“We are all in the night together”

Daily Dispatches takes to Nairobi’s streets for two hours either side of midnight on Friday, to talk to people who earn their living during darkness. By Mike Pflanz. Photos by Brendan Bannon.

CITY CENTER and WESTLANDS, April 8-9, 2011 (Daily Dispatches)

Walter Njau, 36, Taxi Driver, Kenya Taxi Cabs Association, Koinange St

Taxi Driver Walter Njau (L) and car wash man John Mgogo in Nairobi. (Brendan Bannon)

“This is a business when sometimes you lose, and sometimes you profit. Weekends are busiest, but people come drunk in my car, I drop them far away then they say they don’t have money. What can I do? Other times, customers drop their money in the car then leave, that’s mine, that’s my profit. Or you are new to Nairobi, you say you want to go to Hurlingham, it’s just here but I tell you it’s $25, and you agree. That’s profit for me, you see, because Hurlingham is only $5.

“When it’s quiet, I’m standing by my car, I’m looking around like a crow looks around from the air to the ground, looking far for something. These people coming, can they be customers? Can they need me to drive them far? I hope so. I ask almost everybody who passes by, need a taxi? On a weekend, I can go home with $40 or $50 after my all-night shift. Other days, sometimes only $10. I buy food for the kids, I save some, I drink some.

“There are some rules we have, there is an association, they arrange for every driver to be posted in a certain place. If a freelance guy comes to my spot, I’ll puncture his tires, I’ll beat him or chase him away. He can’t work here. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Once when I was dropping some customers at their house, in was raining heavily, five guys with guns jumped us, they opened the boot, told us to enter inside. It was like 11pm. They roamed with us to 3am, then they dropped us in a different place. They released us, “get your car and go”, they said. They had taken all our money, our phones. But they did not kill us. The other good thing they did was they filled the car, full tank. They used the car for robberies, while we were inside. The police when I went to them they told us the car was seen in robberies all over town.”

Jairus Mulela, 23, BBQ Chef, JP’s Lounge, Utalii Lane

 (Brendan Bannon)

“I am here working the BBQ from 9pm to 3am every Friday and Saturday, the rest of the week I’m inside working behind the bar. I don’t know why I am the one chosen to do the BBQ, but I have been here doing this for four years now. Am I a good cook? I think so, when my wife is busy with work I cook for her and she does not complain. I don’t mind this job, it just gets difficult when it’s late and there are a lot of people crowding around wanting food, that’s when someone can steal a sausage without you being able to do anything about it. The busy times are up to 1am, yes people are drunk but usually they are friendly at the same time. They can be quite funny.”

Mary Njeri (2nd left), 14, street beggar, Woodvale Grove

Sisters Christine Muthoni, 9, and Mary Njeri,14, beg on the streets of Westlands at night with other children in Naiorbi. (Brendan Bannon)

“Our house got burnt, there was electricity coming and going, then there was a burst and the house got burnt. That was last month, the first week. We now have to come here at weekends, to get some little money for buying food, some basic needs. After the fire, we don’t know where our parents went, we cannot find them. This is my sister, these others are also friends. We care for each other. I live in Deep Sea, in a small house, it’s one hour away. My school is far, we get up at 5am, then we walk two hours for school.”

Peter Gitonga, 25, Pharmacist, Rosegate 24hr Chemist, Mokhtar Daddah St

 (Brendan Bannon)

“It’s always busy at the weekend, Fridays especially. From 8 to midnight, there are many, many customers, after that, maybe four or five every hour. Some of the customers come from Kenyatta National Hospital with prescriptions, because we are one of the only pharmacies open all night. But most of the customers are women, girls who are sex workers. They are not ashamed, they shout even as they come in the door, “Condoms, I need condoms, quick, I have a man waiting”. They usually go for the cheapest ones, that cost less than 12¢ each. If it’s the man who’s buying, he’s going to choose Durex Extra Safe, they are around $3. I find that interesting.

“We also sell vitality pills, they are called Viagra for men and Zoom for women. So many people are buying these, especially at the weekend. There is no need for a prescription, but for some other ones, like Valium, you must come with a prescription. Yes, I do sell Rohypnol, and for that you must also have a prescription. I don’t know what people use that for – I have heard the ladies use it to drug men then steal from them. This is not my business to ask.

“After 3am, it’s quiet, I can do some other things like update my CV or look for other jobs. I am working here every night, from 8:30pm to 8:30am, then I have to get home, it’s far. This is not where I dreamed of being, I studied pharmacy because I wanted to get a job with an aid agency, there you can have good money.”

Johnny Be Good and Ocha Ocha, Trash Scavangers, Utalii St

 (Brendan Bannon)

“We do this every night, we walk and find water bottles and plastic thrown away and collect it up. We start early and walk around until 2am, finding what people have dropped. Then we go home to sleep and when we wake up in the morning, we take it in to where we can sell it. We get 17¢ for 2lbs of plastic.”

John Mbogo, 32, car washer, Koinange St

Car wash man John Mbogo, on a friday night in Naiorbi. (Brendan Bannon)

“I’m earning my living by looking for cars to wash at night, from 10pm to 5am. Sometimes there are not so many, only three or five. I don’t have much work during dry season: most cars that come to me are in the business of taxiing people, when it’s raining and they’ve been out of town then the cars get really dirty. I charge $1.20 per car. I can’t do this every day, I just work and work until my body tells me it can’t take it more. Sometimes I tell myself last night was such a busy day I just need to take the day off now.

“If I had another job I wouldn’t be here. It’s a daily struggle, the City Council comes to arrest me, sometimes cars are so old there are loose parts which cut me. But I don’t want to be idle, I have to take these challenges like a man, and if I am lucky, I make some small money out of it. On a good night I can make $6, but after buying a cup of tea, and paid for my fare home, I am usually left with $2 or $2.50.

“Sometimes, we have these street kids coming to cry at us, we pity them and we give them something small. We’re all in the night together. If you’re hungry, I buy food for you or I give you money, then I know for sure that today I have helped you. That’s how we live here.”

Phillip “Fubu” Otieno, 27, Boxer, Doorman, Dolce Club, Koinange St

Phillip Otieno, Doorman at Dolce Vita in Nairobi. Otieno is also a professional boxer. (Brendan Bannon)

“I have been working here for eight years, I am a professional boxer in the day time, and this is my way to earn money in the night. According to me, this job is not bad, my boss is good, when I have a fight, he lets me go for leave then come back. I can say that now I don’t have a hard job. Our customers are mature people, they are not young guys wanting to get drunk and cause trouble. You know, in years back the security was bad, I was the one to deal with these thugs around here, but now the government is assisting us.

“Also, I meet people every now and then coming to the club, one day I know I will get a promoter through here. Once I traveling to Middle East, to Qatar, to Dubai, to Jordan, and my sponsor I met here at the club. But when I went there I was cheated on my contract, I won five fights from five, but I did not get good money as I was promised. That’s why I returned to my home country here.

“Now I am running a gym in my place, to help young guys, and I’m training again. At Easter, I’m supposed to have another fight with a Ugandan guy, 10 rounds, at Nyayo Stadium. The problem is only money to arrange the fight. We’re looking for sponsorship.

“I am distracted by these problems, when you want to fight, you are supposed to lose weight, I have lost from 174lbs to 158lbs, all that work, but then the coach tells me, Phillip, there’s no money. It’s hard, I want to be back like the old days, but then you never know what’s going to come up. I’m training hard, but I don’t know if money will be there. I leave it up to God, I leave everything to God, I like God very much. I hope through God I will one day become a world champion.”

“Mama Condom”, 50+, Florida’s Madhouse Club, Koinange St

"Mama Condom" sells condoms, gum, candy and cigarettes outside a night club in Nairobi's city center. (Brendan Bannon)

“Today is Friday, it will be packed tonight, all the kids are having sex and I will get many customers. I sell condoms, cigarettes and chewing gums. Most of my customers are the girls who work here, although there are free condoms given out in these clubs, they want these ones because they are a better quality. I have been here more than 10 years, most nights. I do it because I have to feed my children somehow.

“Yes, it is important to me that people use condoms and are not having unprotected sex, but I tell you if I could find another job, I would do it. Here the cold is very bad, I have suffered pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria. But this is what I know how to do, and I earn money. I have saved money from this and paid for my first-born daughter to attend university to study accounting. I am proud of this, but you cannot put my face in the newspaper. I don’t want people knowing I sell condoms on Koinange St.”

Kimoja, 31, Busker, Woodvale Grove

Busker, Kimoja, performs nightly on the strets of Westlands in Nairobi. (Brendan Bannon)

“I started singing in church when I was a little kid. My Grandmama, she was also in a choir, and my Mum, she also has that passion to sing, but only in the house to make her feel nice, not professionally. I grew up in central Kenya, if you are talented there, you cannot get any limelight. People don’t appreciate your talent, you tell them you are a musician but they say you are just day-dreaming. I told them, no. I decided I have to come to Nairobi.

“I started acting with a stand-up comedian here at the Kenya National Theater. But after some time I decided to buy a guitar because that’s what I feel I can do best. I was looking at that comedian, he was doing his talent, and I realized at that moment that I was doing only what he was telling me, not something that was coming really out of me. I felt deeply inside that if I get a guitar, that’s how to get peace, I can do something that is mine. When I decided that I will learn guitar, I know I’m not lost.

“I taught myself how to play, and then one night I visited this place, I don’t remember why, and I was with my guitar. Someone asked me, is that a guitar? I said yes. He said, can you play for me a song? I said yes, I removed the guitar. Then after the first song I played, he said, don’t return that guitar to the bag, keep on playing. I kept on, even to this minute.

“When I came to Nairobi 10 years ago, I was not dreaming of this. I dreamed of playing music comfortably in big concerts, but there’s nothing good that comes easily, that’s what I know. And I feel good working here. Even though now it’s 3am, I cannot get tired because I’m doing my passion, this is my life. If I cannot sing I don’t know what other thing I can do in my life. Each day is different, today you can get very nice people, tomorrow you get people who don’t even want to look at you. Drunk people are here, but I handle them. I tell them to respect. I tell them to request a song, to respect me, they do that, people here are not bad. Kenyans like celebrating so much, I’m used to them. And I’m hopeful for the future. You know, Nairobi at night-time, soon it will be normal, this is turning here onto a 24 hour economy. There won’t be day and night soon. It will all be the same.”

Related: Brendan’s full-size images of Nairobi nights

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

11 Responses to ““We are all in the night together””

  1. Christian N says:

    Great, great stuff! Extremely moving and thought provoking. A humane and crystalline portrait of that miserable yet somehow totally lovable city and it’s residents’ dreams and realities. Keep ‘em coming.

    • esther says:

      this is exactlyn what happens in the streets of nairobi.this is great guys it will help people from other counties learn more a bout kenya.keep it up.esther.

      • Garrett Hayes says:

        You are correct, this article as well as all the other ones throughout this entire project are informative. They do show what life is like there and shed light in a dark area. However don’t you also think that all areas of the world have the same problems. I believe that no matter where you go in the world you are going to encounter these issues. For example everywhere in the world there are people having a harder time financially. I appreciate and feel bad for the situation that these people are in but everywhere in the world these problems exist so it is no surprise that they are having a hard time as well.

  2. BB says:

    Reading everyday without fail. Loving how diverse the portraits of the city are. Everyone I share it with is loving it too, Kenyans, Londoners, all. Nice work.

  3. This one so far is fairly interesting but I think you can take it further. Check out the subcultures because there are bound to be some. Check out the food. The best way to the heart of a culture is its food. Keep it going, it’s pretty rad!

  4. Love your black and whites. Wanna see more on gays/lesbian life (if applicable)

  5. admin says:

    Hi John – Thanks for posting your comment. We’re going to try to see if we can do something on the LGBT community here in Nairobi. I know that there are some places where they are safe to hang out – but homosexuality is illegal here, and the wider population are sadly deeply homophobic. Being openly gay is very dangerous, here and across Africa.

    A couple of links to stories which illustrate the situation:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/world/africa/28uganda.html
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11864702

    There is hope that continuing efforts to raise awareness about LGBT will change people’s perceptions, as it has done in the West. But I fear that it will take a long time.

    Thanks again for posting. Keep watching Dispatches!

    Mike

  6. Sarah Plath says:

    I love how you took the jobs that they do everyday and made them interesting even if they are just regular jobs such as a doorman. It shows that you do what you need to get by but it doesn’t have to interfere with your passion. They way the title ‘All in the Night Together’ was placed in the photo and story of the man washing the cars for on $2/night- but would feel pity for the children who came up to him for some cash – because they were all in there together- really shows the creativity and empathy they put into this awesome project.

  7. I really enjoyed reading the stories of the people who work at night. I know for many of us here we think of the work day being from early morning until the afternoon, but seeing these people who mainly work at night doing all sorts of things is very interesting. Do you go walk at night finding people as you go? Or do you talk to people that tell you they see people working in one area or another? I think this exhibit is a great idea! I can’t wait to see more!

  8. The name of this Dispatch drew me in. I liked the idea of catching a glimpse of the night life and happenings in this place. It had a personal feeling to it, making the random stories and photos interconnected as they are “all together in the night”. Stories that I would like to see would be ones discussing topics of religion, gender, domestic life, and entertainment. But this is an amazing project so far!

  9. Emmanuel williams says:

    Walter Benjamin states that in the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of painting is no longer attached to them. Their meaning become transmittable that is to say it becomes information of a sort and like all information it is either put to use or ignored. The information carries no special authority within itself. Next he explains that if there is a meaning it is either modified or totally changed.so if we are not there how can this imformation be useful for us the student of Buffalo State College. how does hanging up these photos on a college campus help the people of Nairobi? And does the people of Nairobi benefit from this project?