Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature Norman Abubakar. Norman Abubakar AKA Abu Sense is a storyteller. He is on an endless adventure to self-discovery in a noisy town, Abu has his award acceptance speeches ready and his only concern is that the ink and paper don’t fade and tear by the time he gets onto the podium/stage. Abu has certainly tried to avoid being a jack of all trades but constantly manages to juggle between marketing, acting, stage performing, poetry, writing and at some point, learning how to fly planes. His desire though is to tell a story, in whichever shape it comes in and in whatever medium the story fits.
- Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I was born in Kisauni, Mombasa until when my milk teeth emerged and my father opted to leave the relaxed life in the coast for the hyperactive one in the big city. I vaguely recall the trip to Nairobi, however, I could swear it took us days to get here, using the same means as the colonialists. The shift in and flickering of light on the windows of this metal snake gave me the impression of the world on the other side of the glass being a huge scanner spread out along the cabin, now that I think of it. I’m sure it wasn’t first class as we had been packed together with all my father’s belongings and served as the items’ human seatbelts. We landed in California, Eastleigh and that is where the foundations of my memories are buried deep.
I first heard of the phrase ‘best friend’ in Nairobi, which led to a number of mischievous and equally innocent escapades on our BMX bicycles, threading through the narrow pathways of the building blocks of Calif. I was too young at the time to be excited by the coincidence of living a few centimetres away from Clemo and his famous Calif Records studio. It is in this same place that I experienced ‘puppy love’ for the first time and held onto that crush for aeons, only to revisit the place later on and got served a knuckle sandwich in the form of ‘Ah huyo mresh aliolewa’. I suppose the same place that you find love in is the same place that you find heartbreak. I love Nairobi.
Growing up in Calif, one is exposed to a number of games that are synonymous with every other Nairobi kids. No one could ever catch me in the game of chako chako, I turned into a ghost whenever my friends and I played brikicho, I sucked at bano due to my stiff fingers, but compensated by taking up the role of buda in cha mama – cha baba, EVERYTIME! Eat that athletics!
There was this ‘power rangers’ sensation that my friends and I got from riding our bikes through and round ‘deza’. The dusty open field was our sanctuary, whenever the big boys weren’t sharpening their football skills, or when the crowds hadn’t gathered to be treated to a free screening of action movies, we’d stir up a hurricane of dust clouds and emerge through it like renegades. Girls could not get enough of us! Take me back.
- What do you love about Nairobi?
To some extent, I feel I have lived through the Nairobi experience passively. It might have been the adopted nature to erase any attachments as I moved around East African cities, being sheltered by many diverse families. What is remarkable, however, is the sharp contrast that Nairobi harbours. The scene changes drastically from Moi Avenue going down towards River road vs Moi Avenue going up to Mama Ngina/Kenyatta avenue. The vivid separation of class is profound. Nevertheless, the entire city basks in that same beautiful sunset that oranges the tarmacs, skies and skyscrapers.
The people swarm the streets like ants. Everyone’s frowning for some reason up until you stop any of them and get embraced by the warmest smiles. It seems each person that treads this city has a story to tell, and that’s wonderful. I enjoy listening to the sounds, despite my newly acquired skill of walking the town with earphones blasting loud music in my ears. It compliments my view of the city. What is bittersweet about Nairobi is that it is infused with a multitude of cultures that are all seemingly united by ‘sheng’, whether it’s the bougie ‘you guy, my guy’ version of Valley Road or the ‘haina mbulu mtu nguyaz’ of Eastlands. It’s all the same. But you can’t quite pin one story on Nairobi. She’s a foster home to many who ran away from the monotony of rural areas, and other cities to that extent.
There are a handful of theatres and art spaces within the city which eliminate any excuse not to showcase talent. Restaurants transform into stages to allow for performances. Empty parking lots litter with kids and adults who cruise on their roller skates, building rooftops offer a new perspective into crafting art, parks that provide ample space for huge capacity concerts, forest sanctuaries that coincides nature with human creativity, rich history that subsidizes the hard task of starting a story. Nairobi is the perfect location for sparking and showcasing ideas. It certainly induces in me the motivation to write.
- What would you change about Nairobi?
I’d love to see all public service vehicles exhaust pipes moved to the right side! All walkways are always on the left of the buses, and while walking in the beautiful, sometimes Jacaranda-d pedestrian walkways, you often end up reaching your destination smelling like a kerosene stove, due to being blasted by the black fumes from the ageing hearts of these PSVs.
For the people of Nairobi to move around and see how vast this ‘small’ city really is. There’s an air of restriction in this lovely town where most folks don’t dare go out exploring and end up only knowing ‘Tao’, cliché chill spots and their own neighbourhoods.
For people in Nairobi to stop treating everything as a ‘do-or-die-urgent’ situation. I never know where we’re all running too. I suppose I’d love an instalment of the culture of patience in the beautiful city. There’s always so much to take in, in so little time.
The perception that people have towards storytellers and artists in general as being poor. Like any other metropolis, the arts and humanities are overlooked in favour of systemic, routine, white and blue-collar jobs. The beauties and shames of society are encompassed and brought to life through art. Without it, we’ll be nothing but a soulless machine city
As a collective, we owe it to the artists who risk everything in exploring their capabilities in portraying the culture, not in a routine fashion. Their pay and worth cannot be dictated by the same institutions that clog people’s dreams in exchange for a monthly fee. I’d love to see Nairobians appreciate their artists more and hope that they will one day obsess over them the same way residents of Kampala, Dar Es Salaam and other African cities uphold theirs.
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
The constant dependence on corporate funds is slowly but surely killing art. Companies that sponsor creatives tend to control the material that the artists generate. It in turn ruins free thought and ‘thinking outside the box’.
The opportunity for artists and all creatives alike is to switch their objectives from trying to impress the few corporates and looking to serving the people who are the real consumers of their crafts. Always do it for the people, not institutions.
I am not yet there. I love the opportunities this city gives. There’s the freedom to do anything; as long as you can afford it (this enclosed thinking may be born from not moving around the town enough to find places that do not require money in order to create/do something). With every venture one wishes to undertake here, there always happens to be those who follow in your footsteps and those who emerge as your fierce competitors. One thing is for sure though, Nairobi may belong to a few, but they are certainly feeling the heat!
It is in this town that I set out to be a storyteller, and not only have I gained from it, but It continues to open up new opportunities for me; whether in film, advertising or stage acts. Again, this is a compact metropolis and word travels fast! It would be encouraging to see a sprout of art, independent and not swallowed by corporates.
- 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?
That Gikomba is better than Wal-Mart 🙂
Nairobi has a rich history behind every street and was built by a collective of people of all ethnicities. Did you know the late president of the USA, Teddy Roosevelt went on a drinking spree with his son and stole a statue from Khoja mosque? yeah, I know…crazy!
Away from the skyscrapers and congested bus stops, Nairobi has forests, a national park, slums and a variety of exotics to check out, not excluding the beautiful people with an eternity of stories. It is the sample version of the complete human experience.