If you stick your head around the right doors in this city you will see the dealmakers, the powerbrokers, the city hustlers, the moneymakers and their ilk sitting around a table building their fiefdoms. From these rooms, the city moves. If you plant your feet firmly on the ground, you will feel the throb of ambition and drive, reverberating through the thick carpets and into the hearts of men and women whose intentions and motivations are a rubric’s cube. Someone said that the greatest stories unfold in the shadows. That someone must have stood at the precipice of Nairobi’s money-makers, a place where deceit, peril, aspiration, isolation, passion and hunger rub shoulders in a small corridor that lead to both triumph and failure.
If you take a peek inside the Intercontinental Hotel’s Safari Bar, for instance, on a day that isn’t Wednesday, Ladies Night, when prices of every drink on the menu are knocked off by 50%, you will see men sitting deep in leather seats, under mood lighting engaging in intimate and seemingly grave conversations. They are talking about money. It will most likely be two younger men with an older gentleman. The younger men, (one of them actually) eager, bright, with master’s degrees tucked in their back pockets will be describing a brilliant if harebrained idea, their iPads glowing like crystal balls. The older gentleman will be sitting further back in his seat. He is the one who has to be seduced because he controls the purse strings. The pied piper. He has on an expensive but oversized suit. He’s wearing a green tie, which hopefully sends a message that he can be fashion forward but must be taken seriously.
He has, on his slightly wrinkled hand, a hand with well-manicured nails, a snifter containing two fingers of rich glittery Courvoisier. He swirls it absentmindedly as he half listens to the class act in a cheaper but much better looking- and fitting – suit. He knows how this cookie crumbles. He has been on this side of the table a million times before, mostly coming out of it richer, not poorer and that’s why he has earned his position at the head of that meeting. He knows the young men have ideas and skills he needs and he has the money the young men need – a beautiful dance of musical chairs has begun. One of the younger men says very little because he’s the brains. He’s the think-tank, the one who knows how the machinery works. He only speaks when it’s time to explain the nuts and bolts of the idea they are flogging. He is awkward, as most geniuses are, he’s is the steak, his friend is the sizzle, so he lets the chap with the glib and glitz knock this one out of the park because right now, it’s time for sizzle.
Scenes like this play out in numerous lounges across town; at Sankara’s Champagne bar, from that corner booth which overlooks the streets seven floors down; at Kempinski’s Cigar Room where suits bite off the necks of cigars and swirl expensive drinks as they count, grow or protect their money; at The Stanley’s Exchange Bar where men and women cross their legs and settle into a late evening corporate Capoeira.
This is the Nairobi many of you know. Where men wake up every day, slip into their best suits and their 25K shoes and step out and relentlessly beat the bushes. All day. Every day. You can feel the energy of all these men and women when traffic stalls in the major arteries that feed the city, it’s like an angry beast straining on a leash.
Then there is the other side of the city.
The side where a different breed of men, following a different kind of code, make the city rumble. It’s the side where graduates don’t bother using their degrees anymore. Where degrees mean shit. Where no interviews are conducted, no referees are needed and where men and women survive purely on wit, smarts, intuition and luck. This is the other side of the city where handshakes mean more than a contract witnessed by a lawyer. Where your Ferragamo shoes means squat if the other party doesn’t like the feel of your handshake. Where all you have is your name (sometimes last name) and your reputation. A place where men shake hands on deals and men who cross other men die at the hands of fate. And there, men start early, and they all start at the bottom.
You might see a glimpse of this side of the city when you go to Nyayo house to renew your passport, like I did recently. You know there is E-Citizen, right? You fill forms online, pay the money via MPESA, print those forms and go to queue at Nyayo House – an ugly long windy queue that snakes and curls in ways that I can’t even describe. But if you have no time to queue, you know yourselves, you spend some money because there is always someone who “knows someone inside.” So you will call him and tell him, “My name is Biko, I got you number from Trevor.” And he will ask “Which Trevor?” and you will say, “Big Trevor?…Bearded Trevor? The guy who drives cars on TV?” He will come for you from the back of the queue. These days the clerks have a uniform, navy blue blazers. They look like old jaded students of Patch.
Once inside, the guy looks at my papers, shakes his head and tells me I have printed the forms all wrong and I need to do it again and I also needed a lawyer to authenticate my papers and have my passport photos taken properly. He hands me my brown envelope and off I go wondering where I would bloody find a place to print my stuff because surely, cybers are dead right? Who checks their emails on cybers anymore, right? That’s the kind of silly question someone like me would ask.
As soon as I step outside the gate this boy, one of the many random people who mill about outside Nyayo seemingly doing nothing, steps up and says, “Unataka picha? I tell him “nataka photocopy kwanza.” He summons this girl in a blue sweater and tells her “photocopy.” She holds my hand across the street, right around the block to a building near City Hall, up two flights and into this small cyber FULL of people printing and photocopying and browsing from these old computers that belong in a museum of technology. She is known there. She’s the mayor. She finds a computer, sits down, asks for my E-citizen details, I punch my password over her shoulders as she looks away and starts printing my stuff in the right format, makings sure all I need is there. Then she tells me pointing at a busy “cashier”, “mlipe 80-bob.” I pay without question. She holds my hand downstairs (the lifts last worked right before KANU fell from grace).
We find our way to Bruce House, take the creaky elevator with about 200 people in it (Bruce House elevators are like a cattle dip) and walk into this advocate’s office. Behind the counter is a motherly woman. She doesn’t have a chair, she stands the whole time. On the floor are a paraphernalia of old boxes tied tight, and paper bags bulging with God-knows-what and a bagful of nails, which means the advocate is probably building a residential building in Mavoko. Or he uses the nails to torture people who have refused to pay what they owe. I was sure that in a soundproofed backroom of his office one of his debtors was tied to a chair with his legs nailed to the floor, moaning and screaming “I swear I will pay you tomorrow, just let me go!” You know, the kind of grotesque stuff that would amuse a lawyer.
What this woman does every day, is come to work and sign papers for chaps like me – that’s her JD. Her tools? A pen and a rubber stamp. You pay 1,000 bob for the service that lasts about 3mins. Before I leave there are already three people waiting, brought in by other middle-men like the lady who is holding my hand. It’s only 8:35am. As we leave I ask my handler, how many clients she takes to that lawyer gets in a day from Nyayo house. She says about 40 in a good day? That’s a cool 40K a day. And he hasn’t even gone to court or chased an ambulance!! His expenses? Rubber stamp ink.
How does she – my handler -make her money? I ask dumbly. She says she gets her money from tips from clients, from the owner of the cyber and I suspect from the lawyer, because she can take business elsewhere. And because she had excellent social skills, I handed her a tip of 250-bob, and if she gets 50bob from the lawyer per client and God knows how much from the cyber chaps, she can easily go home with 4K a day. That’s 80K a month. That’s a hell lot more than most employers pay graduates on their first job, hell even second jobs. So as you sit there with your degrees, trying to wedge your foot up the corporate ladder, earning 60K a month and taking 1meter bank loans to buy a car so that you can keep up with the image of the city, this girl is already ahead. And I’m sure she has other side hustles that run while she is hustling in town, maybe a fruit salad business in the hood, hell maybe she sells crocodile eggs. I wouldn’t be surprised if she buys shares and already has an investment portfolio. We go to Centonomy to learn how to make money, this girl goes downtown where she learns at the feet of the economy.
Later, she walks me back to the gate (still holding my hand) and hands me back to the same chap who handed me to her. He herds me to the side of the gate, and like a magic show, another young chap pulls a white cloth from his pocket, holds it behind my head as a ‘background’ and the first chap, now with a battered semi-professional Nikon in hand, snaps me. I look bewildered in the photo. Things are moving too fast. Like magic, the white cloth and its owner disappears, the chap removes the memory card, hands it to a guy barely 19-years old who sprints across Kenyatta Avenue to develop these pictures which hopefully will not cut out my forehead.
He is back in 5mins, with four passport sized photos. 200 bob exchanges hands. As I leave, an Asian guy with his family are getting ready to have their pictures taken. These boys don’t pay rent or tax or whatever. They could be sitting at home because where are the jobs?? But some genius saw how passport seekers were suffering and brought a one-stop shop to them. They are courteous. They are organized. They see opportunities a mile away. And they grab them. These guys will do anything. I suspect if you walked up to them and asked them if they can get you an armoured Humvee, he will say, “Waah, hiyo itakuwa ngumu…lakini ebu tuone,” then he will fish his mobile phone out, search for a number in the phonebook and turning slightly away from you (I don’t know why they do that) he will say, “ Ngugi…Ngash hapa, ule jamaa wako wa South Sudan….” They never say no to business and if they can’t get it for you, they always know someone who will get it for you.
All these chaps who attended to me were, roll drums, Kuyus. I know because they all started speaking to me in Kyuk even though from my forehead and nose, surely they could tell I wasn’t. They spoke rapid Kikuyu, the kind of kuyu the posh kuyus who take frappes at Art Cafe would say, “Uhm, I don’t understand that kuyu, it’s deep kuyu.” Oh so now there is deep kuyu and shallow kuyu? Is OK. There is of course the difference in language based on the region people come from. For instance we can’t understand shit guys from Ugenya and Alego say. Those guys speak funny but they think they don’t. Who, for crying out loud, says, “gonyo?” or “mita in?” It’s preposterous! Even though the dialect is weird I wouldn’t call it “deep luo” even if I had two frappes in my hand. I could call it weird luo. Know what I think? I think that as the middle-class make more money some of them tend to distance themselves further from their mother-tongue. To admit that you speak proper mother-tongue is now uncool. Because you bought an E-class (on hefty loan) and you reside in posh apartments on Kirichwa Gardens road suddenly there is “deep Kale” which you just can’t understand. Well, God is “seeing” you and your frappe.
Where was I? Yeah, the chaps outside Nyayo House. I’m told it’s the same kind of operation around Sheria House. Men and women who are surviving purely on their wits and innovation. Middle-men. And the money that exchanges hands downtown in a day is mindboggling. While we are busy burdening our credit cards to keep up with the joneses these guys are building houses with our photocopy money and chump change.
I recently had the pleasure of having a drink with this lawyer in town. We were at the Safari Bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, eating chicken wings and drinking whisky. He’s a self-made lawyer who started from the bottom, so he knows the language the streets of Nairobi speaks. A charming guy, very likeable, with dark humour as most lawyers I know do. He was telling me tales of many folk he knows who started out parking people’s cars in town and being tipped 100-bob and who diversified into other businesses and are now counting their money. Men who started as office messengers, going into town at 4am to clean over 100 small offices daily before 8.30am and later running errands in town for a fee. Those men are now doing so well, better than most of us with many followers on Twitter. He told me of men who came to Nairobi with only the clothes on their backs, knew no one in town, walked to work and kept their heads low, hanging on the coat-tails of bigger men and rising with them. Many stories of the phoenix rising from ashes. Beautiful inspiring stories of hardship and hard work that pays off.
I hate stories with morals to them, so cheesy, but listening to this guy, I learnt something vital; there is no such thing as “small money.” These guys respected the “small money” they were making, and they did much more with the small moneys than we will ever do with lots of money. We want to make a meter today! So we lose focus on the 20Ks that pass us by daily. I don’t know about your parents, but my mom was a primary school teacher. A primary school teacher! As in, she was called “Madam Jane.” Hehe. Woi. But Madam Jane schooled all of us (decent schools I must add) on a monthly salary that I easily make in a few days, yet I whine and complain how Tamm’s school fees is breaking my bones. My point: There is no small money.
Later, as we wound up the evening, I asked the lawyer guy, “So what do you think is the one cardinal rule of making money in this town?” And as he slipped US dollars in the bill, he said that of course there are the normal virtues of hard work, luck, positioning, networking etc etc, but in general, “You have to be willing to risk a lot to gain a lot.”
I think you can take that to your bank. Tell them it’s from Bikozulu.