FIRST ATTEMPT AS DRUG COURIER LANDS KENYAN MOTHER IN JAIL
When Muthoni Mary Mukami boarded a Kenya Airwaysplane on the night of April 8, 2008 to Mumbai, India, en route to China, she was filled with both feelings of hope and trepidation. On one hand she was happy because the trip, she thought, would open doors tobetter opportunities for her and her three children.
But that was going to happen only if the business deal that was taking her to Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, was successful, she reminded herself.
She also feared the unknown. For one, she was new in this “business” and secondly it was illegal. In fact, it could mean death for her if caught.
Ms Mukami and her friend Ann Wamboi had been recruited as mules for an international drug smuggling syndicate that stretched across the oceans. It was a fateful decision that landed both of them six years in a jail in Hong Kong and, at least for her, led to a lot of soul searching.
Means to an end
Born and raised in Dandora’s hard slums, Mukami and her family had known poverty so well that she says she can paint its face if it had one.
But even in such reduced circumstances, she had never contemplated being a drug courier to improve her family’s fortunes. Doing it was a means to an end.
She had been looking for an opportunity to go to Dubai. A friend had told her of some well-paying jobs — at least by her standards — that the locals of Dubai refuse to do.
But she lacked money for a flight ticket. And so when Ms Wamboi approached her with the offer of smuggling the drugs to China, she was more than ready to take it up despite the risks involved.
“I knew it was risky, but convinced myself that one has to take risks in life. My planwas to do it once, get the money and fly off to Dubai,” she said Wamboi had successfully couriered the drugs twice before and although she was not rich by any stretch of imagination, she was not badly off compared to Mukami.
So some time in March 2008, Wamboi introduced Mukami to Jane, a recruiter of young female mules for the drug syndicate ran by Nigerians in Nairobi.
The three of them met two more times at a hotel near Afya Centre as she arranged for their travel documents — all at her expense. They were going to pose as businesswomen who were going to China to look for stores selling cheap clothes to import back to Kenya, Jane told them. Meanwhile, Mukami had to come up with a gold-gilded story to sell to her family about what she was going to do in China. “I told my mum I was going to work in a jewelry business in China and that my role would be to receive the items and distribute them,” she said.
To her children, she simply told them she would be back soon. Her youngest daughter, Shantell, was three years old at the time. Jane, the second born was in Standard Three and Margaret, the eldest, was in Standard Six.
They were to fly to Guangzhou via Mumbai and Hong Kong. Being her first ever trip out of the country, naturally, she was excited. A Nigerian, a link in the drug syndicate, picked them at the airport. He took them to a house on the outskirts of Mumbai, where a woman received them.
The Nigerians never told them their true names, and only referred to themselves as “Boss” and “Boss Lady”. While there, they swallowed the cocaine pellets that were to make them prisoners in a foreign country.
Ingesting the pellets was the worst part, recalls Mukami.
Each of them was required to swallow one kilogramme of cocaine contained in 100 pellets, each measuring 100 grammes. The pellets were tightly wrapped with cello tape to the size of the index finger. Swallowing them was a grim, full-day affair accompanied by untold pain. They were required to swallow 10 pellets within one hour and then lie down for another one hour for the pellets to settle well in their stomachs.
Thus depending on the speed, the process of ingesting them could take up to 10 hours.
Prior to swallowing the pellets, they had been starved for a day to get rid of anyfood in the stomach. “At the end of it, it felt like my throat had been corroded with acid or scraped with barbed wire,” said Mukami.
But as a first-timer, she swallowed only 65 pellets. Their Nigerian hosts were not impressed and said they would have to cut the money due to her at the end of the mission. “By that time I was so upset and disgusted by the whole thing. I told them I was ready to throw up the drugs and go back home,” said Mukami.
They acquiesced. Each of them was due to get $3,000 (Sh261,000) in cash upon successful delivery of the consignments hidden in their stomachs in Guangzhou. Besides this, they were given $1,000 (Sh87,000) each for purposes of convincing airport authorities that they were indeed businesswomen going to buy clothes in China.
Before they were taken to the airport to board the flight to Hong Kong, something that will forever remain etched in her mind took place. “Boss and Boss Lady fished out their Bibles and for the next one hour or so engaged us in fervent, loud prayers for the success of our mission. This was not what I had expected of drug barons. But these two could have easily passed off as ordinary preachers,” she said.
Unlike the flight from Kenya to Mumbai where they had been booked in economy class, they were now booked in the business class.
Before they left, Boss and Boss Lady repeated a warning that they had drummed in to them during their stay in Mumbai: Do not eat anything on the plane. This was a warning that Mukami roundly disregarded with disastrous consequences.
Having not eaten anything for about two days it proved impossible to resist the packets of delicious food and drinks that were being passed around. “I gorged myself on them thoroughly against Wamboi’s dark warnings. To top it up, I called for a couple of sweet wines to wet my parched throat and lips,” she said.
She was totally drunk when they disembarked at the Hong Kong International Airport. Everything that could go wrong did. “Wamboi engaged in loud arguments as we waited to be cleared. Fearing that we were going to arouse suspicion, she split from me and went to a different queue,” says Mukami. Perhaps due to the drink working on her head, she loudly engaged the airport attendant, a lady, who was checking them in an unnecessary disagreement.
She was soon whisked away and put in an observation room where they studied her behaviour. Yet, were it not for the drink, her act might have been discovered sooner.
“The alcohol had given me some sort of super-confidence that allowed me to act normal. I feared nothing and they must have concluded that I was just drunk. They let me go,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wamboi, who had been cleared, was waiting at the carousel section. But she waited a tad too long and attracted the attention of the airport police. When Wamboi told the officers she was waiting for a friend who had been taken to their observation room, their antennas of suspicion were raised. They took her to another room for physical body inspection and that is when their game came to a sudden crush. Wamboi spilled their secrets.
Wamboi had inserted in to her private parts some of the pellets she had not managed to ingest. With a little probing, more than 20 pellets gushed out to thefloor. “As I stepped out of the observation room about 15 policemen swarmed around me with guns held high and ready. They asked if I knew Wamboi and I denied. But despite my most fervent protestations, they arrested me,” says Mukami.
Arraigned in court
In a convoy of about 10 police vehicles, with their sirens blaring, they were taken to the nearest hospital for X-rays and given laxatives to help them excrete the pellets.
After recovering, they spent a night in police cells writing their statements and then were transferred to a women’s remand for the next eight months, as investigations continued.
“I almost went mad. I remembered my children, and grief overwhelmed me. We were poor, yes, but we hardly went hungry. Was this necessary?”
Her State-appointed legal aid advised her that she would be better off if she pleaded guilty. By so doing, her sentence might be cut by a third. She looked forward to the day she would be arraigned in court.
– The Standard