Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature Creative Njagĩ M’Mwenda a.k.a. Brian Njagi. Brian Njagi is a co-founder of Story Zetu, a copywriter at Ogilvy Africa, a contributor at Ameru and an actor. Njagĩ was part of the Sanaa Award winning cast of the Upright Revolution and has also acted in Too Early For Birds and Tahidi High. He is also a published author with the book: Breathing Poetry and has also written a song for Redfourth Chorus. At Ogilvy Africa, he handles accounts such as Total, Airtel, WWF Kenya, BMW, Mitsubishi and more. He is a father of three: a cat called Fifty and two dogs: Ying and Yang.
P.S. The next time you buy Delamere Yoghurt, check out the story on the side, that was written by him.
- Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I did grow up in Nairobi, yet I also did not grow up in Nairobi. I spent the first 3 years of my life in Kahawa Wendani before I moved to Meru. Back then, Kahawa was a dusty suburb populated with army personnel and Kenyatta University staff members. My father was one of them, a Kiswahili lecturer at KU. We lived in a 2nd floor flat that had its year of birth curved on the façade. I think it was 1975.
My earliest memories are set in Kahawa Wendani. I remember every morning at 6 AM the train would whistle as it chugged towards wherever it went. That was my alarm to wake up. I would excitedly run to the window and look down towards Githũrai and watch as the train bisected the landscape. It is sad that I never got to board the train. I never will. Blame the SGR.
Kahawa Wendani had a bunch of the yellow acacia trees that tourists like. Guess who else loved acacia trees? Weaverbirds. There was a real estate boom on those acacia trees back then. Each had thousands of those yellow birds serenading Kahawa residents all day long. Guess who loved weaverbirds? Boys. Boys with catapults. Killing two birds with one stone has come naturally to me ever since. Kahawa Wendani today is a different animal to the one I grew up in. It has become a hodgepodge of urbanization overflowing with students. The train no longer whistles. The weaverbirds? Well, they received their eviction notices a long while back.
Meru on the other hand was a natural paradise for me. Instead of early morning trains, Meru treated me to elephants. Morning rides to school took us through a forest that jumbos liked. Our small imaginations could not contain the immense grace of elephants. To date, elephants have a great standing within me.
I remember loving to graze cows in Tharaka with my cousins in the expansive bush land that my grandfather owned. That bush land contains most of my naughty moments, least of all being the stoning of cobras and being the chief spectator of boys fighting. The vestiges of that wild side have remained with me.
For 15 years, Meru raised me, most of those years were spent in boarding school. I think boarding school in Meru was engineered to prepare boys for the then unknown future of living in the city. When I came back to Nairobi in my 18th year, my attitude was more than ready for a conquest.
The first year back in Nairobi was a steep learning curve for me. Google Maps helped me get to more auditions than I can count. Of course, the routine theft was inescapable. But within the city’s hard, boorish outlook, lay a soft core. A kind spot if you like. Nairobi is a city of unnatural contrasts. The concoction of men, beasts, buildings and machine was discombobulating at first, but soon enough, I knew my way around. They’ve been 7 adventurous years of bending Nairobi’s will.
- What do you love about Nairobi?
Nairobi is a hungry, impatient beast. This city breathes, eats and lives urgently. I love the charged-up atmosphere here. Nairobi does not allow you to sit idle. And have you noticed how the city loves money? The moment you step out of your house with a 1,000 bob the city always knows how to help you get rid of it.
I like what is becoming of Nairobi’s artsy scene. The art arena is exploding with new talents and new spaces and new audiences. It is exciting to be an artist right now in Nairobi.
Have you seen all those new, tall, mirror-like buildings? I don’t care that they’re largely empty, they make me swell up with pride. They are setting the standards for our ambition. Kids born in Nairobi today will look at these edifices and see their futures reflected on them. They will have to scale their dreams to fit into these vertical spaces. And that’s a great thing for the future.
In recent days, I have seen an energetic resurgence of Nairobi’s artistic scene. The art arena is exploding with new talents, new spaces and new audiences. It is exciting to be an artist right now in Nairobi. I know if I write a book, I can sell at least 1,000 copies. I know that I can write advertisements that will win awards at Cannes. I know that I can write a stage play in Kimeru and break even. I’d say with the burgeoning middle-class, the arts are benefitting the most. Now, more than ever, I believe.
Canaan, we’re coming.
- What would you change about Nairobi?
Nairobi has an attitude, but it lacks a solid identity. We need to know the meanings in: our street names, our estate names, and our building names. We need Nairobi to be a complete being with a back story, a current situation and a future state. If Nairobi was a character in a play it wouldn’t be in the play because it’s not a character yet.
Infrastructure-wise, we need a light-rail system, a rapid bus transit system and a subway. We need to build them now before time catches up with us. In 15 years or so, Nairobi’s population will have doubled. Thika Superhighway will be a small path then. We need a robust infrastructure system that will be sound and capable in 50 years. I have a whole manifesto if you’re asking.
What would I change in terms of what I do? First, the advertising world in Kenya is choking with foreigners. That’s the first thing I’d change. Don’t get me wrong, foreign talent is great, but not when we have Kenyans that can do a better or similar job. Most times when Kenyans complain about “bad advertising” many of the times the thinking was done by a foreign person. The advertising lacks a base in truth, what we would want to call “insight”.
Secondly, we have local publishers that have been using the same formulae to edit, print, publish and market books since time immemorial. We need publishers that have the courage to be experimental and try to crack new markets with new writing. “Inama bookshops” exist because the reader in Nairobi is looking for something refreshing and different from their high school set books.
Thirdly, as an actor, we need directors and producers to give Kenyans a variety of showcases on stage and on screen. The same, tired, community-biased comedies have run around the block more times than the world has spun. Nairobians deserve better than old, run of the mill stories. They are demanding for better, we need to feed that appetite before Hollywood directors come here to feed it.
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
As a multi-professional, each of my skills tell a different story.
As a copywriter, the opportunities for me are limitless. I could easily get hired in any of the advertising agencies in Nairobi. But the toughest part is getting that first copywriting gig. Also, not many people outside of advertising know what copywriting entails. It’s almost impossible to be a freelance copywriter (otherwise I would be doing it)
As a creative writer, the avenues and the audiences are gradually growing. In a few years, Nairobi will be able to feed her writers, but we are not yet there. This is the same for acting. Having a packed Kenya National Theatre for 2 shows needs one to sacrifice themselves on top of Mount Kenya while facing Jerusalem and chant incantations to all the gods of Egypt then jump in the Indian Ocean. It’s tough out there, but it was worse. We are not there yet, but at the next corner is our victory parade.
- If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting.
Listen Mr. Tourist, if you haven’t been to Nairobi, you have not visited Earth yet eh. First of all, if you take a pin and drop it in the middle of Nairobi then you draw a circle 100 kilometres wide you will have enough opportunity in that circle to see all you ever need to see.
Secondly, we don’t look like it, but we are the best people once you get to know us. Come and let us share a Tusker and some nyama choma and your taste buds will confess you betrayed them all their life. Let us welcome you into our homes and share a meal of ugali and sukuma wiki. The secrets of ugali and Sukuma wiki are not their tasty experience, no, they’re anything but; it’s the way they humble every Kenyan into our primal selves, our best selves. Come friend.
And if you’re into kissing, the best French kiss you’ll ever receive is not from a Parisian, it’s from a Nairobian. A Nairobi giraffe to be precise. Come, let our giraffes kiss you.