I made a mistake when I called Kevo Stero of Maasai Mbili Collective. I said I was doing some work for Facebook’s project, #realpeoplerealstories and wanted to interview him. He said, “All right, all right. I know it,” then, “can I speak in Swahili?” I said of course, because I studied Kisima Cha Giningi in high school and my Swahili isn’t too shabby. Plus, speaking in the language he was most comfortable in would give him a chance to express himself more authentically.
Only he didn’t speak in Swahili, he spoke in some deep sheng, eviscerating me with it. Words and expressions I’d never heard in my lifetime pierced right through me. Sheng is like the clouds in the sky; no two people in two different parts of Nairobi will see the same clouds from their vantage points. And two, look down for a minute and then look back up and you will not recognise the same clouds anymore. Sheng is like amoeba, amorphous, always changing, a zeitgeist capsule if you will. You blink and you find a new word like ‘rieng’ whose meaning you can’t even begin to decipher no matter how hard you try.
Anyway, this meant that I missed so much of what he was saying because he kept saying things that I couldn’t figure out and I kept saying, “Ati?” and at some point, I think I started killing his vibe. Anyway, this meant that we spoke numerous times on the phone over the past few weeks. He was humorous, though, easy-going, genuine and he sounded cool because, well, he’s an artist after all.
I’d call him and ask, “Stero, niaje?” and he’d drawl in his smooth, badass voice, “Niko fiti mtu yangu.”
I’d picture him sitting outside the wood-walled studio at Maasai Mbili, shooting the breeze with some artists, dreadlocked fellows with toothpicks hanging from their mouths, nonchalantly watching the foot traffic passing outside their shop, the hot sun beating down on them. Maasai Mbili [M2] was founded in 2001 by Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota who started M2 by selling hand-painted signs in Kibera. Now the place is a studio and gallery, open to all creatives and artists from Kibera. It’s an open space where artists can not only go in to work, but also to teach others, seek opportunities for collaborations and basically hang out. But painting is what they do best, and that’s what Stero does. [While typing his name, Word keeps suggesting that I change his name to Stereo].
“Unamesea Bombolulu?” Stero asks when I ask him where exactly in Kibera he hails from.
I don’t know where that is. He says that a long time ago, when he was a wee boy, there were matatus that would come from Dandora straight to Kibera, number 42s, going through Kariobangi, town and then Kibera. The last stage is called Bombolulu, he says. “Come ujionee, mtu wangu,” he urges me. I rather like how he calls me ‘mtu wangu’. I feel initiated.
I wondered about his creative process. When does he draw? When does he paint? What ignites his creative juices? Where do his ideas come from?
“Ideas zangu?” he asks.
I can hear the crunching of his shoes on the gravel as he walks. There is a muted hubbub of activity in the background.
“Mi huamka ngware,” he explains. He’s usually up by 4:30am but he doesn’t get out of bed.
He watches a movie, he says.
“Movie?” I ask incredulously.
“Er, movie…like sinema!”
So he goes to the living room and watches a movie at dawn? I ask. He says, no, from his phone.
“Uko na wife?”
“Er, niko na wife.”
Does that not wake her up, I ask. Or does he use headphones?
“Zii,” he says. He watches it on low volume.
I find it crazy that he watches a movie every morning. What movie did you watch today, I ask him, testing him.
“Highwaymen,” he says, “ume-iwatch?”
I have. Bonnie and Clyde. Once he’s done with his movie, he is up and out of the house to the studio. Some days he doesn’t even do any work, but just being at M2, in a creative space, gives him a sense of process, that something is happening even if it seems like it isn’t. And creativity – as you might know – is a process, sometimes a long one. “Kuna siku ya kuboeka na siku ya kufanya kazi” he tells me.
Another time I called him at lunchtime.
“Ahh, Biko, niaje?”
“Fiti. Uko wapi?”
“Ahh kwani bado tuko interview mtu wangu?”
I try not to giggle.
He says he’s at a place called Makina, if I remember correctly.
“Kwa Fadhe,” he says.
I ask him if he went to see his father because ‘Fathe’ is still father, last I checked. He laughs and says, no, Kwa Fadhe is where they drink their soup from. Fadhe sells soup.
“Kwa Fadhe, soup ni kinde.”
“Kinde ni how much?”
“Ten bob, bradhe,” he says laughing. Someone says hello to him and I hear a muffled conversation as he holds the phone against his torso or something. When he comes back on he explains that Fadhe also sells meat and cow’s tongue. “Calcium ni muhimu kwa mwili,” he drawls. When he’s done, he will head out to Kwa Esther, their “base.” This is where all the boys meet over drinks. It’s a gathering of minds. They talk and josh over booze. When I ask him what he prefers to drink he laughs and says, “Kitu yoyote iko na alcohol.” This place, Kwa Esther, is where he also happens to come up with most of his ideas. It could be something someone said, a joke, a story, a memory. The place swirls with ideas and characters. It’s a community area where everybody is welcome, and you never know who will trigger a painting idea that was locked within you.
Kwa Esther is also where everybody who went to town to seek work – boda-boda guys, mjengo guys, office messengers, hawkers – finally end up at the end of the day to cool their heels. This is where they report what’s happening in town, he says. “Hata watu wa Mungu [street preachers] huja kutuambia Mungu alisema nini leo.” He laughs at that joke. I laugh too. Most of his friends are artists and most of them congregate there and when they converse, there is friction between minds and sparks emit beautiful ideas that usually end up on canvas.
He was born in Kibera. He loves it there because, he says, you will never find a greater sense of community than you will in Kibera. If your brother has 1,000 bob, then you have 1,000 bob. But, he adds, it also propagates interdependency, reliance on what others have, rather than what you have.
I didn’t call him over the weekend but when I called on Tuesday afternoon, he was taking a break after a morning of creating. He wouldn’t tell me the specifics of the project he was working on in the beginning, but he mentioned that he had done some sketches.
“Are you happy with your work today? The sketches, I mean,” I asked him.
“Biko, sikasiriki na job, niko fiti,” he says to mean all his sketches and paintings are ace. That when his paintbrush meets the canvas, it’s a done deal. He tells me he’s going for lunch. There is some meat that was ordered and is being prepared at a place called Jambo Sio Moja butchery. “Tumeweka kimondio,” he tells me and explains that Kimondio is Kamba for ‘one who is lost.’
He’s called Stero because he was a chick magnet in his teenage years. He tells it like he had to beat them off of him with a broom. He was also a small guy. “Nilikuwa decoy,” he says. Since he was peace-loving and small, whenever they went out to clubs to listen to reggae, his boys would send him out to gauge the aggression level of the other crew. “Kevo, enda kwanza,” they would say.
“Umeacha madame sasa?” I ask him and he laughs and says,
“Biko, acha utiaji. Niachie nani?”
He’s happy with the sketches he’s done. He used pencil but he says he can use anything that can draw. At Maasai Mbili, he says, they are not fussy artists who have to use one type of pencil. They can use charcoal, if they have to. They aren’t bad workmen who quarrel with their tools.
“Painting ni painting, mtu yangu.” He says.