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How I lost my phone to Nairobi's best con man

Moi Avenue, with a view of the point where I encountered Nairobi's best con man,
and parted with my phone

A good con requires the highest level of cooperation from the victim.

I lost my phone on Friday evening, some time between 6:40 p.m. and 7:10 p.m. I know the time because my receipt indicates I was served at Ukwala Supermaket, Tom Mboya at 6:32 p.m., on the 26th of February, 2016.

Given I'm a brisk walker who avoids crowds, it should not have taken me more than five minutes to get to the area around the Tom Mboya statue on Moi Avenue,  just opposite the Hilton.

My habit of avoiding crowds is what led to what became a tragic decision, to walk along the road and emerge at the bus stop next to Ambassadeur Hotel, rather than walk along the pavement. It is here that I bumped into the villain, Nairobi’s best con man. He was running, kicking a plastic bottle along the road.

He said something to me that I didn't catch, to which I responded with a “huh”? It was only the two of us and lots of buses, for everyone else was using the zebra crossing next to Pizza Inn, then walking past the entrance to Standard Chattered Bank and Mr. Price.

My “huh” response was the second tragic decision, a series that would lead to me losing my prized phone. The chap then rushed back to me and started talking fast, saying he had said “brown”. My highly vain self thought he was talking about my brown shoes. He later would state that he was referring to my complexion. I would also later learn that this was the hook, which I had swallowed hook, line and sinker.

He said he his name was “Erico”, and he was a street boy. He asked to assist me with my shopping, before commenting that it didn't look like it was heavy enough for me to need assistance. He commented that I must be a good person for I was taking my time to listen to a street boy. He then smiles and asks “sikai”?

He is dressed in a black t-shirt with the words “Geek” across his chest. Those who know me will later remark on the irony. I think he was wearing a dark-ish pair of blue, slim jeans. He had black sneakers, with neon green laces and stripes, two neon green stripes. They were either Nike or Adidas. His clothes were not dirty,  but he did have some stink, one that smelt mostly of smoke from a fire.

He is dark, and his face is outlined against his brows, cheeks, leaving him this angular look. He is slim, and he has some residue at the corners of his mouth, probably from chewing khat or some other thing that isn't what we commonly refer to as food.

All this time, we are walking, and come to a stop at some point on the road along Moi Avenue,  just opposite The National Archives. At the time it may have appeared random, but in retrospect the incident reveals this was a well planned move and a well chosen location. Game on.

Erico comments that not many Nairobians stop to talk to chokoras. Wanatudharau. I must be a good person. Ha ha ha! He says that he is a reformed person, and that he has been through the worst. He has stolen, he has been arrested,  spent time in Kamiti Maximum Prison and he is now back to the streets. He has learned crime does not pay, and taking people’s things is not of much benefit. Ha ha ha.

This conversation continues as we stand by the road, inhaling toxic diesel fumes from the buses passing by. Once in a while, a bus empties passengers, who walk by us barely according us any attention.

Erico asks me to help him get off the streets. What he really needs is my help. All he needs is a chance, he would not be on the streets. He asks where I work, for which I mention the neighbourhood, and he says he is ready to take any job, be it sweeping, or really anything. He is an able person and all what he needs is help. I keep wondering why he is very keen in his insisting I help him. That would later be evident.

He then poses a question. Why isn't he a bus conductor? Hii biashara ina weneyewe, si hata wewe unajua. Huwezi toka huko unafanya kazi ukuje tu uingie kwa hii biashara(This business has owners).  

He asks where I live. I volunteer the info. He says that he is ready to even come work there, again, all he needs is my help.

Erico tells me to take his number. Tragic mistake number 3. Now, I have read a lot about the tricks con men use. Whenever a stranger asks you to tell him/her the time, you are about to lose your watch or phone. But Erico had ensured that we were no strangers. Or were we? Plus it would be rude not to at least take his number. Lol.

He gives me a number in series of three, but in retrospect, the way he tells it, it is a guessed number. This was a trick to get me to reveal where my phone was. It may also have been a trick to get me to reveal what my unlock code was.

He does not have a phone. His street life means he cannot have one. He borrows one from friends. I will text him, and from there, we will work out how I can help him. I return my phone to my pocket.

Erico again goes after my ego, praising me for how I am such a good person for stopping and listening to him all this time. I must have somewhere to go. Ule msee huko juu atakubariki, he says, pointing to the sky. My gullible ego even kicks in and recommends me for being a good listener - I must have learned this trick from this book I am reading. Pwagu kampata pwaguzi.

Yes, I am going to get shaved for I have a wedding the next day. He smiles and asks if it is my wedding. No, it isn't. He mocks my lack of a girlfriend and asks how old I am. He says he himself was born in 1982 and we are agemates, and I should ensure to invite him to my wedding.

He asks if I am religious. I say no, and that appears to introduce some level of uncertainty. The uncertainty appears not to be from my lack of belief, but I’ll figure out later it is because I have thrown him off his script.

Again, Erico starts commenting on how he decided to stop being a thief. He pulls a KSh. 100 note peeking from my pocket, and says that if he were a goon, he would have snatched that and run off with it. But he is no goon, and I get my KSh. 100 back.

Hii mdomo yangu ndio imenisdaidia. Imenisaidia kusoma soma kidogo na maNGO. (My mouth(words) is what helps me. It has helped me get educated).

He comments on how many people think street boys are thieves, yet he knows a mzungu (white)  conman. He proceeds to tell me how the mzungu approaches people, especially ladies, with a tale of how he has had all his money and documents stolen. He is staying at the Hilton and only needs money to pay the bill for the night, then he will be okay from there. I smiled and even joined in this story, for it sounded familiar. He comments on how many people even buy the mzungu dinner at Pizza Inn and other establishments. Huyu mzungu tunakulanga na yeye nduma na githeri hapa River Road (This mzungu we eat taro and githeri with him along River Road).

It gets a little confusing. Erico tells me he has a crew. They are here watching the two of us. It is just that we have become friends, and they aren't aware, they think that Erico is out stealing from me. It is a confusing inconsistency because a moment ago, Erico was reformed. He asks me for money, I give him a 40 shilling coin.

Then he again insists that I ensure I help him. He says he knows I won’t call him or text him, and insists that I sent a “Please call me” from my phone there and then so he can have my number. I assure him I will text him once I get on the bus. He insists that he wants to see me texting him because I will forget, and I assure him I won’t.  

It is at this point, I think, he figures this is not going according to plan, and he is about to leave. I make yet another tragic mistake, I lend him a helping hand. I ask him where he stays/sleeps.

He explains that he sleeps on any street, rather than any particular street. Sometimes he does odd jobs and makes a good amount, where he then leases a cheap room along River Road, and washes and cleans himself. I ask where I can find him evenings if I would like to assist. He says he has no fixed abode.

By this time, he has improvised, and makes a last attempt. He says how had he been a bad person, he would have stolen from me. He then asks “wapi ile simu yako”, which I get out of my pocket. He says wacha nikushow. He takes it in his right hand (all this time, he has been standing abreast to me, by my right, both of us facing City Hall way).

At this point, my heart is pounding hard, and a split second later, it occurs to me this must be a mistake. He raises his left hand in front of me, and I immediately guess what is going on. Behind us, is a barrier, some space and a stone edge around The National Archives. Lots of people are seated here. By now, it is getting dark.

He asks where my phone is, and suggests I frisk him. I don’t bother. I turn. His accomplice is sort of a rookie. He has his earphones on, some green polythene bag with khat in it, and is dressed in a coat. He outs himself by his side glance. Deja vu. it reminds me of the time I lost my wallet to a pick pocket.

Erico then assures me that I’ll have my phone back. I doubt it. He says all I need to do is follow him. He was just demonstrating how he used to steal. His accomplices think this is the real thing. Yeah right. Why does he have accomplices?

He asks me to follow him a short walk down to Tom Mboya street, where he will hand me back my phone. As we walk, I ask where to. He improvises and says “J1 stalls”, whose signboard is visible to both of us from where we are walking. I follow him. There’s not much else to lose. The only thing of value I had was my phone.

We don’t even go to the stalls. We get on to Luthuli Avenue. Some guy comes round a number 6 bus that is picking people by the pavement, and asks us if we are going to Eastleigh. Erico quickly says no. The guy insists, hamuendi? He further asks if everything is okay. I keep silent. I'm a bit suspicious,  for in a small radius, it is only the three of us,  and this guy is on the opposite side of the bus door. An unlikely place to be canvassing for passengers. Whose side is he on?

Erico asks if I know where I am. Luthuli Avenue. I don't feel like proceeding further. He reminds he does not have my phone and we are going to get it. Ha! He again asks me to frisk him, which I now do. It reveals the known, he doesn't have my phone. He even empties his pockets to prove it. Then he points at nowhere in particular saying ni pale. We walk further down the street. Wild goose chase. Erico gets into an alley, and breaks into a sprint, before turning into another alley and disappearing into the night.

I walk into the alley where I find some street families. I ask them if they know Erico, who just ran by. Kwani kumeenda aje. I explain. Si ungewika tukusaidie. Really? Hata haitwi Erico, na hii si shimo yake. Shimo yake iko hiyo pande ingine. (What’s the issue? You should have asked for help from us. He is not even called Erico. This is not even his hideout. His hideout is on the other side of town).

They ask for money for supper. I give them all the coins I have and leave.

I walk to a mobile phone shop at Ambassadeur and ask to block my line. It is time to move on (cue Fergie, Big Girls (and boys) don't cry). The helpful lady says I have to replace it, but they have run out of lines. She directs me to another shop round the block where I can get a line. The shop has lines, but is busy, and will only replace my line if I can remember my original PIN. I can’t.

I go back to the first shop and ask if they’ll help replace my line if I buy the SIM from the other shop. The lady says yes. I buy the line, and she calls customer care and proceeds to have my line replaced. The customer care attendant is at first enthusiastic, asking why I am replacing my line. “My phone just got stolen”. His tone changes to a sad one.

All this time, I'm thinking that if this lady knew that I had lost my phone in a similar manner - in the foolish quest to be kind to a stranger. I don’t say much to her. I ask how much she will charge for her help. She says it won’t cost a cent. She really does pity me.

I board a bus, amidst lots of anxiety, and later proceed to the barber upon alighting. Along the way, I wonder what I could have done different -

  • What if I had decided to just pay 5 more shillings per can of beer at Nakumatt rather than come to Ukwala? I wouldn't have met the conman. A few shillings have cost me tens of thousands of shillings ...
  • What if I had decided to walk in the crowded section - I wouldn’t have isolated myself  and set my self up for the con.
  • What if I had not insisted on walking fast to town from work when Peter, our driver, asked we take a slower place? Wouldn't I have arrived at the now notorious section a few seconds later and not met the con man?
  • What if I had left the office earlier rather than dilly dallied for a while?

So many what ifs. Isn't it interesting how many birds have to be in line for coincidence to happen? Yet they all fall in line!

The following day, narrating the story to some friends, they said I did not look like someone who had lost a phone. Either that, or I didn't value the phone. Bygones, should be bygones.

It takes two to tango. I was a willing accomplice in a ruse that led to me losing my phone.

In an intricate con game, I had been convinced that a stranger was someone I could trust, and the phrase that I was in position to help the stranger repeated enough that I was convinced that this was the case. He indeed needed my help, in his quest to part me with my phone. I had also been convinced that I was a good person, who goes way out of my way to help those in need (of my phone).

In psychology, a well known trick to get a favour out of a person is to get them to grant you a smaller favour first. Like a KSh. 40 coin.

I had been informed of how I was going to get robbed, and true to his word, I got robbed, just as I had been promised.

Hii mdomo yangu ndio inanisaidianga.

Yes, this happened last Friday.

My Nexus 4, with nay scratch, just a knick on the right on it's chrome frame, after two and a half years, is gone.

What do you think? What would you have done?


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