Adichie Ngozi Chimamanda. What a hell of a name! With such a name, you are inclined to write books, and guest speak at important summits and conventions. You are also likely to address issues the society shies away from like slavery, social injustice and gender equity. You become the spearhead of revolutionary movements, give ted talks and finally become the face of UN in Africa. Being the continental face of the UN is not for obvious names like James or Jane or Charles (Shaos). Titles that hold no water. A name can hold respect, fear, power and authority. Names open doors and capture the attention of a crowd. There is power in the name of God which is God. Isn’t God mysterious? Russian names inspire fear so does Italian names stimulate hunger. Don’t we all yawn when we hear of Santa Lucia?
With a name like Chimamanda, you can choose to be anything: Professor Chimamanda-a professor of literature at Harvard, Chimamanda the astrologer, a snake charmer, a footballer, a rebellion movement leader, a primary school teacher or a feminist. I first encountered Adichie Ngozi Chimamanda on the lips of my best friend who reads her books. The second time was when she gave a Ted talk on ‘The danger of a Single Story.’
Single stories have featured in our lives as Africans and especially Kenyans. We languish in poverty because the government is corrupt and tribal. We struggle to make our ends meet because our parents did not take us to school because they are not well off. Our only way of addressing issues is finding something to blame. I feel that we may be stuck in the wrong careers because of single-sidedness. I can only do what my lecturers taught. I walk past Holy Family Minor Basilica every day, and everyday photographers stop me, inviting me for a photo session outside KICC. Not a single day have they tried something new. And not a single day have I taken a different route. As human beings, we are so accustomed to the routine that change becomes a struggle. Well, I decided to sit down with one of the photographers and know what lies in the depth of their hearts. Why can’t they try out something else? Like growing Pepino and Thorn melons. I got the contacts of one through a friend and set up a date at Central Park.
In the seventies, influential businesspeople from Rwathia Village in Kangema were sending their sons to the University of Nairobi. The youthful men were being sharpened for great tasks ahead. Their fathers were patriarchs of massive investments in Nairobi and wanted an able team to take over after them. The boys had passed through the best high schools on the land, and a degree in economics and political science would rocket them to unprecedented levels. The men arrived in Nairobi, fuelled by their desire to drive the nation. In the exodus, a son of a peasant made it to Nairobi as well. A boy with an ordinary name. However, he was not joining the university with his mates. He was in Nairobi because he boarded the hearse that had brought a body for burial in the village. The driver of the vehicle was his distant uncle, perhaps the richest in their lineage.
Mr Ngengi joined me for a lunch meeting under a tree at Central Park. I called him mister because he earned the title. He looked like the type of men who shaves with a razor each morning without looking at the mirror and tucks in his striped polo into his cream Corduroy trousers. I recognized him from a distance and I watched as he fished out his phone from his pocket to make a call. I could tell that he was long-sighted by the way he extended the hand as he dialed. My phone rang.
“Hello. Where are you?” I heard his powerful voice, full of confidence and aggression. A voice twenty years younger than the caller.
“Hi, Mr Ngengi. I think I can see you. Turn to your left, and under the tallest tree you will see me waving at you.” I said and waved. He saw me and hang up. I watched as the diminutive man with an arrogant voice startled towards me. He was about five foot five and sixty years old. He donned a khaki tourist hat embroidered with The Big Five and a Nikon Professional camera dangled on his neck. He also wore the typical photographers’ sleeveless jacket. We shook hands, and I felt his powerful grip. I reciprocated the firm grip and shake and added a direct eye contact. My father would have been proud of me for such a respectful handshake to an older man. Of course, I had stood when he entered.
“Karibu sana Mr Ngengi,” I said as I ushered him to a bench. I imitated JKL on that one. The midday traffic along Uhuru Highway was building up. A church meeting at the park was underway, and street boys lingered around hoping for a free lunch.
After the formalities, we settled down for the business of the day. I unpacked chicken and fries and spread them out on the bench. I stole a look at him. He maintained a calm face. Maybe he loves chips or was kind enough to pretend so.
“You have said that you are a blogger?” He enquired.
“No. I just write about people. I find human beings interesting.”
“I am not interesting. I am just an old rude man who compels people to take photos outside KICC.”
“I have been stopped a hundred of times but have never taken a photo. I bet people like me are bad for business.” I murmured.
“It is a game of chances, to get a single customer you have to stop everybody who passes by. If somebody stops we convince them to take many photos. We take two at KICC, outside the parliament buildings if the security guards allow, at monuments here in Uhuru Park and one with the whole city as the backdrop.” He said pointing to the perch above the Uhuru Park Pavilion.
“I was informed that you are from Rwathia. Why are you in Nairobi while you could have opened a studio shop back in the village?” I asked him.
“In the late seventies, Nairobi was a fair battlefield, anyone could have made it. I and the likes of James Mwangi of Equity came to Nairobi together only that our focus was different. He joined University, and I enrolled at the River Road School of life. I was twenty-two- six years after dropping out of primary school. The men coming to the University were my friends, and I envied them. They attended good high schools like Alliance and Nyeri High Schools, and were the apple of the eye of the whole village.”
“May I see some of the photos you have taken? Did you start off as a photographer? Was it an interest or was it by fate?” He handed me the camera and showed me the buttons to press. He was exceptionally good at his gig.
“You remember I came to Nairobi in a hearse. My uncle was the driver and also captured the funeral on films. Sometimes he would request me to tag along and there I learnt a few things about photography like lighting, object focusing and handling of films. On other days I would run his errands like typing eulogies on the typewriters, assist in making coffins and watch out for the dead.”
“How do you watch out for the dead?”
“By being a common figure at the mortuary. I befriended the mortuary attendants, and they would tip me off if someone required funeral services. I had to survive by proving to my uncle that I was an asset to him otherwise he would kick me out of his house and I would return me to the village.”
“How much did he pay you?”
“Relatives rarely paid you if you put up at their premises. I would get clothing, food and a roof over my head. If business was good, if people died, he would give me ten shillings to spend. I would come to the Central Business District and walk around. Sometimes I would travel all the way to Buruburu to see a girl from Rwathia who had been employed as a maid. I would take her to the airport to see the aeroplanes rise and fall. I was living the dream man.” Ngengi was getting nostalgic and his eyes shone.
I pictured him with that girl from Rwathia. She would perhaps go by the name Nyakinyua, would have dark afro hair, thick eyebrows, a dress with buttons running down the front and a heavy Kikuyu accent. Ngengi would tell her of stories from the CBD since Nyakinyua rarely left Buruburu area. He would say to her of how all roads closed when Jomo died, and how businesses came to a standstill. She would ask about work and the uncle. At some point, she would touch his hand playfully, and Ngengi’s heart would skip a beat. At the airport, they would sit outside a kiosk and sip Fanta and eat bread. On one occasion he would carry his uncle’s camera and take photos of Nyakinyua at the airport with a big aeroplane in the background. The wind will blow her dress, and it would hug her body intimately, he would see her body’s intricate figure line and something in him would move. They would promise to marry each other when the right age came; she was only seventeen.
“Your uncle must have been a perfect man,” I said.
“He was. He was one of the few men who had seen the light at that time. He worked hard and bought chunks of land in Kangema Township. May his soul rest in peace.” Ngengi’s strong voice worn off at the memory as if to express deep respect and admiration for the fallen giant.
“When did you start out on your own?”
“After some time I gelled into Nairobi’s way of life. At the end of the week I found that I made a few extra coins from personal errands and initiatives. I grew bold and even demanded a salary from my uncle.”
“What! Did you have the guts?”
“I was a man; I got friends who advised me. I also needed money to stop waiting for the future. My uncle surprisingly started paying me and giving me more responsibilities. When I moved out of his house, he gave me a bed, a small table and one of his cameras. When not working for him, I started walking around parks and landmarks to take photos of people. At that time there were no smartphones or digital cameras, so business was booming for the few of us in photography. After one year, I left my uncles’ workshop to start a venture of my own.”
“That was a bold move. How was it taking photos in the eighties and nineties before China revolutionised technology? Tell me about your best works.”
“Nie reke ngwire. Maundu matiare moru. (Let me inform you; things were not bad.) Photography earned me a wife, four acres of land and a name. People call me Ngengi wa Mbicha, (Ngengi, the photographer.) Looking back at the eighties, I was intrigued by landscapes, architecture and nature. I took many photos which appeared in the East African Newspaper, the Nation and some business magazines. One photo I took of the Kenya National Archives made it to a gallery and won. I knew I was in the right hustle. I upgraded my camera and even got youths from the village to help me at functions. I remember Nyayo invited me severally to the state house to take photos of his guests and at state functions in Nyayo, Kasarani and Uhuru Park. Photography has been the story of my life; I have four children who I have educated to college level. The last born is a nurse, finalizing her internship.” He stopped, either for the applause or caught in the moment.
“Why don’t you quit, now that photography has evolved and offered as a technical course in colleges? You can also go back to Rwathia and capture moments of your childhood.”
“Photography has been my way of life, nowadays it is a bit slow nor do I do it full time. It is just hard to move away from it. I have clients who contact me often, and one way of keeping sharp for them is by being in the thick of things. I also have a photo studio in Kangema which is a joint investment with a young man I have been mentoring. He offers all kinds of dot-com services like videography, event coverage and music production. He is the most aggressive person I have met, a reminiscent of a younger me. It would be unfair to say I am a man of a single story. I have evolved son, I have.”
“What about the jacket? Is it uniform or a certain code? Because definitely, that has not evolved.”
“I bet you had to ask that. Ahem! It is a code, like a carpenter’s pencil on his ear. When I approach you, you won’t run away thinking that I am a conman, and it also helps us avoid trouble with the City Council Officer’s.”
Ngengi is flawless at photography. We walked up to the city’s viewpoint outside Afya House and took photos of Nairobi’s skyline.He also kept his first film camera, a Kodak Advantix series camera- an object of beauty. These are the tools that captured the history of Kenya; the attempted coup, the Nyayo era, the fight for multi-party democracy, the cameras that remind us of our grandparents’ youth and the far we have come as a Kenyan people. I wanted to ask him about the odd jobs he has done, like taking photos as a young African couple kiss. Or a baby bump shoot.
I have an upcoming photographer friend, and he represents the modern era photographer. First, he calls himself a professional photographer and fashion designer. He claims photography is both a talent and interest he chose to transform into a career. He knows his lenses, how to take that perfect shot and how to lure campo guys to a photo shoot at the old smoke engines at Nairobi’s Railway Station. He says he likes taking pictures of the sunset, sunrise, terrific cliffs, rustic furniture, old libraries and beautiful black girls. The other day his team organised a themed photo shoot for charity at arboretum grounds. The dress code was African Attire. His partners were offering free make-up for the ladies. They charged 1500 for ten professionally done and edited HD photos. At some point, I asked him about the weirdest client he has met.
“Hao ni wengi. Especially the ladies. Some want you to capture a tattoo or a ring in the oddest of places. Some want to take a bathroom shot. Other clients, especially modelling firms and lingerie companies will approach you with requests for product photography and well you know what to expect.”
“What do you do? Turn them down?” I asked.
“Turn them down?!”
He screamed and rolled his eyes.
For the Dot Com Photographer, click here to read his story. It is equally epic I promise you.