Every Wednesday we catch up on the lives of men in Nairobi through the segment Man Around Nairobi. We share the stories of men who work, live and play in this city. This week our Man Around Nairobi is Kinyanjui Kombani. Kinyanjui Kombani “the banker who writes” is a creative writer, banker, learning facilitator, and award-winning entrepreneur based in Nairobi, Kenya. He featured among 2015 Top 40 Under 40 and won an in-house “Top 5 Under 35” award at Standard Chartered Bank.
Kinyanjui’s novel ‘The Last Villains of Molo’, based on ethnic instigated clashes in Molo, Kenya, is a study text at universities in Kenya, Germany, USA and UK at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. ‘Den of Inequities’, another novel, is a study text in Kenyan universities and in schools in Rwanda. His two children’s stories include: ‘Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees’ and ‘We Can Be Friends’ (approved for study in Kenyan Schools), and ‘Lost But Found’.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in Molo, in Nakuru county (Hence my novel ‘The Last Villains of Molo’. We moved to Njoro, our ancestral home when I was 15 years. I grew up in a small, one-roomed mabati house, in a single-parent family (My mother and father separated just before I was born and my mom had to raise all five of us singlehandedly). It wasn’t easy growing up, but it prepared me for life.
Molo was a great place to live. Molo was a vibrant, fast-growing town with a lot of diversity. I went to a very good school, Molo Academy, and I remember running (we were always late, for reasons only the devil knows!) to school and passing by the then Standard Chartered Building – it is noteworthy that this memory was topmost when 11 years later, I would end up working for the same bank.
Molo was a town set for great things. It acted as a bridge between the productive, potato-rich Rift Valley highlands and the equally fast-growing town of Nakuru, where people from different tribes worked together as brothers. Well, that was before the upheavals of the 1992 tribal clashes which stunted the town’s growth. My neighbours were Kalenjin, and we had so much fun growing up until tribal suspicions forced our parents to break up our playgroups.
I came to Nairobi when I was in Form Four following the death of my mother and stayed with my elder brothers at Ngando, a slum off Ngong Road. This is where I was introduced to the so-called city life. I came at a very phenomenal point, at the end of the El Nino rains, and I remember seeing wading through the swampy slum every day.
I was quite the village boy and I found my way around Nairobi by using the Hilton Hotel as a landmark. I had come to the city before, but my visits were limited to Kencom House where my mom’s lawyer was based. So if I wanted to go anywhere I would come to the Hilton first, get my bearings then go to the place I went to go, and vice versa. I was once dropped off upcountry buses at Railway Station, went all the way to Hilton then back to Railways (okay, I was a bit daft!).
It was at Ngando where I learnt to play pool. I actually became addicted and it took me a long time to break from that chain. I used to gamble away and even rent money. When I went to campus I took up theatre to get out of the pool addiction.
What do you love about Nairobi?
The vibrancy! Nairobians are so vibrant. Just sit on a hotel balcony and watch Nairobi speed below you. You will see unrivalled vibrancy. There is always something happening.
Nairobi life is also scaringly active. How do you explain pubs lined up along one street, each within feet of the other, blasting music? It was Wallace Kantai (@wgkantai) who asked on Twitter, “So, you people who go to Mojos, Tribeka, etc. How do you know which music is yours and which is the next club’s? Which one do you dance to?” Yeah, that pretty much sums up my point.
Nairobi is also full of opportunities. If you look around you, you will see examples of people who have taken advantage of opportunities around them to make a living. As soon as the drops of rain start falling, you will see a person who was, only a few minutes ago, selling shirts, immediately start selling umbrellas. The rain stops and the same person will now be sitting on a stool, shining people’s shoes. And when the roads are flooded, there are people who will grab the opportunity to ferry people across the waters either on carts/trolleys or on their backs.
Nairobi is the one place that gives you an opportunity to really grow. It takes you out of your comfort zone. I have moved from a scrawny village boy to the corporate fellow that I now am. Most of it is because Nairobi lets you develop real networks. I am not sure I would have as much success as a writer as I would if I was not in Nairobi.
What would you change about Nairobi?
Of course, the traffic jam. I would love to sleep in, but every day I want to do that I remember that it will cost me heavily. I long for the day I can do a 30-minute commute to and from the office. The current scenario is that I have to wake up at 5 am if I am to do 30 minutes. A delay leaving the house and the commute balloons to one and a half hours.
If I had a magic wand, I would also touch Nairobians’ attitudes and make them more humane. I guess we are so tied up in our individual part of the rat race, that we forget to be human. It is not uncommon to see people being mugged while others are just passing them. An accident happens and people fish out their smartphones to send photos to @Ma3Route, instead of helping the victims. I would also add a lot of tolerance – we are so intolerant of other people’s views and opinions.
My magic wand would also have to touch the city council askaris. Wa! If you have ever been hoisted up by one or more of them because of a misdemeanour, you understand that they need more than prayers and a magic wand. And this goes for most public servants. Service is a foreign word to them.
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
Nairobi gives you opportunities to shine and to network. As a banker, being here at the heart of the economy has great privileges (both in my past life in sales and relationship management and in my current role).
Even for what I do outside of my banking job (writing), Nairobi opens doors for me. 90% of my sales are in Nairobi and most literature events happen here in Nairobi.
Most Kenyan publishers are concentrated in Nairobi, and being here has given me access to them. In addition, the visibility that I have had as a writer is because I can easily hop into a studio, be on air at 8 am and be in class (I am a Learning Facilitator at the bank) at 9 am.
I am also able to hang out with fellow writers and learn how to perfect my craft.
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.
The first would definitely be our national park. I mean… it is right here! A national park in the city? I would also ask them to visit the giraffe park as well.
A must-see is the show at Safari Park – the Safari Cats. It is simply indescribable. One has to experience the show to see what I mean.
Next would be the vibrant Maasai market…. For obvious reasons. If they are adventurous enough…Gikomba market. For those of us who shop in London and collect at Gikomba, lol. Add Toi Market to the mix.