I read an Article the other day where Bob Collymore informed us Kenyans in no uncertain terms that we were plagued, afflicted, infected beyond cure with what is known as “Kiosk Mentality”. My first reaction was to be angry and defensive. Why should an outsider (not so much an outsider now) come here and insult me and my people? Kiosk mentality indeed!
“Kiosk ni wewe!” I insulted the newspaper, throwing it down in contempt, and moved on to other duties.
However, as the day wore on, I kept thinking about the statement he had made. I searched myself, looked at the environment around me and finally started agreeing with him. I humbled myself, picked up the newspaper and read the article more objectively. Indeed, there was a proliferation of the kiosk mentality from the smallest trader to the mega-city businessmen.
You see Bob (I am not sure if it is alright to call him Bob or should I say Mr. Collymore, seeing how he has enlightened my mind) had given 2 glaring examples; that of the fruit hawker and that of the city mall developer. The examples were very clear in their simplicity.
And so, not being one to expose my shortcomings to eager readers such as yourselves, I decided to explain to you the accuracy of Bob’s statement by writing about my local traders or kioskers as I now came to refer to them.
From the main gate of our estate on Hekima Road, there is a one kilometre stretch to “Nairobi City County: Hekima Primary School”. Hekima road was recently tarmacked and a fresh new sidewalk installed “For the safety of pedestrians and school children,” said the County Governor in his launching speech, before he cut the ribbon and strolled down the street amidst the ululations of the women and the clicks of the journalists’ cameras.
However, city traders, as they are wont to do, installed their makeshift businesses along the sidewalk trying to take maximum advantage of the money that can be made from the pedestrian traffic. Of course, being Nairobians, we made a weak attempt to complain to nobody in particular. The traders were swift and firm in their response. They organised themselves into an informal menacing movement known as “Hekima Road Business Community” and threatened to fight us back. We cowered.
Anyway, Hekima Road Business Community is a classic example of Bob’s kiosk mentality theory. Maybe he carried out his research here. Who knows!
One day, just after the completion of the sidewalk, a man appeared with a mkokoteni full of mangoes with the accompanying salt, chilli powder and plastic bags. He installed himself right outside our estate gate quickly earning himself the title of Mkokoteni Mango Man. He was at a strategic place that took full advantage of the residents going to and from the bus stop and the school children going to and from school. Mkokoteni Mango Man was there every morning by 5:00a.m and left as late as 8:00p.m. His business was booming and he was literally harvesting money from us, selling his delicious mangoes “ripe, raw, plain, with salt and pepper.”
And then the inevitable happened. The shoe maker whose business was by the bus stop, closed shop purchased a mkokoteni, purchased his first stock of mangoes and installed himself at the end of the road, just outside the school.
The shoe maker was swiftly followed by the Safaricom Scratch Card Seller who quickly wound up his scratch card business and installed his mkokoteni mango business at the bus stop. Other traders who we had never seen before quickly joined in the money minting venture and soon our one kilometre stretch was a sea of mikokoteni and a flood of mangoes.
Suddenly the market share became too small for all these traders. Mkokoteni Mango Man, in a bid to retain his customers deviously whispered in our ears, “That guy’s mangoes are GMO, don’t buy them, you will die.” Or “That guy’s mangoes are ripened with chemicals. Don’t buy them, you will die.”
His tactics did not help as profits dropped steeply, customers got tired of mangoes, and mangoes slowly went out of season.
Mkokoteni Mango Man did not lose heart. He went to visit his cousin who was a gardener in Loresho Estate and found a man selling apples in a wheelbarrow at the bus stop. He was quick to learn this new business so as to recover his losses. He sold his mkokoteni plus his last stock of mangoes and purchased a wheelbarrow with a fresh stock of apples. At least, he had found from his research that the apples are grown in greenhouses or whatever and do not go out of season.
So it was a great relief when he displayed his apples for sale outside our estate gate. Children, women, men rushed to buy the apples. A fruit considered exotic was now within our reach with prices friendly to our pockets. His identity quickly changed from Mkokoteni Mango Man to Wheelbarrow Apple Man.
Business was booming once again and he had a reason to smile. But his smiles were short lived for quickly and progressively, the other mikokoteni full of mangoes disappeared to be replaced by wheelbarrows of apples. Once again, the market collapsed.
But Wheelbarrow Apple Man was not daunted. He had learnt the trend and worked to always remain ahead of the “kioskers”. Without any warning, we awoke to find him with a clear bucket full of boiled eggs and bowls of kachumbari and a salt shaker on the side. Nairobians cannot resist kachumbari.
Boiled Egg Man would peel an egg in under two seconds using a spoon (I tried this at home and it ended badly), he then cut the egg in half using said spoon and added a dash of salt then kachumbari then put the two halves back in place to form a boiled egg kachumbari sandwich. The eggs disappeared like hotcakes.
Well, you know how the boiled egg story ended. The whole street was teeming with boiled eggs. Boiled eggs here, boiled eggs there, boiled eggs everywhere. I did not want to see another boiled egg in my life! And it seemed that the chickens were tired of laying eggs. Inevitably, the boiled egg business collapsed. Boiled Egg Man disappeared.
For a while, the street was empty. Devoid of much needed pre and post work and school snacks. The “kioskers” sat in the side lines. Eyes wide open, minds alert. Like a viper waiting to strike, they sat hungrily waiting for someone with an idea they could copy. They could not think for themselves.
After a short while, a construction project commenced across the road. A huge office complex was coming up and there many construction workers on site. A woman who we had never seen before and who we did not know as part of Hekima Road Business Community, appeared with a charcoal jiko on which she boiled githeri. She also had a large flask of hot tea. The construction workers rushed to partake the githeri and tea. Mama Githeri, as she came to be known, had so many customers she employed a young woman to help her. She expanded her business to include another jiko of githeri and a baby meko on which the young employee fried eggs to order.
It did not take long before other Hekima Road Business Community Members emerged from their hideouts with jiko, sufuria, baby meko and karai in hand. They boiled githeri, fried eggs and made tea. The construction workers were spoiled for choice. The price of githeri and tea had to fall drastically as supply swiftly exceeded demand. The construction workers soon wanted a change in diet and diverted to the nearest supermarket for bread and milk.
Sadly, the githeri business collapsed and once again, Hekima road was clear of traders.
We adjusted to life with no street sellers for some time and then Mkokoteni Mango Man reappeared. We were glad to see him. One again he had reinvented himself. Much as John the Baptist’s disciples emerged from the cool baptismal waters rejuvenated in mind, body and soul. Born again, so to speak, with new name to boot. Mkokoteni Mango Man had been reborn as Sugarcane Man! And he had a wheelbarrow full of sugarcane.
“Alas!” we queued up for the refreshing sugarcane. You could buy whatever length of sugarcane based on the money in your pocket. You could peel it with your teeth and chew it on the spot or take advantage of his free aftersales services whereby he would peel it for you with a knife and chop it (the action was more of hacking than chopping) into neat cubes.
You know, we Nairobi ladies do not want to be seen in public battling a meter-long sugar cane with our teeth. How barbaric! And think how this would destroy our make-up! Thank God Sugarcane Man had a solution for everyone.
It was chic to pick up one cube at a time daintily between manicured forefinger and thumb and chew it with decorum. Sugarcane man even provided an extra bag for a small fee, to throw in the sugar cane husks after chewing. He was an environmental man, I should say.
My favourite was to refrigerate the sugarcane cubes and then chew them, savouring the sweet sugarcany flavours on a hot Nairobi afternoon. You should try this dear reader. Pause now and rush to the Sugarcane Man near you. I promise to await your return before I proceed…