Every Wednesday we have our Man Around Nairobi segment where we feature the men who work, live and play in this city. Today’s Man Around Nairobi is Mugambi Nthiga. Mugambi Nthiga is an actor, director, writer and film blogger. His acting career began in Nairobi in 2005 and took on a resurgence when he found himself jobless in America in the middle of the 2008 recession. He was since worked in Nairobi, Philadelphia, New York, Kampala and Addis Ababa. He has had principal roles on M-Net’s TV drama ‘Changes’ and the celebrated Kenyan films ‘Nairobi Half Life’ and ‘Stories Of Our Lives, and has most recently been seen on Oh-Bama, a web series produced in Nairobi and Los Angeles.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
Yes I did. My first home was Buruburu. Phase 3, I believe. I was brought home from the hospital to Mum and Dad’s modest one-bedroom house. We were there about four years. Stuff was lot simpler then. Security walls and gates were low or non-existent. The most visible deterrent was broken bottles cemented to the tops of the walls, you know, in case a burglar wanted to vault it. Neighbourhoods weren’t divided into gated courts, there was plenty of space to play, and every house had one of those steel dustbins that belonged to NCC and got emptied once or twice a week.
Mum, Dad and I were joined by my younger sister, and I became a big toddler. Then we moved to a tiny place in Valley Arcade, then an old colonial type home in Nairobi School (Mum taught there; and the house had a compound and a tyre hanging from a tree!). We then moved to an even older house in Waithaka, and then we finally settled into the more urbane convention; a maisonette in South C (Halai Estate, where E-Sir came from!).
As you can tell by now, I never had a taste of real neighbourhood life until much later in life; meaning that what we lacked in regular neighbourhood company and hours of outside play, we made up for with imagination and improvisation. Telly started at 5 then. And VCR’s didn’t show up until much later. So I read a lot. Everything from Enid Blyton to Hardy Boys to Beano to Reader’s Digest. When we’d eat up more books than Mum could buy, she’d end up renting second hand books when the holidays arrived. God bless her.
What do you love about Nairobi?
Its vibe, its colour, its unpredictability, and the sort of stuff you can’t put into a post like this.
Give yourself over to Nairobi and she’ll show you a hell of a time. I have had days that started off calm and then descended into the madness on a grungy rooftop with a novice lady DJ blazing the decks with drum and bass music I’d never heard before, and would never hear again. I’ve made friends with magazine vendors, been schooled in political discourse by casual staff in shops, and seen the birth and growth of all forms of disruptive, defiant and brave works of art. There’s a pervasive pressure in Nairobi to get better. It’s inspiring and exhausting. Nairobi is, in every respect, a city unlike any other.
What would you change about Nairobi?
Nairobi is managed badly. That’s if it’s managed at all. Have you been to Roysambu or Gumba or Jamhuri or Corner? A city shouldn’t be allowed to grow in such haphazard and flippant ways. The things we’ve had to endure in Nairobi for decades: the traffic, the dirt, the garbage, the flooding, even the crime–all this stuff happens because the people who ought to be doing their job couldn’t care less, or are phenomenally incompetent.
The city’s priorities are myopic, uncharitable and superficial. Think about how much of the city’s resources and spaces are dedicated to commerce, decadence and housing, as opposed to recreation and wellness. We’re under the impression that we’re a world-class city, but that has more to do with the people and the matter of their brains and hearts, than of our infrastructure and leadership. It’s borderline miraculous that we can bravely venture to be our best selves daily when we live in a city whose authorities strive to be anything but.
As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
There’s a growing appreciation for artistry in Nairobi; because we all need the indulgent escape and the challenge to the senses. But the anecdote still exists among artists that the average Nairobian of means still values blowing money at a club, local or social gathering over spending a fraction of that amount on a play, book, song, concert or film. It’s an unfair generalisation, but it’s not inaccurate.
Things are shifting, though. I’m appreciated for my artistic work and I can command sincere respect for the craft, along with hundreds of other artists in the city. I’m grateful for that. We just need to put bums on seats at more artistic ventures and share equal patronage with the barman and the 50 bob DVD guy.
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.
– Nairobi is cosmopolitan Africa. Some pockets of the city will have you feeling at home in surprising ways.
– The people really are pleasant and amiable. Just get us out of our vehicles and out of the rain.