Eustace is explaining to me the challenges he faces selling on the verandah of a business complex in Nairobi’s central business district when he suddenly squats, grabs the mats his wares are laid on, clasping two in each hand, and hauls the load on his back.
Down Kenyatta Avenue he sprints, leaving me stranded, his last words reverberating in my head.
“Hawa askari wa kanjo wanatuhanda, lakini ni kazi yao. Tukiwasense, tunahepa” (These county askaris harass us but that is their job. When we spot them, we run away.)
Eustace is among hawkers on the high streets of Nairobi, previously a no-go zone for them. Incredibly, when I turn to see the reaction of the other sellers along the streets, I see only pedestrians marching on what was, just minutes ago, a marketplace. The hawkers are gone.
Ashford Ngugi sells religious books outside JKUAT Towers on Kenyatta Avenue. It has been a 13-year journey, from what he says was a humble beginning operating at the City Square footbridge. Then one day the traders were told to vacate.
Vacate the area
Slowly, he inched his way to high streets, because “there is more visibility” (customers striding by will see, probably like and buy the books) and also the streets do not demand the money bookshop spaces would.
“Customers love that we are not rigid with prices here. I actually use this as a showroom. We do outreaches in schools and churches and have cancelled 18 events in the Covid-19 period alone,” he says.
Just like Maureen, who sells candy and stationery metres away, Ngugi has a license from the county government. They pay Sh2,500 a year to renew the license, but Maureen has to keep looking out for county askaris.
That she sells other materials alongside books means she is often targeted for breaching the terms of the licence.
Along Kimathi Street, booksellers’ tables are propped against walls of businesses with pedestrians walk sandwiched between two rows of sellers, those in the buildings and in the streets.
Outside Jamia mosque, on Banda Street, Thomas Kyalo Paul calls out a potential customer, a heavyset man who has alighted from a Toyota Prado, and the customer obliges.
The customer picks one of the pens on the table, removes the cap and scribbles on the blank sheet of paper.
He pays promptly. Two minutes; done deal. Street businesses, common in back streets, have been finding their way to high streets. Kyalo, wonders if he could ever find customers for his pens in the back streets.
He says that while booksellers and shoe shiners are licensed, the rest of the traders depend on their relationship with the authorities.
In the evenings, shoe sellers roll out their goods as women lay out vegetables: courgette (zucchini), onions, capsicum, beetroot… name it.
The walkways shrink. It is a competition between commuters rushing to the bus termini and sellers grappling for space to display their wares.
The sight outside Tuskys Daima, on Tom Mboya Avenue, would be disturbing to any curious observer. Kitchenware, clothes, books, watches and snacks are stacked on tables.
“It is easy. The customers do not have to enter the shops to look for what they want. They can buy it as they walk past.
“Some times, they are not decided but once they see it within reach, and find it affordable, they stop and buy,” says Ngugi, serving a lady who has inquired about a book, The Teacher’s Bible.
Outside Old Mutual Building, two young men sell masks, pens, handkerchiefs among other items. Within minutes, two people have stopped by, selected masks, paid and rushed off.
Eustace disappearing into the crowd at top speed, with a sack over his shoulder, does not seem like someone keeping a distance from an understanding lot.
But it is the way of the streets and unless you belong here, I am told, and you cannot quite get it. Customers buy, and find their way between shops and hawkers, happy to have saved a coin or two.
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