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My encounter with an Eastern European mafia in Kenya

My encounter with an Eastern European mafia in Kenya

When you come to a country like Kenya, you expect adventure in the bush, among wildlife and rugged landscapes. There might be the occasional brush with the local population, but you don’t imagine having outlandish incidents happening to you within a big city like Nairobi. As a low-key volunteer and a newbie expat, you want things to be as drama-free as possible. But somehow the beginning of my life in Kenya was not meant to be smooth sailing. It all started with the need to purchase a vehicle.

My volunteer team and I were doing English and literacy classes among Nairobi-based refugee. We needed a big vehicle that could transport several people all at once and could be relied on to brave the potholes, humps, and dirt roads where many of them lived.

For security purposes, many chose to stay in neighbourhoods that were out of the way and far from the city centre, which meant they weren’t as developed as other places in the metropolis. 

The vehicle that we wanted to purchase. Photo for illustration purposes only.

Finding the “best” offer

Our team had limited resources so we aimed for the cheapest sturdy vehicle that we could find. While browsing through the community billboard of a big shopping mall, I found one such prospect: a two-toned Isuzu Trooper with a pop-up roof, ideal for safari drives in national parks. (N.B. Image is for illustration purposes only and originally from Motortrend.com.) Its price tag was KES 400,000, which was about USD 5,000 in 2003. It was on the high side of what we could afford as a team, but I hoped to negotiate instalment payments to fit our budget. I went ahead and called the number on the flyer.

The owner was a Greek guy called *Dimitris. A teammate and I went over to his house where we met his wife, *Katerina, and his nephew, *Christos. He wanted to do a quick sale of the Trooper and immediately agreed to my proposal of payment in five to six tranches.

He already has a sales agreement ready for us to sign, with just a KES 25,000 deposit. I was bowled over by his generosity and trust and vowed not to mess things up with him. I drove away with the Trooper in my possession, while he kept the vehicle logbook, necessary for transfer of ownership, pending full payment.

Over the course of the next six weeks or so, I did a few more tranches with him until nothing more remained to be paid except KES 25,000. And then it became difficult to get in touch with him. No matter how many times I tried to call Dimitris, he never picked up.

Out of nowhere, a Kenyan named John called me and introduced himself. He said that Dimitris had given him my number and he had something urgent to discuss with me regarding the Trooper. I was mystified but curious enough to agree to a meeting at one of the public places where my team offered literacy classes.

Something amiss

When I met John, I didn’t give him the opportunity to beat around the bush, so he obliged. He told me that the police were looking for Dimitris and were going to impound the Trooper in connection with some shady activities Dimitris had been involved in. His statement felt like a Pacquiao punch to my kidneys and the world was suddenly off-kilter.

In a matter of days, John’s dire news became real news when I came upon a two-part investigative report on the Daily Nation, a popular national newspaper in Kenya. Dimitris’ passport photo was spread in full colour, leaving no doubt that it was the same Dimitris who sold me the Isuzu Trooper. However, one glaring “error” repeatedly came up in the report.

The writer kept on referring to him as an Eastern European citizen, while I knew him as a Greek. I even had full-colour copies of the relevant pages of his passport. Or did I?

The article mentioned “mafia”, “brothel”, “upmarket neighbourhood”, “Eastern Europe”, and “VIPs” several times. It cited Dimitris’s name over and over again as well as Katerina’s and Christos’s. They were all being hunted down and the Isuzu Trooper (with correct description) was listed as property that the police needed to seize in connection with the “brothel”.

My blood ran both hot and cold over the next few days as my team and I tried to make sense of the incredible misfortune we had just gotten into. After the two-parter, additional news came about raids and manhunts, all connected to Dimitris and his mafia

I went to the Greek Embassy, where an official confirmed that the passport pages were fake and no such citizen existed in their records. My team and I were stuck as we imagined the worst: the police were going to grab the Trooper away from us on some random day and we’d have lost all that money paid for nothing. 

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All was not lost

Then it dawned on my team and me that all was not lost. We still had the vehicle, the cash to cover the remaining balance, and the sales agreement. We moved quickly and got help from a friend who hooked us up with some pro-bono lawyers. With a notarised affidavit on hand, I very quickly requested for a new official logbook from the motor vehicles department.

As it turned out, Dimitris never transferred the logbook to his name, so the necessary paperwork became so much easier to do than I had hoped for. I got a clean, new logbook issued without needing Dimitris’s signature on any document.

But to my utter surprise, the insurance sticker I had been driving around with was designated to a sedan, not an SUV. I could have dropped down on my knees right then and thanked God that I was never stopped by cops at any time during the eight weeks or so I had been driving the vehicle under fake insurance papers. 

I never heard from Dimitris again after he ghosted me. When I did swing by his house during those tumultuous days of trying to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the gardener informed me that no one lived there anymore. Much later, I deduced that Katerina must have been a madame of the brothel and Christos, a trusted lieutenant.

For many months after that, I couldn’t drive the Trooper without looking over my shoulders for any shadowy figures following me or cops demanding me to present a proof of ownership. Finally, the mafia news died down and people carried on with their lives. I did the same, too, and stopped worrying about Dimitris and his ilk. 

It’s been almost two decades since, but I still remember that random time when I became embroiled in some high-level Eastern European mafia stuff. I figured, it’s a matter best left for Hollywood to play up.

*Name was changed.
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