Every Wednesday we have our Man Around Nairobi segment where we feature men who work and play in this beautiful city. Our Man Around Nairobi is Magunga Williams. Magunga Williams is a writer. He says he is not an award-winning anything but telling a good story is his only vanity. Sometimes he sells stories, but more often than not, he gives them away for free.
So last December, Magunga decided to open a kiosk (online bookstore). Something small for people to come and read books, because according to him, between the pages of a good book is the best place to be. This kiosk is now becoming bigger than him, like a teenager who has just gotten two strands of hair on his crotch and now thinks he can smoke in front of his father. His kiosk has grown. He sells African titles only. He asks you should pay them a visit sometime. Just go to www.books.magunga.com.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I did not grow up in Nairobi. I grew up in Kisumu; a not-so-big town where men are men and women like them that way. I grew up in White Gate, then to Migosi when it was still new with bushes and bees and roads that could only fit one car. Then we moved to Ukweli; a sprawling neighbourhood on top of the hill, a village setting that was just starting to experience modernization. When we moved to Ukweli for the first time, we were welcomed in style. First, our stuff got stolen, then a night running came and left a huge mound of shit at our doorstep. But with time I came to love it, especially at 4 pm when a bevvy of girls went to the stream, stripped down to their red underwear and bathed out in the open like it was not even a big deal. At first, I was shocked at their brazenness for one, and second, at how the other boys in the hood did not even seem to mind the presence of naked girls.
I grew up in Kisumu when there was no flyover. When matatus only plied one route. The others areas used Olwendas (Luo for Cockroaches) which were small Peugeot 404 and we carried each other to and from school. I grew up when Kisumu was young and hopeful when bodabodas were bicycles called ngware as opposed to modern motorcycles.
Then Nairobi swallowed me after high school. Nowadays I am a stranger to Kisumu. And that embarrasses me every time. The transition in Nairobi was a slow and gradual one. But I had been here before. I was born here, at Aga Khan Hospital. The one that others call a University. That was in 1991. Then in 1992, my folks moved to Kisumu. Of course, this is a story passed down through legend. By and by we used to come here to visit. We would get inside an Akamba or a Tawfiq and spend 8 to 10 good hours on the road. Back then there was no Easy Coach or Guardian, and the road was terrible.
I have a photo of myself at Uhuru Park. Going to the park was a thing before Nairobian grew into the middle-class bubble and made it shady. But then I never spent time here. My days were in Kisumu. Then I cleared high school and came here for campus. I was not stunned by the tall buildings and the lights along the road that never went off. But there was that sense of ‘Shit, this town is HUGE! Kisumu can fit into it five times and still have room for a plus one!’ Come to think of it. Westlands CBD is pretty much Kisumu City Center – well make that like 5 or 6 years back when I landed here.
You would laugh at me, but that is just because you never met those guys who stepped into Nairobi from shagz the first time. The ones who the first time they were on a lift, was when they went to the 17th floor of Anniversary Towers to make inquiries about HELB. Many of them threw up. Then there was the chap in my school who saw Afya Center for the first time and thought it was a big MPESA shop (or Safaricom Headquarters).
That said, I have to confess that I still get lost in town. I do not know buildings, and I do not know roads. Put me behind the wheel and leave me in the heart of Kileleshwa and by God, I will get home after the next General Elections. I still ask people to meet me outside Nation Center, KICC or Ambassador Hotel.
2. What do you love about Nairobi?
Nairobi and I have a love-hate relationship. I will just tell you what I once said about Nairobi the other day. I love it for its sense of life. It never sleeps, it would never sleep even if you gave it prescription drugs. I love how I can find anything in Nairobi. I love its modernity; its big and wide roads that climb on top of each other, its tall buildings that block the sun and most importantly, I love its people.
Many times Nairobi loves me back. Other times not so much.
Everybody should experience Nairobi when she is tired and dangerous. How she loves you with her eyes shut. When a hurricane of women carrying huge handbags bulldozes its way around Tom Mboya Street. How loud girls in faded jeans meet at different spots of Kenyatta Avenue and selected spots in Upper Moi Avenue, talking loudly and high-fiving to tales of “Aki jana hata sikutombwa. Wanaume walipeleka mabibi Valentine. Hata kuma inaskia baridi.” When, while walking, a young man reeking of something too awful to be legal, rubs your arm with callous hands, beckoning you to buy a Samsung S3 – an insult to a Jaluo like you who is already at Samsung A8. When people wearing unfastened ties and cologne mixed with the sweat of a long day, hung their jackets over their shoulders, walking like half-awake zombies to their bus stops…exhausted from playing their small parts in turning the small wheels of this bandit economy.
Everyone should experience Nairobi when hawkers quickly pack their gunias and bolt, leaving you wondering what the hell is going on. It is like they are running from a ghost that only you cannot see. Sometimes Nairobi makes you cry. Cops fire tins that make everyone cry and wheeze and sniff. The city becomes a funeral and a hotbed for diseases; a king-size bed where flu and coughs kiss.
Everyone should see the secretaries in short dresses and thighs that shine like neon signs. When street kids sit at Bus Station to watch free documentaries of leopards chasing hapless antelopes on the huge screen. When Nigerian music from almost empty night clubs boom is the open invitation of anyone who’s up for a moon-raiser.
When Nairobi loves you this way, you plug in your earphones and jump into a matatu. At that point matatus park uncomfortably close to each other, honking endlessly to nobody in particular, scrambling for space with reckless humans trying to squeeze themselves in between these iron beasts. Adele will be playing, moaning about that relationship that did not work for her ever since she was 19, and now she is 25…and you will wish for the day that you will meet her and ask, ” you know, perhaps you are the one who loves badly.” More of a statement than a question.
But then in her sweet sad voice that constantly begs for company, she will find you. You unlucky lover of Nairobi who was too busy counting his Twitter followers to notice the swift hand that grabbed your Samsung A8.
Anyone who has been loved by Nairobi this way and still hasn’t left her deceitful ass has known the kind of love that drove the best of poets to their madness.
3. What would you change about Nairobi?
There are these people who turned beautiful homes into offices. I really get annoyed when I visit such office suites, mostly because I wish they had been left to be houses so that I can live in them. Kwanza those ones on Upper Hill? Waaaah. I think a butterfly dies every time a house is turned into an office.
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
I am a writer and a bookstore owner. I feel like Nairobi is the only place in Kenya where I can really thrive. If I could, I would move back to Kisumu. But every time I think about it, I wonder how I am going to make rent or expand my online bookshop. So yeah, Nairobi is fine. It will do for now until something else happens. Until somewhere else calls me.
5. If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
There is nothing much I can tell them other than, “if you want to experience the best and worst of Kenya, come to Nairobi. At least he will kiss you first before screwing you over” Then I will direct them to Mutua Matheka’s and Joe Were’s IG feeds. That should be enough.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at email@example.com.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat