‘See the entrance to that building over there? That’s where I spent my first night on the streets. I was five years old.’
Kissmart spent the majority of his childhood living rough on the streets of downtown Nairobi. His father often abused his mother, forcing him out of his home in Mathare. He initially survived by begging, and scavenging dumpsites for scraps of metal, plastic and bone to sell. But he started out at the bottom of an established hierarchy. The few scraps that he did find were often stolen by other street boys.
As he grew older and wiser to life on the street, he resorted to more extreme measures to survive – from pickpocketing to drug trafficking and ‘koto’, or burglary. The reward usually outweighed the risk, until one day he pushed his luck too far. His gang was caught robbing a garage on the outskirts of the CBD, and as they fled one of his friends was shot and killed. It was a tragic reality check, and he vowed from that point to turn his life around.
Kissmart now leads tours of the streets where he grew up through Nai Nami – a project aimed at empowering disadvantaged youth in Nairobi’s slums, by tapping into their existing skills. Youth development organisations typically focus on improving the weaknesses of their beneficiaries for jobs in the formal sector, but Nai Nami breaks the mould by building on their strengths.
For Kissmart and the six other guides under the initiative, this involved developing their natural storytelling abilities to narrate their past lives as street children in downtown Nairobi. They’re doing a great job of it too – Nai Nami is now number one of 580 tours in Nairobi on Tripadvisor.
The building that Kissmart had pointed out to us was Church House, along Moi Avenue, a short distance away from our starting point at the Hilton Hotel. From here we walked down Haile Selassie Avenue, towards Bus Station and OTC. We passed the Sikh temple on Uyoma Street, where Kissmart would sometimes get free meals.
‘Godi!’, an old man sitting in the driver’s seat of a weather-beaten saloon car greeted us. Kissmart said that the mzee used to pay him to clean his car. I asked him why he had called him Godi. ‘My real name is Godfrey’, he said, ‘but I don’t like people calling me that. It reminds me of a darker time. Kissmart means good luck, and I needed lots of it to get to where I am now.’
We were joined by another guide, called Cheddaz. He told us that his father died when he was nine, and that his alcoholic mother developed tuberculosis soon after. His sister was looked after by his aunt because she could work as a house girl, but he was forced to live rough in the city. He eventually joined a gang of thieving street boys called ‘Tsunami’, where he was known as ‘Snatcher’. After a year in prison, it was his love for music that set him on the right path, earning him a scholarship at the Sauti Academy with Kissmart and fellow guide Donga.
From OTC we headed north to the Kariokor Market, with its narrow alleys, beaded stalls and a lingering smell of freshly cut leather. We then walked east along Ngara Road, and finally down to the Globe Roundabout for a lunch of mukimo and stew at a kibanda. As we ate, I asked Cheddaz whether he had always been comfortable narrating his stories to strangers in English. He said that they used to flip a coin to decide who would speak, and who would provide ‘security’. But now he’s a lot more confident, and enjoys sharing the experiences that have shaped his life.
To find out more about the initiative, and to book your own tour of downtown Nairobi, head over to www.nai-nami.com.