If you have lived in Nairobi long enough, you’ve probably fallen victim to a pickpocket.
Unlike their more violent cousins who rob and mug, pickpockets combine human psychology and deftness to steal valuables such as smartphones, watches, cameras, wallets, and anything that can be snatched on the go.
According to a Nairobi-based pickpocket, residents of Nairobi could be losing close to Sh 5 million every day to pickpockets.
The pickpocket, identified as Juma, spoke to The Nairobian about his trade. The local daily reports: “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.”
According to Juma, image is everything in the pickpocketing game.
“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.
“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,” said Juma.
The 32-year-old added: “When I am dressed in a suit, which is often the case 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.”
Asked how he became a pickpocket, Juma said 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.
He said there was a rule to that ratio. According to the pickpocketing gang rule, the ‘picker’ of the actual loot pockets 50 percent of the collection, while the rest (usually two or three ‘panjas’ who act as decoys or detractors) keep the remainder.
“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,” recalled Juma.
“Besides gaining respect from my colleagues, I rapidly became a pro in one and a half months.”
According to Juma, they target everybody and not just smartly dressed people.
“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.”
“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, but for victims who catch us in the act, we are willing to return their belongings, to prevent them from raising the alarm.”
Asked about tales of pickpockets using juju,’ Juma said: “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 revealed: “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.”
The father of three told the daily that he hopes to get out of the ‘game’ before the end of the year.
“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 also revealed 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.”
“We recently raised Sh50,000 and donated it to a children’s home in the city.”
Additional Reporting by The Nairobian