
Read Also: The Fastest Way to Lose Money in Kenya
This has become one of the latest tricks in the dreaded Archives area in Nairobi CBD.
These gangs operate in groups of up to 15 individuals working on one target. Their victims are pre-identified - mostly young people who appear to be green in the ways of the city under the sun. They also target elderly and middle-aged persons who appear to be visiting Nairobi after a long break.
A female gang member will walk towards you with a sweet promise that you have won a gift promo - a t-shirt, cup, or something like that. As you consult on what the gift is about, a jubilant crowd will walk towards you, and in the melee - you will be robbed of your valuables within seconds.
There are reports that the gang has the support of compromised police officers, who were caught on camera conducting a robbery while a cop was about 20 meters away.
The best defense tactic here is to stay focused while walking in crowded streets and not be distracted by sweet, random offers. Any attempt to fight back can be dangerous as the robbers bear crude weapons which can kill - if not careful.
You are selling an electronic item (mostly expensive gadgets such as MacBooks and Play stations) on online e-commerce platforms, and someone offers to buy it without negotiating.
They ask that you meet at the Archives. The buyer is usually accompanied by a second person - which appears innocent given they are carrying a load of cash.
They ask to test it at a “random” shop across the road (Luthuli Avenue and adjacent areas). You walk there, and they will politely ask the attendant for a power source where they can test it.
A third person will walk in as a customer, and the shop owner will ask you to create a way. The one testing the phone/laptop stays behind while his main accomplice takes out some money and distracts you as if counting cash.
Then the accomplice shouts that his friend is running away; you turn and notice the “buyer” struggling to open the back door.
Instinctively, you run towards him - just in time for the shop attendant to angrily intervenes with a slap to your face - “why are you people playing at my shop?”. You turn, and the friend carrying the cash is nowhere to be seen, the buyer is gone, and the laptop has also vanished!
A related trick happens when buying phones, but a quick flip happens - just after you have tested and paid for the phone. You will get home and realise you carried a mud-filled dummy phone - or something more embarrassing.
The walking mob sometimes targets victims leaving banks and pretending that the victim is a thief and attacks him while stealing from them. It’s common with night robberies in the CBD, estates, and concerts.
It is also common in cases where robbers work in cahoots with rogue bank attendants who inform them of customers who have made huge withdrawals from the city.
They then corner the victim in crowded areas of the CBD - and attack in the guise of saving a “lady” whose belongings the victim has stolen. Within 30 seconds, the mission is done and they disperse in different directions.
This trick has been around for the longest time. It is widely known but it never runs out of fashion.
A group of thugs sets up an online gambling game where you play head or tails (sometimes you pick a horse or donkey), and whoever gets it right wins instant cash.
They will then lure you with a free game and even offer to pay your winnings - typically less than Ksh50. The victim then realises that the winnings could be higher if their stake increases.
As soon as the staked amount increases - the lucky streak runs out, and now the victim plays to recover their cash which continues until they realise that it is all a con. The setup is quickly dismantled when the victims raise the alarm - and they quickly set up shop elsewhere.
This is perhaps the most common robbery trick in Nairobi and many parts of the country.
Thugs find a motorcycle, which is then used as a getaway for all manner of robberies. The most common is among phone snatchers - the pillion passengers will spot you holding your phone - and snatch at the precision of an eagle.
An incident where a traffic police officer had his phone snatched while on duty - and in broad daylight along Thika Road - showed the country just how gutsy the robbers had gotten.
In other instances, the thieves target deserted lanes and roads - including major highways - rob pedestrians, and quickly escape on the motorbike.