By Boniface Mwangi
My mum was dead. I went back to the house we used to live in and it was hollow with her absence. She was my lifeline, now I was alone and it dawned on me that l had to walk the narrow and straight path.
I was 17 years old but l had to become an adult immediately. I had a penchant for picking fights especially when l knew l was right, l wouldn’t back down even when threatened with dire consequences. My mother’s death changed all that. I had to stay away from trouble. Shortly after her death, I knelt down and accepted Jesus Christ in my life. The following day l went looking for a Christian to pray with me. I told him l got saved. I knew salvation made people “meek and peaceful’. The people that l knew avoided trouble were Christians.
After my mother’s death, Ben a bible seller and a close friend of my mum, took me to a restaurant and sat me down. We sat in a dark corner, it was during the day but the entire restaurant was dark. The government had imposed power rationing in the entire country and because hydroelectric dams were low. As l sipped the fermented porridge, he told, “Mwangi, life is a supermarket. You can walk in and pick anything you want and no one will ask you. You can even get the staff to help you push as many trolleys, as you want but remember you cannot leave the supermarket with any of those goods without paying for them. In short, you can become anyone you want to be as long as you’re willing to pay at the price”. He told me not to be a wildebeest and follow the crowd. “Don’t jump into the river because everyone is jumping, the crocodiles will eat you, be your own person.” With that he paid for my porridge and left.
My only inheritance was a bed and rent arrears. I was broke and alone in the big Nairobi city. My relatives wanted nothing to do with me; they already had mouths to feed. In seeking help from relatives, one told me, “If you cannot pay your bills, just go back upcountry and live with your grandmother for free.” I was underage, living by myself and paying my own bills. I couldn’t get a job, even an informal one, because l was under 18.
I opened a video show in one the alleys in my hood. To avoid constant police harassment l made a police officer my business partner, his contribution was zero but his random visits meant in my shack made people pay up to watch movies. I was small and l needed a godfather. The police officer collected his dues regardless of my losses or profits. After a few months l closed shop. I decided to focus on what l knew best; selling books in the streets.
I constantly had to play hide and seek with city council employees. I was a child, working in adult setting. In the hood l had to make a choice, stay away from bad company because if l got caught they would be no one to save me. My mother was my savior but she was dead and l was on my own.
In the hood, the smartest and coolest guy was the bhang peddler, Karanja. His front business was selling charcoal but he always smart, dressed in the latest fad, he was always in Karl khani, cool boots. He looked like a rapper. The police would stop by his shop to get their cut. In the league of the moneyed boys in the hood were thugs, one of them was Ngunjez aka “Six Killer”, a nickname he got after he beat up six men who were chasing him after a robbery. The last cool kids were touts, they had money everyday and for awhile l flirted with the idea of becoming one but no one was interested in employing a child. I looked like one at 17 even though everyone else who l have mentioned here was my age mate but had big bodies. The friends who chose crime ended up in trouble,one seats on deathrow for murder,tow were killed by mob justice,another was shot dead by police and three died from drug,alchohol related addictions. A few of them are zombies today.
Before I turned 18 I was already tough. I looked even younger than 17, which meant I couldn’t fake my age. Today it feels like feels l had stunted growth for lack of enough food because everyone who was big then is look’s smaller when we meet. I tried to get an Identity Card anyway only to be issued with a letter by the National Registration Bureau showing that I wasn’t of age yet. I continued to work on the streets, fending for myself with whatever little money I could make. I longed to be 18. Unfortunately, age is not like weight, therefore eating more food cannot accelerate it. I was Kenyan, but I wasn’t a real one until I turned 18. Getting that small document meant everything.
As a resident of Pangani area, along Juja Road, I was subjected to constant police harassment because I had no ID card. Because Pangani Police Station serves the Eastleigh area, cops dream to be deployed there because they viewed the undocumented Somalis and Ethiopians who live in that area as walking ATMs.
Back then, after a patrol (and mass refugee extortion) the police would sweep through our neighbourhood and arrest Kenyans. The citizens were arrested simply to ensure the police made bookings in the Occurrence Book as a way of accounting for their patrol.
Failure to have your National Identity Card with you at any time was, and is supposedly still, regarded as an offence.
A few hours after I turned 18, on Tuesday 10th July 2001, I was queuing at the Chief’s camp in Kariakor. For my last name, l picked my mother’s name, Wakiuru, a woman who brought me up single handedly. After getting my waiting card, a small slip that shows your ID is being processed; l was able to get a job at a Tusker Mattresses (now Tuskys’) supermarket as a casual employee.
The job was terrible. I was working 12 hours a day, earning Ksh 350 a day, which was a lot of money to me then but there were no off days. I was assigned to the shoe department and my job entailed wiping the shoes and within a week at the job, someone walked in with flip-flops and left wearing shoes. In the evening as l wiped the floor l found the dirty flip flops reported to my supervisor and l was immediately transferred to the cards department.
In the card section, the work wasn’t bad. I had the best card display compared to all the Tusker mattresses branches but l still hated the standing an entire day doing nothing else but arranging cards. I hated been a “piper”. Piper is what the supermarket employee calls themselves and the aisles they’re assigned are called pipes. I was an employee between July 2001 to November 2001. After that l quit and went back to the streets to hustle. I became a jack of all trades; l sold ice cream, petticoats, peanuts, and love cards,flowers, tea and bread at overnight prayer services, anything and everything that wasn’t criminal and could feed me.
Unlike my mother l decided to sell all books, bibles and textbooks. I worked in downtown Nairobi. Everyone there lived a double life. You had your business life during the day but what you did at night, where you lived was secret. One of the hawkers we worked with was part of a criminal gang that terrorized people at night and we only discovered that when the police came and broke his store while he was on the run.
Another shop that sold mattresses and boxes was actually a gunrunners shop where they hired guns out and a police informer betrayed them. There was a crippled man who spent the days begging in uptown in Nairobi and when he came back to River Road he would be carried high like a king by prostitutes who would drink all his money and the following day the vicious cycle of begging would ensue. We knew the handbag snatchers, peddler, the dealers, the counterfeiters but the dangerous ones were the people who led a double life. The rule was to mind your own business.
Everyone had a double life, chasing their hearts dream legally or illegally. So did l. I wanted to advance my life. My morning was spent reading newspapers. Everyday l went through the papers because l wanted to know what was going on.
I wrote to newspaper editors and government officers giving them ideas and tips on investigative stories and on how to get rid of peddlers, crime in downtown Nairobi. I used to send registered letters using parcel delivery to ensure they were delivered and I would leave my email address. I would check my email once every week. I secured meetings with some of them but all l got was promises.
I once wrote to National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, met their boss and gave him ideas on how to crack down on drug peddlers in downtown Nairobi, he promised to get back to me. He never did. I wrote to the Nation Media Group telling them about the cartels in downtown Nairobi and they offered to publish my story but l declined because back in the hood my interview would have been seen as snitching.
I desperately wanted to do something to make a difference. I was crazy enough to think of running of office at the age of 18 years. In my diary of 2002 l wrote that l wanted to become a policeman, a lawyer, a cameraman and later a political leader. I read a lot of novels and biographies. If l wasn’t just selling books, l was reading them. I looked for PLO Lumumba in 2003, then, on his invite, paid him a visit in his office and l asked him how he became so eloquent and his response was read, read, read. He asked me how many books l had read in the past one month and l told him four. His response to me was “not bad.” I was elated.
In his office he had framed photos of Martin Luther King Jnr and Mahatma Ghandi. He also had one of him receiving some Martin Luther award. He never told me anything useful apart from asking me to get contacts for the toastmasters from his secretary and bus fare of Sh 66 bob according to my diary. I also noted that l regretted taking that money because that’s not why l had gone to see him. l left disappointed. It looked like l was bothering him and l noted in my diary that l wanted to leave him a note, with a famous quote “ a candle doesn’t lose its light by lighting another candle.”
I was yearning for a job where l could make a difference. I was tired of been shaken by police and city askaris for bribes. I was notorious for arguing with them and l ending in police cells a number of times for that. Some of my hawking friends decided to try their luck in the military or the police; some got lucky and joined the force. The ones who joined the police force complained about corruption and how the system wasn’t going to change. They too became corrupt. They couldn’t speak freely as before and in a way l realized that’s not where l belonged.
In the streets l sold books and read as much as l could. One of my highlights as a hawker was giving a graduate from Kenyatta University work to help manage my hawking business. Because l looked very young l always wore coat lest my potential clients mistook me for a beggar, after all l looked to small to be in the streets. Money wasn’t always enough because l was supporting my two younger sisters living with my grandmother upcountry.
Back at home, my landlord and l played hide and seek. l was given the task of closing the gate after midnight and in return my house rent was reduced from Sh800 to Sh600. I used to come home late and leave early before the landlord woke up. Eventually he came to live in the same building with us because he got tired of people not paying rent. His first action was to drag me to the chief for not paying rent.
I would never to lock my house because there were no valuables to be stolen, just books and old clothes. No one could steal my books. Because l never used to lock my house, l once came home late from my sales with a friend and found the man who led me to salvation in bed with a woman. It was 3 am and the four of us had to end up sharing the bed. It was awkward and undignified, but then again there is no dignity in poverty.
I was active in church and in 2002 I told one of my pastors of my interest to join journalism school. The senior pastor Niyi Morakinyo convinced me to get a biblical education while l tried to raise money to study journalism. I didn’t have money for journalism school so in 2003 l joined Kingdom Academy, Bible school for one full year. The classes were in the evening and during weekends l would serve in the church.
I borrowed one of my classmates camera and l started the business of taking photos and selling them. During the day l would continue my books hustle. I expanded my business and started selling teddy bears and flowers during graduations. My room was becoming too small for cache of books,and no reading space. Meanwhile in the bible school l learnt a lot and briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a pastor.
One of my classmates, Kennedy introduced me to Malcolm X tapes that l used to play back in my room on repeat button. He died the following year after refusing to take his medication believing he would get divine healing. The second classmate’s Caroline, death was so abrupt and l remember my lecturer pastors going to the morgue to pray for her resurrection, it didn’t work out, we buried her too.
While in Bible School l continued taking photos and one of my lecturers, Eshter Morakinyo had worked for one of Africa highly acclaimed photojournalist’s Mohamed Amin. She spoke so highly of him and gave me books to read about him. Mo’s drive and how he mad it became my guide for the next chapter of my life. A school drop out just like me who went to take photos during the 1984 Ethiopian famine brought international attention to the crisis that saved millions lives in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine and eventually helped start the charity wave that resulted in Live Aid concerts. From his grave he guided me, he had died in 1996 in a plane crash. His story opened for the power of photography like l had never known before and I decided that I could change my world using pictures only. I didn’t have to preach or write, photography was enough.
Boniface Mwangi has risen from poverty to prominence in Kenya. He is renowned for his powerful photographs and his courageous protests calling for social justice. @bonifacemwangi
Note: This selection is excerpted with permission from Mwangi’s memoir UnBounded. The book is available through private purchase. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.