Nomad meets with the Kenyan photographer behind Nairobi Noir, a photography blog that captures Nairobi at night. In 2015, he was arrested as a terror suspect during a photo shoot, marking the start of a difficult road to clear his name.
Your inspiration for Nairobi Noir?
When I was in my last years of high school at Aga Khan in Westlands, I would go home to Langata or to Eastlands – depending on which parent I was going to. I would cross the city almost daily, walking from University Way all the way down to near Railways bus station where the matatus left from. I usually left school late and would be in CBD when it was dark. It looked so alluring, and I would get the urge to stop in the streets and draw or paint the scene. That urge would become Nairobi Noir.
How did travelling to other cities influence your view of Nairobi?
Living in New Delhi in India for half a decade allowed me to see the city in a different way. It’s a city with many contrasts and the energy of chaos. I was in film school, and Delhi influenced me to explore the juxtapositions and dualities of the Nairobi night.
What do you do when you travel?
When I travel, there are two places I visit: libraries and bookshops. I came back from India with about a thousand books. The guy at customs was so shocked because they were all personal, not new books to sell. I also make a point of taking long walks in the streets to absorb the energy of the place and its people, especially in cities. In rural areas I’ll go to the market – that’s where all the energy and activity is.
Your photography has landed you in trouble. Tell us about your arrest.
I had been arrested many times before. In December 2014, a new bill was signed into law, [allowing] the state to hold you for up to 360 days [without charge].* So I was shooting my street photography and got arrested. This was different. I was taken to Langata police station [where I was told] I had been arrested as a terror suspect. I managed to alert someone and they saw which police station I had been taken to. But I was not even booked in the [Occurrence Book]. So anybody who came was told, ‘There is no Msingi here.’ There were people who could clearly vouch I had been taken there, and they had not seen me leaving. So some guys went online to lobby for my release and that created a [stir] on social media. *Ed’s note: Aspects of the anti-terror law were later overturned by the High Court.
How did it affect your career?
Immediately after my arrest, my prints were selling well. But after about three months, when people had moved on to other news, demand for my prints became low. And then I called a potential client I had met for a portrait session and she told me, “Look, you seem like a very nice person. Your work is amazing. I’d like to shoot with you but I have seen something online, that you are a terror suspect. So you know – this is Kenya.” I went online and searched my name. The first 20 searches of my name came up with “terror suspect.”
How did it all affect your personal life?
I met a beautiful girl in a nightclub. We were just about to leave the club, when she said she wanted to go to the bathroom. We had already exchanged numbers. She came back from the bathroom, crying. I thought someone had done something to her. But when she gets to me, she doesn’t want me to talk. She said, “Please delete my phone number.” I asked, “Why should I delete your phone number? What’s wrong?” She said, ”First delete my phone number.” By now, we’re attracting attention. I delete her phone number. She said, “When I went to the bathroom, I googled you. You’re a terror suspect.” She left me sitting there in the club, her perfume still on my shirt. If I put it in Noir terms, the whole story was now stalking me.
How did you end up on the streets?
I had not paid my rent for some time. I went to the shop. I had left everything in the house. I was charging my phone. When I came back, I was not allowed in by the security guards at the gate. By then I had become so stressed because I had asked people for help. I would say: “You guys: just buy my prints [and] … I’ll be able to sort the debts.” There was cold silence. I figured if I can’t get help, I have to fend for myself somehow. The only place I knew where I can do that is Nairobi CBD.
How did you survive in the CBD?
I had a business selling books before I went to India. … I started selling used books again. I take a book – let’s say it’s 100 bob but I know where I can sell that book for 500. From the money I’d make, I’d buy some breakfast: a proper meal – not like an English breakfast of tea and bread. I would save some money to shower in the morning and go to sleep. Surprisingly you can get a place to sleep for 50 bob.
How did you come back up?
After posting about my predicament on Facebook, I got a lot of demand from people to buy my prints. One client bought 16 prints in one go. And one print is Ksh 10,000. I was back in business almost as fast as I was out on the street.
What’s next for Nairobi Noir?
So one of the major things I have coming out is a 24/7 live stream of Nairobi at night. I have done a lot of test runs. While I have been setting up a studio, I have also been doing a lot of Nairobi Noir work so there’s so much new stuff I have created and not yet released. This includes Nairobi Noir songs and music. It’s all coming out like a fruitful harvest.
*As told to Ivy Nyayieka