Nairobi’s talking circles

talking circles

This is a Nairobi phenomenon.  I call these circular congregations ‘Nairobi talking circles’. I was curious about the discussions that go on in these circles, because they always draw quite some good audience.  I have stood in two of these circles. What issues are discussed there?

Circle 1

This one was a group of acrobats. They began by showcasing various stunts. This is how they attract people. The circle starts to build up. Then they throw in some humour. More people join! They continue with the acrobatic stunts. Then they get into what must be their core business. The transition is so seamless, you really do not notice how they move from performing stunts to saying that they are selling some kind of medicine. One of them launches into an explanation about how this medicine is good for indigestion. They say the price is 100 bob. Other members move around the circle to sell to their new found customers. I turn to the guy standing next to me.

Me: What is this medicine made from?

Guy: It is from a root of a tree

Now I am intrigued!

Me: Which tree?

Guy: I do not know.

Me: Have you tried it?

Guy: Oh yes!

Me: Did it work?

Guy: Yes! Nakwambia/I am telling you, it works!

The first round of selling comes to an end.  More acrobatic stunts, more jokes. The circle is bursting into huge laughter after every few moments.

Then the guy standing next to me says: Just watch, they are going to reduce the price to 50 bob.

And sure enough, after a short while, the lead guy says Kwa sababu umenunua yako na 100 bob, nunulia rafiki na 50 bob/buy for a friend at 50 shillings! More people buy the medicine.

Talking Circle no 2

This one was discussing politics and governance. The guy who was the centre of attraction had chalk which he would use to write on the ground to emphasize the points he was making. This is what I recall.

  1. He pointed to the monument of Tom Mboya and said: “Do you see this man? This is one of the greatest Kenyans that ever lived.” He then spoke about how Tom Mboya was so intelligent, how he was once on the cover of Times Magazine, and so on and so forth. He then spoke about JM Kariuki, Pio Gama Pinto, Robert Ouko et al., and argued that Kenya kills its best and brightest. He said that if Tom Mboya was running for president today, he would not win. Even Obama would not win if he ran for elections here, he thundered through the microphone! Why? Because Kenyans are stuck in the ethnic paradigm.
  2. He then spoke about economic injustice. He talked about how a Kenyan will be paid KES 200 per day, and that person has to eat, travel, raise a family, etc. This same Kenyan will completely ignore candidates who have an economic recovery strategy, and politics that is anchored on social justice, and vote for their respective ethnic lords.
  3. Then he said something that I cannot ever forget: That in the colonial period Kenyans thought that the white man was a God. He said that if a white man defecated, Kenyans would go to see what colour it was! Then somebody in the circle yelled! Hata siku hizi/even today!! And the crowd roared in laughter!

What a great illustration of white supremacy and coloniality in Kenya?

These two talking circles were located near or around the Tom Mboya monument area. There is another talking circle that happens opposite City Hall or outside former Nakumatt City Hall area. This one happens very early in the morning. It is always a group of men huddled close together. It is a much smaller circle than the one in this picture. I think the person in the middle has a newspaper? I am not sure. Anybody knows what this one is about?

Now I am really interested in these circles. These are a good way to read and understand the issues affecting society. For those who are looking for research topics, there is plenty of angles to look at this from:

  1. Urban planning/Use of public spaces
  2. Health and public health –access, Indigenous Knowledge Systems & health
  3. Gender dynamics of talking circles
  4. Theatre and performance
  5. Governance, access to information, the people’s politics
  6. Language and other forms of cultural expression




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