Four rolls, twelve images.

Paul MuneneWhen I met Paul Munene, we were both on assignment. I was interviewing the Swazi soul singer, Bholoja and he had come to take pictures of the Bholoja. After that, our paths crossed many times and it was mostly at music concerts and he’d always take pictures of me. Over time as we got to know one another I realised that he is a really cool guy, who is passionate not only about his work, but the socio-political issues here in Kenya. He is a great thinker, candid, humble and isn’t afraid to display his humanity nor his fragility.
Paul is currently documenting live music in Kenya and is also working on a book. If you happen to be at gig or see him on the streets of Nairobi, let him take a picture of you and don’t stop at that. Have a chat with this self-taught photographer, whom I think is cool people.

Sanaart: Since 2007 when you started photographing live music, how has it changed?
Paul: My focus is on live band music and the first change that I can think of is the regularity of the gigs. My first pictures came from a gig called Tusker Night of Champions. Tony Nyandundo was the star attraction, then there was Jua Cali and Valerie Kimani was being supported by Eddie Grey. This was my first job and it was for The Nairobi Star. I remember the equipment wasn’t great and nor was the sound, but that was my first gig. Sound was the biggest challenge then. It was not great. The attendance figures of events was also very low. By 2009, the audience started changing, it was becoming more middle-class and social media was also helping getting the word out.
There weren’t many journalist at concerts in Nairobi. They were dismissive of the concerts at places like Alliance Francaise or Blankets and Wine. They often described them as middle-class events. Most times I was the only press photographer at these events. I just got on with it. I was getting paid per photograph published. This gave me the motivation to do, more work. Money was the motivation (laughs). My editors asked me to go as many concerts as possible and I was given the additional incentive to write short articles on the gigs that I attended.
The music has also changed and so has the quality of production. From around 2010, if you look at the albums that have been released, the really good ones are the ones produced by musicians who perform live. For instance, Dan Aceda, Mia von Lekow, Chris Adwar, Sauti Sol, Just A Band and Eric Wainanaina. These artistes are also actively pushing their music, which never used to happen before! The music is now exportable music and is of a quality that can be played anywhere in the world.
Another change, there is more money to be made now from live gigs. We’re also seeing a lot more music from local artistes getting airplay on local radio stations, so that has been helpful in improving the quality of music we are seeing being performed. This has helped change the music landscape. This change has also built a critical mass of music consumers here in Kenya.
I remember one time, a lady at a gig came up to me and said that I and the musicians that I photograph have brought back dignity into the arts.

S: I can’t help but notice you are passionate about music?
Paul: I have a huge collection of albums from live music. My dad sang in a men’s choir, he used to listen to Lingala and I love Lingala! We had neighbours who had LPs who of Congolese artistes. We’d listen to them. There was another friend’s dad who had a huge collection of albums, this was during the time of Boney M and it was great music that had a live sound too it. There was nothing electronic about. It was good sound. Music on our national broadcaster, KBC brings back good memories for me.

S: Are there times during gigs and when you are working that you stop taking pictures and just listen to the music?
Paul: Do you ever work with music in the background?

S: Constantly!
Paul: It’s the same thing for me. You’ll notice if I go for a Mia concert, I’ll shoot less because the music is more listenable and you find yourself wanting to just chill and listen, so in such an atmosphere I’ll photo less. If it’s a Sauti Sol concert, they’ll be a lot more rukarukaring (jumping/dancing), I’ll take more pictures then. I’m taking in everything as I working. I am reading the crowd and responding to the energy and the mood of the music. I am constantly looking at the crowd.
There was one time Ochieng Nelly, Winyo and Eddy Grey were performing I had to stop taking pictures. I was almost in tears during one song and I remember telling someone, that if I died there and then it was fine. If I was meant to have lived until that point, it was fine with me. I didn’t care. At that point the dots connected. There are some performances and some songs that I just have to stop and listen. I respond to the mood of the music and performance. You’ll notice my shots become a lot more dynamic when I get into the mood of the performance.

S: I discovered that you were have a thing for black and white photography. Where did that come from?
Paul: My parents wedding photos. Black and white was simple. In 2004, I was jobless, business had not worked out and I was not in a good place. Mentally, I was not doing well. Throw in social pressure from my contemporaries who seemed to be doing really well in life. I tried getting a job at mobile provider Safaricom in the customer service department. I didn’t get the job. When I told my mum, I could tell she was very disappointed. She couldn’t even look at her mobile phone because it had the Safaricom logo on its screen! It was that bad. But she said something, which I feel was prophetic, she said, ‘One day you will get a job that you will like and you will not feel that it is work.’ I feel she pronounced a blessing on me. Look at me know, I got into photography and I was from Starehe Boys School. I came from school where we weren’t expected to get into the arts. Out of over 210 candidates in my high school year, only Tony Mochama and I got into proper arts. We were being taught how to become employees!
So, that December I emptied my bank account, borrowed a point and shoot camera and went out to Lamu. My friend Kate bought me three rolls of film, though one got lost. People were really impressed by the images that I had taken when I got back. Because I really loved my parents’ wedding pictures, I was doing lots of black and white pictures and portrait shots. I started offering my services for free to my friends who were getting married. There was one guy who apparently refused to pay his official wedding photographer because he preferred my pictures. Then, there was one wedding where I only got twelve images out of four rolls of film. That’s how I started my wedding photography. I also started making albums to display the pictures that I had taken. I sound like I really work hard, but trust me, this has been pure luck (laughs). Had I gotten into Safaricom, I’d have been a yuppie!

S: Are you happy?
Paul: Yes, I am and I don’t mean the cliché happy. I can get up when I want and work from home. I get time to think which for me is a valuable thing. I am not rich, I live a comfortable life, but I get paid to take photographs which is something I enjoy. People look at my work! Some of my images are in peoples’ houses or institutions. I am now that guy. I believe I am making a made a difference in my field of work. That ethic I got from my time while at Starehe – making a difference through what you do and I believe I am doing something. Something good.

Some of Paul’s future work will feature the second hand market, Toi Market and a series on what he has titled, Parallel Lives, which will look at the separate but intertwined lives of Nairobi residents. http://quaint.co/

Dirty Old Tent

“Marikuwa mutu ya watu makiambia yeye mutoto hana school fees malikuwa manaita watu kama hivi manasaidiana watoto manaenda shule….” (He used to be a man of the people. He used to help children who were able to afford schools fees, therefore he got people together to ensure our children went to school).
She crowned my night. An old dame from I don’t know where who came to attend the fund raising of her hero….my grandfather….. I can’t remember how the MC introduced her. So for the sake of this piece, let’s call her ‘Marikuwa’.

The night is chilly. We are seated under an old, supposedly white tent but time has stolen its glory. Its weather beaten. I ask why it wasn’t cleaned. “Surely there is so much water”
“It was donated by a neighbour and he had to use it before us.” I don’t ask any further questions. I fear the silence response of a cousin wondering why I never came early to clean it anyway. Or the sneaky look of the house help concerned about my irate self these days.

Weak.

This night caps the many restless ones that I haven’t found peace. Insomnia got a new meaning ever since I heard of the news of my grandfathers passing in a faraway village named Qunu. I’m in South Africa covering Mandela’s burial. Tata passed away a day before the worlds icon was laid to rest.

It is a chilly morning. I’m taking a walk to collect my computer from an old friend. It was the safest way to ensure that I did not have luggage. I anticipated, in fact, most of us dreaded the idea of not been able to access Qunu Museum from where we would cover this burial. So on this Saturday, I wake early to be on time lest the place is flooded with journos and I miss my chance.

Qunu. A beautiful village that I guess God chose to carpet with lush green grass and rolling hills so that we, the ‘newcomers’ can be reminded that awesome can be felt, touched, breathed. Qunu, the place where the worlds Icon, Nelson Mandela is now resting should have been called Mrembo… Qunu must be a lady for her beauty, her tenacity, her ability to hold such immense power and still afford a shy but inviting allure beats me.

‘Hi. I’m sorry to inform you that tata has gone to be with the lord’. The words of a sms that I haven’t gotten over sting like a bee. I take a deep breath to digest. I give in. Weeping like a little child. I am trying to conceal this sting. I am trying to suppress my voice. I don’t want others to hear or see me. I don’t understand. …. really? Is that how men die? Just like that? One day they are fine the next day they are dead? Is death also for me? Again? Weeping.

A good old friend is in town too….covering the same burial. Can’t remember what we talked about but I think, summed up his words were ‘It shall be well’. Robert disappeared in the embrace of the Chinese. Its difficult to keep track these days but I appreciate that he is in Qunu at the right time.

Now under this dirty old tent, a chilly night and mosquitoes to boot, his friends, my family have come together so that, in the words of his friend Joe Aketch and a man we have always called ‘Buda’, ‘ Give him a decent send off.’ A part of me wonders how much of this is just a way of getting together? It is a Ziwani tradition. Night vigils and contributions for the departed are a must. That’s how I found it.

I’m looking at their faces…I am reminded of my childhood in this estate when it was devoid of mabati (corrugated iron sheets) extensions…Ziwani…the place I played as a child. It was the place I learnt to play tandarobo and kati (dodge ball) and hide and seek….many childhood games were honed here. To some it’s a ghetto…it birthed some of the worst gangsters of our time…..to some it is the place where legends are either born or bred. Some find their way there by chance. Ask me I know. Lest you forget, the late Tanzanian President Nyerere once lived in this hood…and so did Uganda’s Milton Obote…Phoebe Asiyo, I hear, too, was a neighbour at some point…Mzee Tamaa surely you must know him no?

It birthed my uncle Dino Kitavi. He played football and I remember the name from an old radio set that my grandma owned. She would sit by it waiting to hear that name of her son from the speakers…it went something like this ….anakwenda anakwenda anakwenda….Dino Kitavi…amechenga pale…anakwenda…..goooooaaaaaaalllllll ….and on and on and on….I have forgotten the expression on her face. But soon there would be people milling around asking…’Umeskia hiyo?’ (Have you heard?)….I imagine sometimes they credited him with goals that he did not score.

You see, my grandfather, Daniel Mawathe Kitavi was a politician…I don’t quite remember him as a councillor or a commissioner all I know is that our house was always awash with people,..visitors….mostly they came from Gikomba or Kariakor. It was not always that we appreciated these visitors but we had no choice. We learnt early to share him with others. I see why now. Clearly so. His death has brought all these people back to our lives in a special way. You see, the thing about death is that it has a finality to it that is disturbing…haunting….defeatist. It puts you in a position of hopelessness. At least these are the emotions I have battled with. I have wondered, sometimes aloud if I did enough, I laughed enough, talked enough. I wonder what went through my grandfather’s head that day he fell in the bathroom. Did he like know, that I loved him? That he had people around him who cared? Is it humanly possible to know these things? It’s distressing.

But under this old dirty tent I am reminded of certain things we often take for granted. Human relations. They have defined me in every possible way. Growing up in an extended family that was caring and loving is no mean feat in Kenya’s urban myth. It is exemplified under this old dirty tent where we are meeting to send off this man, who, like a cord, ties us together. I have seen the guy who owned the kiosk where we bought milk and bread. Sometimes we took stuff on credit because there was someone who would foot the bill later.

And the lady who was always tagging along with his grand-daughters? That one I must remember. They were two pretty girls. I never knew their mother though. I guess I noted them because in more ways than one, my sister and I, were them. I wonder what became of them. The old lady is here alone wearing a white kitenge. Mama…a salute for you.
There is Joe Aketch here too. He is an old friend of grandpa’s. He has talked politics till his voice went horse. He has a new flame though whom the crowd has nicknamed, switihearti…I swear that is what the old lady…Marikuwa…called her. Switihearti and the man who makes your heart leap beats….Salute….
There is Kanyundo also. Salute. I never asked why he was nick-named Kanyundo. I guess it’s his height. If you know me, you wouldn’t ask what nickname to give me right?

My uncles appear okay. My mum and auntie look different for some reason however. I haven’t seen them so distraught…so distant…it is disheartening. There is a flame that is slowly fading. I hate the fact that I can do nothing to stop it. For the Mawathe girls, it is a reality check of sorts. They were my grandfather’s daughters. They were loved beyond measure. And so were the children they birthed. Us. They must be thinking…’’Who will fight for us’’ Or maybe it’s my mind going paragasha. You see, as single mothers these girls withstood the test of all time. Their children, us, were often reminded that they were less…father.
Us. We never lucked on our part. I perhaps may never know what it means to have a father. But I know a child doesn’t stop to grow because they have none. We all grew and were fortunately or unfortunately ‘spoiled’ by this man who has brought us here today. He fought all those fights. To the Mawathe girls…it’s a big salute. You should be proud. We are fine.

It’s a salute to all of these people all the same…. seated here making me feel homesick. This was the life. There was community. Whatever became of that? Maybe Nyumba Kumi is a good idea after all?

You must remind me if I seem to forget the people or the places that have shaped me. By end of the night we have laughed, shared and remembered the man who did not only give me a name but made life what it is today. RIP Mawathe.

© Anne Mawathe