What can possibly be so unexpected in Nairobi? We pondered this question as we drove back for a two day exploration of the city, before leaving again for the wilderness. I have not been to any other capital city other than Nairobi, except through alternative forms of media- books and movies. Mostly movies. I am one of those people labeled ‘a literary hoax’ because I watch more films than I read books. A dubious title that I accept with grace, thank you very much.
For an alien, the only thing that you need to know in order to survive in Nairobi is to remember how to wear caution around your neck, and the position of the KICC. If anything happens, just look for the tall cylindrical building that wears a Samsung branded fedora. You cannot miss it. Make that your point zero.
Team Osborne is in Nairobi to shoot the unique cultures and people existing within its bounds. Personally, I find Nairobi a somewhat animated town. In the city centre, buildings sit side by side like refined gentlemen at a Luo wedding, looking all tall, prim and shiny. But when you go downtown, it gets more and more threadbare. Chance on the bus station. Before you get to this area, please pray that your lunch agrees with you. If not you will need a City Council washroom, and while letting out the stampede of droppings rushing out, you will look around and spot graffiti done in dark brown saying “Clean water sold here.”
Women of Tom Mboya Street with mammoths for handbags demand right of way. At the foot of the buildings are kids scrambling for handouts. Yuppies walk with swagger, bouncing up and down as if listening to a beat.
All forms of disabilities are on exhibition. Walk down Tom Mboya; a man with a crooked arm here, a lady with a son whose head was not designed by its maker there. A diabetic with an open wound, red and sore, his plight explained on manila paper, 20 bob coins sprinkled all over it.
Then the old timer selling newspapers of the day and haggard dog eared GQ magazines.
Cross to Bata Shoes, a chain of brightly lit neon signs peddling NOKLA, Samsings, Motoroller cell phones and YaMaana motor bike spare parts. Naivas supermarket for the hoi polloi and Nakumatt and Tuskys for the ones who own Kenya.
Hauntingly deceptive coffee shops selling overpriced coffee. Pizza joints teeming with women who seem to ignore the rubbing together of their inner thigh flesh. Also in this line are fat men like our driver Johnny in denial. They say it’s not a kitambi but a layer of molten muscle.
On the upper streets, you will meet them. Those with Twitter handles that command thousands of people. They usually walk on the other side. Kenyatta Avenue, Biashara Street and Monrovia Street. Those hallowed beings; God’s best gift to Nairobi since the invention of sliced bread.
Diamond Plaza in Parklands where waiters raid you with laminated menus the way makangas do at Machakos Country Bus Station. Illusory menus that make kawaida food seem so tasty. They call nyama choma ‘steak’. Tikka is just a fancy word they call boneless chicken to woo middle class Indian customers.
However, inside the gasping life of the city are hidden people doing things that goons are not allowed to dream of.
We stopped by the Sarakasi Dome, and met Abdalla standing on his hands at the rooftop. Evans dances with sheets of silk, and act that is commonly referred to as ‘tissue’.
“Tissue? Like tissue paper?”
“Yes. Like Hanan.”
For this act, Evans has to dress up in a tight colorful silky costume that accentuates parts of his body that I am not comfortable describing.
I’m standing next to Joy. She is as high as my highest rib. She weighs 55kgs, yet while lying on this zebra cushion, she juggles an 11kg drum with her feet. She throws it up, receives it with her feet just before it hits her torso.
Even Osborne holds his breath while kneeling for a shot.
“By the way home ni wapi?” Nairobians say by the way even when there is no way.
“Ngori sana. Me nilitoka huko kama bado inaitwa Mobimba.”
From here Osborne asks us to visit some skate boarders. Fortune calls our contact person for the day. Siteiya. We are heading for Loresho.
“By the way Maguuh, hizo shots za Sarakasi are sick!”
Sick? Did Karanja pass on his stomach upset to the Sarakasi photos? That is what want to ask Osborne, but I am more fixated on the new moniker he has baptized me. He has taken to calling me Maguuh lately. I still do not know how I feel about that name. Maguuh. Sounds like what Fortune would call a dish made of traditional potatoes.
The skate boarding quest takes us to Shangilia Primary School. Here a Class 4 girl kicks my ass at shooting hoops. It is a typical humble NGO school that strives to embrace art. It stands in the middle of a lofty neighbourhood with guards manning checkpoints, leafy green hedges, mathematically trimmed in different shapes. In this same neighbourhood is a similarly lofty school where students are chauffer driven in yellow buses with tinted windows.
The skate boarders ride. Osborne points his cameras at them. I hold some lights. Karanja holds another. Siteiya and Fortune giggle like school girls checking out boys. Johnny basks in the sun, sun glasses on. He is getting a tan.
Osborne finishes, shows the skaters the photos. They want to grab the camera. They want to eat their photos. Osborne smiles.An accomplishment.
It is a fairly good day. However, there is one shot that Osborne would trade his appendix for a day for. He wants a sapeur. In brief, a sapeur is a person (mostly an old timer) living in the shanties, who has a sense of style. Colourful dressing; like a pink pair of socks worn into white shoes, a yellow blazer, blue pants and a red hat. Something like that. Their clothes are bright; external blingers is all they can be, because on the inside, they lack something to shine on. Sapeurs dress because it is the only thing they have ever learnt how to do correctly. They are originally the society of elegant gentlemen of the Bakongo; where sophistication is a cult. They pronounce their individuality with plush aplomb in defiance of their pauperized slums. Simply put, ni ujaluo kutoka Congo.
A producer is the King’s hand. Fortune is Osborne’s hand. When the king says that he wants a sapeur, the hand will do all the dirty work to get him a sapeur. Fortune makes the calls. She gets a contact in Kibera. We leave to meet him. Apparently, a sapeur has been found. We are going to Kibera.
A young dude, Tony, seemingly in his early twenties leads us through the slum. We skip over rivulets of water lining the walls of mabati and mud wattles and hamlets. We pass by two fellas in dusty aprons up an electricity poles. Osborne and I stare briefly at the spectacle because we know for sure that Kenya Power people do not dress like that. We follow thin corridors that wind around the houses, and after the third turn, Osborne looks like he is just following the crew now to wherever it is going. To be honest so am I. Fortune and Karanja engage the Tony- asking him questions about security of the place, and the old man we are going to met. Tony offers a little biography about his prime days at the DC’s office.
Osborne and I, we are not scared. I do not know about him, but as for me, I am not scared because I am walking with him. Have you seen Osborne? He is a juggernaut of a man. You should see the size of his shadow. It crawls up walls, an ominous cloud, begging you to try and say something smart about his blogger’s chipped tooth. You will loose three.
A green T shirt passes us by, on hind sight, it is worn by a black dude, almost my height. On its back is the inscription ‘Suna nyakwar Rapudo’. He speaks a familiar tongue. His shirt is an ode to his grandmother. We pass a mud house, speakers booming from inside. They must be watching one of those movies whose soundtracks have big egos, bigger than the characters themselves.
A corner.A gate. We are ushered into a dim lit house. Seats covered by yellow vitambaas. A mzee says karibu. We sit. There is a TNA calendar in which kamwana’s photoshopped eyes light the room. He is smiling at me. The next picture on the wall is the one kamwana,Obama and Michelle standing in the oval office.
His name is Peter GakuruNdegwa. His story involves a piece of land in Lavington grabbed by wakoloni, being sent to slash grass in Lang’ata, and then his house burning down in a mean fire that brought Kibera to its knees. He speaks of them, partly in kyuk, partly Swahili.Reinfects himself with the melancholic memories of a life shredded by streaks of ill luck and bad breaks.I taste the pain in his words. Bitter like goat meat in Matuu.
He used to be a sapeur in Kibera until that fire happened. And when they burned down, he did not just lose a trunk of clothes. He lost his colour as well. Now he sits in this grey hamlet in the middle of East Africa’s biggest shanty town. His life is in black and white, dull and gloomy.
Osbornes listens. In his white board of a face, he is visibly hurt. The juggernaut is broken by an old man’s story. The king is cut to the quick. Osborne still wants to take his picture. He wants his story on the Safaricom calendar. The hand does not need an alarm to get her making phone calls.
Fortune begins to explain to him why we are here. Since King Osborne has decided on this shot, Fortune has to make it work. We are to buy him new clothes, dress him up in his old ways.
“Tumekuja kukurudishia swag yako.”
“Ooooh. Jamaican dressing!”
We laugh. The oomph in his voice is refreshing. There is condensed sunlight in his words. Excitement.Optimism.
I have long harbored a seething contempt for Safaricom’s rates for data bundles. I have had an online altercation with the customer care persons on Twitter. The ones who sign off their tweets with initials like ^TB. In those moments of anger, I have imagined that ^TB is a short form for Tuberculosis, and also thanked God for the mother who named them.
Then they threw #UnexpectedKenya my way, and I realized that there is more to what Safaricom is all about. They do not simply transform kawaida lives. They also reform them. It gives people like Peter Gakuru Ndegwa a second chance at life. It paints back the colours long faded by old age. That is why we are going to give this oldie his groove back. So that even in the lonely sunset years, he rares on with funk.
Osborne looks happy. I want to laugh at him because he almost cried. He nods his head a lot while Fortune speaks, as if approving an idea for shot he has pictured in his head. If he gets that shot, I will allow him to call me Maguuh.
Then we get to the most important part. Money. At this point, to make herself clear, Fortune launches into Kikuyu. The speedy kind of kyuk that has more phlegm than they have in Kiambu. I sink deep into my chair, into the darkness of Gakuru’s digz before someone has half the brain to say ‘Okoa Kenya’.
The words race out of her mouth. I cannot hear anything. To my ears it sounds like;
“Xxnxufhhousldjbsuys SAFARICOM hajavugeaql;buw MBESHA kjsbdih;aqihehwewlhc MBISA hkdsuwe;swec CALENDAR dbsduggsiuvsd THLEE THOUSAND SHIRINGS howp9fef888wehf KITAMBURISHO sweiqq;owxqknweyhnvw JAMAICAN FASHION.”
We have our sapeur.
(Photo: Robert Macharia; Kuku man)