"For a very long time I could not walk on the streets without looking behind to see if a mob or the police were after me," Steve Kyenze begins. From the marks on his face, it is evident he has been to hell and back.
However, from his calm demeanour that puts one at ease, this gentle giant - if his build and height are anything to go by - it is hard to believe that he was once on the Government watch list. An only child, he lost both his parents at an early age. His father passed away in the 1982 military coup and after battling an illness, his mother who was also in the military, succumbed in the year 2000.
From the age of 10, he knew how to fight because he had to. He realised he needed a family and he found one in a street gang. He became a member even before he reached adolescence.
"The first time I took cocaine was in 1993. After that I used cocaine, heroin, rohypnol, hashish and anything else I could get my hands on to get high. I did drugs to fit in," Steve says.
In high school in Mombasa, he was in and out of jail for minor offences but that did not deter him from criminal activity.
"By the time I was in Form 3 I had taken a life. I got into a fight on the streets and I ended up killing that person. I killed him with my bare hands. That was the first life I took. I did it because I wanted to prove myself," he says.
With the intervention of his mother who was still alive at the time, he was let off the hook. By the time he was done with high school he was addicted to drugs and deep into gang life. "I decided to become a drug trafficker. I found some Nigerian, Tanzanian and Arab friends who supply me with cocaine and my work was to distribute. Once you start selling drugs you get onto the government watch list and the police start watching you. Unfortunately, our police are very corrupt," he says.
"We compromised the police. Every Wednesday, I dropped money off at the police station and that gave me power. I would find someone selling drugs and I command the police to arrest that person."
But in 2005, he got in serious trouble with the Government. "The anti-narcotics unit from Nairobi used to come to Mombasa because they knew how bad the drugs menace was. The police knew I was destroying Mombasa's youth because I was a major supplier. They would see me on the streets and arrest me even if I didn't have drugs on me. They would bring flimsy charges against me. Shimo La Tewa became like my home even when I hadn't committed any offence. Eventually the good cops got tired and they told us they wanted us off the streets."
Transporting drugs became so risky that Steve began using his one-year-old daughter was a mule. "I used my daughter who was born in 2006 to move drugs around. I would put the drugs in her diaper and put her on a matatu. The crew would then drop her at a certain place and the people on the other side would pick her up and take the drugs. If she had soiled her diaper they would change and even feed her and then they would send her back," he says.
For three years he used his daughter to traffic drugs.
By 2009, he had been blessed with another daughter but his life was in grave danger because the police were out to get him. "I realised that I had two beautiful girls and I wondered who would take care of them if anything happened. Their mother and I separated when my second born was three weeks old."
Years later in 2012, Steve was still in the business but he knew he had to stop. He fled to Nairobi and started living in Kibera.
"I went to a local church and told the pastor I needed to change my life after being a criminal for 19 years. The first job I got after that was as at a local community college as a cleaner earning Sh5,000. Remember that I used to earn Sh20,000 a day as a dealer. It was small money but it was legal and clean. In the evening I would fetch water for people so I could earn more," he says
He started going to church every Sunday and developed a relationship with God. "My rehab was the Bible," he says.
After a while, and with the support of a Swedish national, Steve quit his jobs and became a painter. A local NGO then hired him to teach children how to paint for Sh8,000 a month. Steve enjoyed working with the kids. "I realised I could go further and decided to teach the children to paint on canvas instead of paper so that we could sell the paintings. And then in 2013, Google contacted me after seeing my profile on social media. They published my story and gave me a grant to continue with my project," Steve says.
Soon after that, the UN came knocking with a unique proposal. They were having an art exhibition at their headquarters in Gigiri. "They bought for us all the materials and the kids got a tour of the facility and some ate pizza for the first time," Steve says smiling.
He now runs the Nyota Art Gallery in Kibera and all the painters create new works and exhibit for free. So far, 30 children have benefitted. "Had it not been for art they would have been in gangs. This year, five have finished Form Four. Painting changed my life and I'm transforming my community through art. I am also making a living from it and living my dream by helping these children," Steve says.
He is forever grateful to Tani Austin, Sandi Young and Steve Sawalich who have been faithful in their financial support.