I first met Arthur Mwai in 2013 on a Jameson familiarisation trip to Dublin, Ireland. It was organised by Pernod Ricard. It was cold – the tail-end of winter. Arthur was cool. He was dressed to the nines. He had a walking cane with a fancy handle that he went about with, limping like a don or a music mogul, a different scarf noosed around his neck each day. He had a cane because he had gout. Yeah, he was just the type to make gout look cool. You’d look at him and think, ‘yeah, one day I shall also have gout.’ He had a silently commanding personality; people would gather around him. He was a keen storyteller, always holding court but without being in it with his two legs. Dublin was a scream.
After that trip, I’d occasionally run into him. In a mall. At a bar. In traffic. Small talk. Then he recently said, ‘man, I’ve been through the wringer, maybe we should do my story one day, it’s mad.’ One day? I asked, can that day be next week Wednesday?
I went over. In his digs you wash your hands right outside his door, sanitize, then you step through the threshold, remove your shoes and pick from a long rack, one of the numerous comfortable slippers like those disposal ones in hotels. We sat out on the balcony where we had lunch – that he grilled – then he poured rosé out and settled next to Nyambura, his girlfriend/best friend/ partner who finished his words and laughed (as we all did) at his funny stories told in his signature cheek.
“When I was seventeen I spent all my holidays in a hot pickup car, parked in a dusty patch of road in Kangemi. Since there were no mobile phones to distract us, I’d be in the car with my bro, just shooting the shit, biding our time. My bro, Peter, was older, wiser, smarter, cockier, craftier. He’d be looking out the window, surveying the area. He was a businessman already, destined to this life of profit and loss, of buying and selling. He was also a wizard with numbers. Once a number entered his head, it was imprisoned. It would never get out. It doesn’t matter what; car registration plates, highway codes, figures. He could – and still can do – fairly complex arithmetic without touching a calculator: four hundred and sixty eight multiplied by thirty four? He will stare at a spot briefly, mumbling something, then looks up and says, fifteen thousand nine hundred and twelve. I kid you not. What’s six hundred and twenty five divided by two point five? Stares at a spot, mouth mumbling – looks up; two hundred and fifty.
He has hundreds of thousands of numbers in his head. Once he sees a vehicle registration number it won’t leave his head. He knows the registration numbers of all the cars my dad has ever owned. He knows all the registration numbers of cars owned by our cousins and aunts and uncles and his friends. He remembers people by their car registration number; I’d ask him ‘remember that guy who sold us paint? And he’d go, “aah, the guy for KCJ 786H?’ I’d be like, ‘I…gueess.’. Genius, that’s what my bro is.
Atop the pickup we sat in was a board written; ASK FOR TRANSPORT; DRIVER WITH A DEGREE. This was our selling point, the driver – my bro – had a degree. This meant that our clientele were mostly bougie, well-heeled people. There was a guy who wanted a lawnmower picked from Valley Arcade and dropped off to his residence. There was Kerea, a guy who wanted to move house. Yeah, we hamishad guys, a whole family in one car. Buckets, beds, gas cylinders, back there in the Peugeot 404. We had tons of white people coming to ask for transport. We’d pick Wafula the houseboy with the dog from lavish homes in Loresho and drop them off at the vet. We’d hang around in the car outside for the vet to finish with the dog then drop off the dog and Wafula back to Loresho. We also bebad beers for bars. Timber from hardware shops. Nyanyas for mama mbogas. I was the makanga, hauling and arranging things at the back, he was the driver. Sometimes he drove with his elbow sticking out because he was a grown up. Sometimes he never said a word, the loud clicking sound of the indicator filling our thoughts.
After a long hard day we’d go back to Kangemi, to a local bar called Kilos, order mutura, measured by the flat end of a rusty looking but sharp knife, kachumbari of avocado and some cold beers – always Tusker Export. A beer then was 7-bob in Kangemi, while in Serena it was 23 bob. Often we’d go to the Jeans Bar in Nairobi West for cheap beers before heading out to Carnivore, all before 9pm to avoid the entrance fee of 50-bob, buy one beer and warm it against the fire so that we could get high quickly. We’d cradle our bottles to cover the level of beer from judgemental eyes. I’d stare at sophisticated girls wearing red lipstick, knowing I couldn’t afford to talk to them and I certainly could not approach them. The disco lights whirled and curled overhead, throwing psychedelic lights on us, creating a heady moment of mystery and utopia for just that night. That one beer, occasionally warmed against the fire, would shore us through the night and when the deejay scratched the record to mark shika-shika time – a time for lovers to press and slowly grind against each other – we’d pretend that we had blacked out in our seats to avoid the embarrassment of being unpaired, of being unwanted, of being unlucky. Soon after, we’d stumble out of the club with the old taste of barley in our mouths, blinking in the grey light of dawn.
I completed form three, and soon after I finished high school at Greenfields in Kitale. Biashara was a great gig. I learned by watching my brother do his thing. I also learnt about marketing; “driver with a degree” separated us from the rest. It implied that we were polished, that we wouldn’t steal from you. That we had gone to school.
After that we got into other businesses – just hustling; we sold scrunchies for hair. Those things girls tie their hair with? We sold mitumba in the labyrinth that was Gikomba market, in the process learning to speak above the louder traders, to deal with all sorts of characters, some who were crafty and cutthroat. When you sell mitumba you learn about clothes and what they mean; people will judge you by what you wear before they even listen to what you have to sell. I might have gotten my eye for clothes then. At some point we sold t-shirts at Harlequins along Ngong’ Road. We would sell Chicago Bulls t-shirts, singlets and also t-shirts with the picture of Da-Brat, or whatever was in vogue, on them.
We stumbled upon a different business idea just as I was joining Utalii College in 1990 for the Hotel Management course: selling used tyres. Here is how it worked. In Europe, people changed their car tyres during Winter because the roads are slippery and they need special tyres. We knew a guy who’d send those tyres over to Kenya. What we did was buy them at a cheap rate then we’d polish them with Kiwi shoe-polish until they looked new and then sell them off. We sold them off to lecturers mostly. We knocked on office doors and sold tyres. Good gig.
At Utalii I was slaughtering cows, learning where sirloin steak came from, where rump steak came from, false fillet, top side. We would carry the carcasses ourselves. We did everything. We beat eggs. I’d make mayonnaise from eggs. We learnt how to spread a bed. How to clean a toilet. How to carry a thousand plates on one hand and another two thousand on the other. We cooked and cleaned. We learnt French and German. Then off I went to Block Hotels Limited as a management trainee. I lived in the hotel for a year, learning my trade and getting drunk. It’s there that at one time, a chef slapped me when I came to the kitchen hungover and chewing gum. The kitchen was a toxic place. You were abused as you cut onions. The language was foul, the hours brutal and the expectations wild. But you kept your head low.
After one year I left for Samburu Lodge as Food and Beverage manager. It was the full bush experience; when you looked up you were met with open blue skies that went on and on forever. When you cast your eyes down, the land was rugged and wild, with sparse thorny trees thrusting from the parched ground. The heat seemed to rise from the very ground we stood on. We were cast in the middle of nowhere, just us, doing the good work of hospitality, making sure that guests coming in small planes and in Landcruisers were hydrated, fed and had clean pillows. Ewaso Ng’iro river would flood often and I’d wake up in my house full of water, the sufurias floating about, knocking against each other. I’d shelter on the island that was my bed. Eventually, I would cautiously wade through this water, avoiding snakes and thorns. Block hotels didn’t have the kind of resources other lodges had. Generator doesn’t work? Figure something out. Room is leaking? Up to you. You learnt how to improvise, think on your feet.
Then the wanyamas. The place was not fenced.
It’s in Samburu that an elephant chased me. You don’t want an elephant chasing you – it’s like a storied house chasing after you. It was the end of another day and I was walking back to my house on a moonless night. I had half a bottle of gin in me, so I was feeling pretty bold and fearless, humming slightly as I stumbled in the pitch black darkness of Samburu with my torch. Unbeknownst to me, the elephant was sleeping right next to my house. Elephants sleep standing, like they are in a police cell. I must have shone my light his way after seeing an even darker mass in the darkness and it shone on its ass. Now, I’ve never had the opportunity of looking at an elephant’s ass before, so I really didn’t recognise it immediately. But when I did I panicked, stumbled and fell. Remember the half bottle of gin? The elephant shtukad, raised its trunk and started making that deafening elephant sound. Then it started chasing me and I ran around the house. I tried my keys quickly, but the door didn’t open, so I ran around again, eventually making it inside. I stared out the window and found the elephant staring back at me, angry at being awoken with a light shining on its ass. It was breathing hard. We both were.
In 1997 I went back to Nyali Beach hotel as assistant food and beverage manager. I did a year there, then the boss – Ketan Somaia sent me to South Africa as FnB manager for Rivonia Inn before I was promoted to General Manager not long after. It was in the Sandton area, very affluent, very posh. Everything glittered. Egoli, was indeed the place of gold as they call Johannesburg. South Africa, without saying too much, was wild. I was only 27-years old, so I didn’t know how to hold back. It was the best time of my life; tumbling from one swanky party to the next, drinking daily – on rooftops, by swimming pools, in hotels, out of town by beaches and resorts. I had Somaia’s luxury cars at my disposal, so I would roll in his S-class Mercedes and top-of-the-range BMWs, cruising through Jozi in these vehicles, young, brazen and invincible. It wasn’t a normal life.
It was all going swimmingly well until my girlfriend came down to visit me one time and saw how I was balling, and these hot South African girls (if you know, you know) who I introduced as ‘my friends’, and she thought, aii zii. She gave me an ultimatum; if you don’t come back home and marry me, I’m moving on with my life. This is a babe I knew from Utalii College. This was my best friend.
A few weeks after her visit I landed on Kenyan soil on a Tuesday morning, slightly hungover. I told my folks I was getting married on Saturday. My dad thought I was mad. He said he’d not attend a wedding like that. I shrugged. On Saturday I got married to my first wife at Windsor in one of the terraces overlooking the lush green that was a great metaphor for my life. I paid cash for the wedding. She bought the rings. Actually she did everything else. I was just the guy who showed up. Peter, my brother (the driver with a degree) was my best man. I wore a snazzy suit that was cut for men who had nothing to lose. The evening party was at Hard Rock Cafe at Barclays Plaza, you know the one that had a pink Cadillac coming out of the wall? Unbeknownst to me, this marriage would end in 2009. Then I’d get a baby momma. That would also end. But this story isn’t about marriage it’s about business and life.
In December of 1999 I relocated back home to be a husband. After four months I was a senior assistant manager at Nyali beach hotel. I had an office with big windows that overlooked a garden and palm trees. One year later, a friend called Badar Omar told me that a German guy called Bob Mason was selling his business; Bob’s Sandwich bar. I knew the place; I’d frequently hang out there on my days off, eating burgers, playing cards and having beers. It was a decent place. I knew a few things about bars that time since back in SA Somaia had let me run my own bar in one of his hotels. It was called Dylan’s bar, a horse racing joint. I brought in a barman called Mutua from Nanyuki and it blew up. I don’t know where the money we made went. No, I do. It all poured into the fast South African lifestyle I was leading.
Bob was asking for 1.4M for his joint. Most men I know secretly want to own a bar. I didn’t have that money so Omar and I partnered. I got a loan of 350K and he got the 350K and we paid Bob half upfront, with the rest paid off after a few months. And that’s how I got on the path of running bars. Bob’s Sandwich bar that became Bob’s Bar. We didn’t do much sprucing up. We got Omar to be the deejay and put up some umbrellas outside. Soon I realised that I was doing my employer dirty when I’d sit in meetings as the marketing manager of Block hotels and someone would say there is a new bar called Bob’s that’s killing our own nightclub, Noons nightclub. Nobody knew I owned Bob’s. But not for long, so I quit.
I was apprehensive. I was leaving a monthly salary for something uncertain. The first month we made 52k profit, which we split, so I made 25K. I had a car loan. The following month we did 180K, then 400K, then it kept climbing as Bob’s became this vessel on jet fuel that just soared and soared. In 2003, Kimenyi, a contact in the hospitality industry, told me that State House was looking for someone. I threw my hat in the ring and came down to Nairobi for an interview at the State House with three stern and dyed-in-the-wool civil servants. I killed it.
I started my job as Principal Household Service Manager in the State House in 2003, working for President Mwai Kibaki. I was in charge of all State Houses and lodges covering food and beverage, maintenance and gardening. I was also in charge of State house protocol and all functions. President Kibaki called me by my first name. I travelled everywhere he went. I would travel three days before his arrival with a forward party consisting of housekeeping, waiters and chefs to make sure we changed his bedsheets, that the duvet was the right one, that his meals were to his liking, that he had the right soap and shampoo and that there were no roses in his room (he didn’t like those) and generally that his living conditions were up to standard and that he was as comfortable and at home as possible in foreign countries. He especially loved London. He was happiest there. He would tell me stories about his school days in London, filled with nostalgia, as I stood smiling, my hands behind my back because he was after all, the President. I was as close to power as you can get, at the very heart of where it frothed with ambition.
I also developed high blood pressure while working in State house. It was a great gig but it was also frustrating as I discovered. I’d develop anxiety before his travels because if he ever fell sick after eating anything, I’d surely be put in handcuffs to answer questions. It wasn’t just the president I was serving, it was the office, someone elected by tens of millions of people. I had an altercation with someone very powerful inside the State House and I was fired twice but reinstated each time after the president intervened secretly. Meanwhile Bob’s Bar was soaring so much that in 2004 I, together with my brother Peter and close friends opened Psys Bar on Langata road.
In 2005 I was fired from State House for good. I had it coming. The President couldn’t protect me anymore. I carried my shit out of there in a box, locked out of power but with immense opportunities waiting beyond the gates. In 2006, Peter, myself and others, opened Psys bar in Westlands. Then in 2006 we opened Slims Restaurant on Ralph Bunch/ Lenana Road. It had that lovely sullen vibe about it, a place fit for a dinner date but also with a sunken bar for drinks. Sometimes we had a band, sometimes we didn’t. In 2007 my wife turned down a job at Kenya Airways as Head of inflight services and standards but recommended me for the post which I got. I was in charge of cabin crew operations, scheduling and training. I was the guy who decided which cabin crew flew where. It came with major problems, politics and temptations. I had come to KQ with a promise not to mess with any of those girls because I had had a nasty experience at my previous job in Samburu. I had slept with the secretary who, after the affair ended had greatly sabotaged me. She’d hide my mail. I’d be in the meeting and my visiting boss would ask, ‘Mwai, what’s the status of the new menus and wine glasses?” and I’d look around and go, “What new menu? What glasses?” I almost got the sack, man. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Resisting the girls at KQ was a high-wire act. I was in charge of thousands of cabin crew, most of whom were long-legged and stunning. The temptation to put my hand in the cookie jar was dizzying. I had countless opportunities to take full advantage of my position. I could have scheduled a tryst out of the country, in a seaside city like Cape Town, under the ruse of work and nobody would have been none the wiser. But Samburu had put the fear of God in me. So I didn’t. I constantly looked the other way. I heard whispers that I was gay.
In 2008 my marriage hit a brick wall and broke right in the middle like a cookie. I had it coming, though. The following year the KQ carpet was yanked from under my feet. I was jobless. In 2010 we opened Mercury Lounge at ABC place with my bro and a few other close friends. The following year we opened Psys bar CBD and Mercury Lounge at Junction mall and then Psys at T-mall in 2013. We also opened Mercury Delta Plaza, and Mchana pub and grill on Ngong Road. I was up to my tits in the bar business. And I was making money. Lots of it.
There was a time when I was sitting upstairs looking at a throng of people at Bob’s bar, jostling to get a drink and I thought, ‘these guys are fighting to give us their hard-earned money!” I was making millions from these bars every weekend, driving fantastic cars, wearing pure gold chains and flying abroad for holiday. Then slowly, things started to unravel. One by one, various market reasons led to the start of our bar closures. They started falling like dominoes; Slims in 2011, Psys Westlands in 2014, Psys CBD the following year, Mercury Junction 2017, Psys T-mall 2018 and then Bob’s bar – my first baby – in 2018.
Because when it rains it really pours, my relationship with my baby momma also screeched to a halt. My daughter, who I had taken abroad for studies, needed money for fees and I had underestimated how costly it would be. I was broke and I couldn’t pay for her education, my first child. I felt like I was failing her. Last year, the bottom fell off and I fell into depression. I lost weight. I woke up daily, clothed in sadness. I was afraid to step outside, to be in the sun because it made me feel naked. I avoided seeing friends. I’d wake up and pad around the house aimlessly or just sit in a heap of hopelessness. The few times I’d venture outside the house I’d dread meeting anyone I knew, dreaded to stand there and make small talk. Because I couldn’t meet my financial obligations I felt less and less of a man. Each day my manhood withered. I slept a lot. I lost all taste for life. I’d just sit in my chair feeling small and worthless and pitiful.
The only bright thing in my life was Nyambura, who I was seeing and living with. She’s petite, beautiful, strong. She held my hand when I was stumbling through the brackish waters that had become my life. She’s the only one I wanted to spend my days with. “Baby, hold my head,” I would tell her. I didn’t want her to leave the house for work and leave me alone in the house. I was clingy and needy. This woman eventually saved me, but first I went through shit when COVID came and swept away the remnants of what I had.
Peter, my bro, advised me to offload the assets I had. You throw shit overboard to stay afloat, that’s the basic principle. “That shit is not helping you, man.” He told me. So I sold my house to a nice Somali guy and I paid my daughter’s fees and invested in this home delivery business that I’m doing now. This was Nyambura’s idea. “You are a great host, and a great cook, why don’t you turn that into a business, deliver it instead of hosting it.” She said. So here we are. I started cooking and delivering food and my self esteem started rising and I started feeling like a man again, but not the man I was, a better man. A man who has been bruised and survived it. Every man has to be bruised to be a better version of themselves.
I must have lost about 60-million shillings.
But I don’t see it as lost money, I see it as the fee I paid to discover this new me. When I was in the bowels of depression, when I couldn’t even see the hand I was holding before my eyes because of the darkness of loneliness and unhappiness, my brother Peter was there for me. He called and even though he wasn’t aware I was depressed, even though I didn’t open up to him, he just knew and he kept calling. And he kept loaning me money. Him and another friend called Timothy Kabiru, a stand-up guy, would often come through for me financially.
When I stopped working at State House, nobody would pick my calls and of course my phone stopped ringing. When you fall from grace you learn, which is odd because we all know these things. We know we should invest in solid relationships. We know friendships are superficial, based on what you have and who you know and which parties you go to. For the longest time I was investing in things: cars, plots, watches, clothes. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn to go meet people and do deals in order to buy plots, to buy new things. To what end? What do you need three houses and two cars for? We’d go to Narok to look for land and get chased away by Maasais, for what? I’d be looking for the prettiest girl to hang onto my hand, so that my peers could say, did you see that bird Arthur was with jana? For what? Why did I need to go to Italy just so that I could show my trip off on Instagram? Money is smoke. I spent my life doing deals, getting into some businesses like sports betting for the sake of money, things I didn’t enjoy doing when what I needed to do was just follow my passion.
I now live a very simple, uncomplicated life. I’m making just enough to pay rent and live off but I’m more peaceful than I have ever been. I’m not chasing waterfalls anymore. I’m just happy to be here, swimming in my small stream. I have rediscovered my passion, my purpose. I cook. I have a drink at my balcony. I feel sunset on my face. I love my woman. I wake up daily and I cook. I don’t wear a blazer or fancy shoes or gold. I don’t care what the latest sunglasses are. I spend my whole day in tracksuits and a cloth towel hanging from my hip and I grill as I hear Nyambura in the next room taking orders on the phone. A Glovo guy will ring the bell to pick up orders for delivery. The peace I have now is unimaginable.