I got a message from Biko, late last week, “How are things?”
Kenyans have this unique ability to minimize issues. A man could be calling to deliver the tragic news of his own mother’s passing but that won’t stop him from starting the conversation with “Sema, how are things?”
I knew something was up so I asked him to cut to the chase. Biko wanted me for an interview and it had to be the next day. Biko has been having these anxiety attacks over turning 40 and had launched into an introspective journey, talking to people who had crossed into their 40s in search of his version of the 48 ways to manage your 40s without the midlife crisis.
I was having a busy day, jam packed with a series of meetings and I told Biko I would see him in the evening. Earlier in the day, I was hanging out with a bunch of progressive young men from the Mathare Social Justice Centre who had invited me for lunch in their hood.
Mathare is a sensory overload, the inner city in the bowel of the city, sunken in a quarry with a history that dates back a 100 years. From the top of the building where the Social Justice office is located, Mathare is a sea of tightly packed mabati roofs, divided into two sections by a sewer infested river. Black smoke billows from sections along the river which I was informed were changaa mini distilleries. We dropped into the valley, navigating the narrow alleyways, ducking our heads over low roof edges, constantly straddling clogged drains and there was garbage everywhere. But once we got to the main street, I got a sense of Mathare’s energy. It was a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells and sights. People cooking, street food every few metres, people hustling, people chilling, all kinds of music blaring out of corner shops, goats and sheep roaming about and little children darting up and down in a game of hide and seek around a pile of cement blocks with the sheer delightful innocence of childhood.
It was reminiscent of one big village, a community of people defying the innumerable odds stacked against them to keep on moving. We walked across Mathare towards Starehe, through the Kosovo neighbourhood, the roughest part of the hood to the edge of the valley where there was a famous eatery run by the grand old lady Mama Njoki. It was a no frills, no cholera, kibanda that served a basic menu. Mama Njoki who walked with a limp was a one woman-show, feeding her boys, the young men who streamed into her kiosk for sustenance and good company. I ordered beans that had bits of meat thrown in and chapatis, the kind where you use the polythene wrapper as a serviette.
The food tasted healthy and fresh and the banter was the best political analysis that I have heard in a long time. As you grow older, there is a tendency to think that young people do not grasp the intricacies of politics yet every time I speak to younger folk, their arguments are always laced with clear insight into the dynamics of our power systems. One hour later, I had to leave for my next meeting out in Westlands and the boys escorted me to the Muthaiga side of Mathare to catch a matatu.
As we stood on high ground, looking back at the valley, the boys counted out the number of police stations, each located in an affluent neighbourhood and a military base that strategically surrounded their hood. They were cognizant that their lot existed to serve as labour and they would be fine as long as they did not speak out of turn or attempt to upset the long established status quo. This was the restless existence of young people struggling to find dignity in a system that criminalized urban youth, born poor. They were the offspring of a generation that had been denied the opportunities to change their lives. There was a powerful lesson I gleaned from South African comedian Trevor Noah’s memoirs, Born A Crime.
People love to say, “Give a man a fish and he ‘ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he ‘ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is “It would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod”.
After two meetings in Westlands and a haircut, I called Biko as the evening approached to set up our meet. I had assumed we would be meeting at some local over beer and warm peanuts but Biko is as good a hustler as he is a writer. He had worked out some freebie perks with a hotel and that is how I found myself riding an uber to the Radisson Blu hotel in Upper Hill. The neighbourhood had changed drastically since days when my big bro Griff, was a student at Upper in the early 80s and Nairobi City Council worked. Buses ran on time and garbage was collected twice a week. Upper was a leafy suburb on the hill where senior civil servants lived in large bungalows with sprawling compounds and see-through gates. Upper Hill now houses Nairobi emerging skyline and is shaping up to be the heart of a new business centre. I wondered where the city would house the labour that would keep the streets sparkling clean and its lights blazing.
Radisson Blu is glitzy and upscale. From the foyer, there is a sense of bespoke detail with elegant lines, iconic pieces of furniture with a feel of contemporary elegance. I walked in with a backpack and dusty boots and spotted Biko in his Raila inspired beret that has become a fixture on his head. As men grow older, they stick to signature pieces, a uniform of sorts because it saves time choosing an outfit in the morning. Biko always seems have a hat on, jeans and running shoes. Don’t think I have ever seen the guy in a suit, not even at his mother’s funeral.
We walked to the dining area and there was a reservation place holder with Biko’s name on it. Biko excused himself to visit the bathroom as I sunk into a comfy chair to soak in the ambience. An eager waiter, Okelo, appeared by my side, bright eyed and exclaimed,”Biko!” with a the familiarity of man you hunted tadpoles with as a kid. I told him Biko would be back shortly but he thought I was pulling his leg. I have been mistaken for Biko on print but never in public. The man had been instructed to give Biko an exquisite dining experience and he was not going to let me curb his enthusiasm. When Biko returned, the waiter Okelo seemed perplexed but I put him at ease by assuring him that we were both writers. Happens all the time.
Biko informed me that I would be a guinea pig for a steak special that was on offer that evening. The restaurant was positioning as a steak house and my opinion would be highly valued. I told Biko with some regret that I had stuffed my belly with chapos and njahe. It was akin to the villager at a Luo funeral who laments the lack of a prior warning upon discovering to his horror that his stomach was filled with nyoyo (maize and beans) and that the caterers were also serving the villagers with the roasted meats that are usually reserved for “Jo Norobi”. If I had known, I would have gone easy on those beans. Now I could only ‘taste’ the steak.
Biko began to make a case for the steak. It had been aged for 21 days he was told but his pitch was not too compelling. I reminded him that aging science was similar to smoked meat that every seasoned grandma in the pre refrigeration era was adept in. In Dholuo we call it Aliya and it is about the softest meat I have ever eaten. This version of fine dining was what local grandmas laid out for grand kids they loved.
We both placed our orders that comprised plain protein, steak for me, chicken for Biko and a healthy portion of salads. No carbs. No starch. I had to ask, “When did we become like this, calling real food starch?”
We were all sired by men who thought rice was a snack and potato fries were for children. Such sell outs we were, worried about a little bulge in all the right places.
Biko began the interview, typing on his phone because it kept him focused. Ignore the little detail that he had to answer a phone call every once in a while to state, “Yes, I am still interviewing Pala”. (Apparently! as we say in Nairobi, the recorder makes him drift off). Every 20 minutes or so, someone from management would emerge to ensure that we were enjoying our fine dining experience and basically ruining my interview experience. But since we are cultured Kenyan men, who understand that there is no such thing as free steak, we had to listen to accompanying lecture that came with every dish.
The chef and the sous chef would come and explain what we had just eaten with the kind of precision to detail of a rocket scientist. They would stoop over the table, speak deliberately with a measured tone and pinching fingers to make emphasis. We would resume eating and talking and someone new would arrive to inquire about our experience. I don’t think we managed to go past 30 minutes before we were interrupted. When they were not at the table, staff would be hovering in the background ready to catch our eye for the slightest indication that we might need someone to refill the glass of water.
I could only afford a smile.
10 years ago, when I first met Biko, he was just breaking into the industry. The year was 2007 and I had been hired to edit Kenya’s first Men’s lifestyle magazine, ADAM! Men First. My boss, an affable South African male Cobus Heyl told me from the onset that he had already locked my first writer, a young talent known as Jackson Biko. Jackson! Not Steve! Jackson!
I had seen the by-line in the True Love magazine, last word page and I assumed he was South African. When he showed up at the office, I met a tall lanky man, with a shiny forehead and glasses who walked like he was one of those guys who the sign “mind your head” was written for. I found him chilled and understated and he called me “the Knife”. He told me that he had been a religious fan when he was a student in Kampala and I really hoped he was not one of those all-talk-no-write, writers.
We hit the ground running at Adam and Biko quickly cemented his place as a quirky writer, who wrote in technicolor. He could paint scenes in a way that brought otherwise bland stories alive, with characters jumping off the page to grab your attention. Biko was born to tell stories and he approached difficult feature assignments with the level of enthusiasm that most journos respond to the words, “open bar”. He played off beautifully with the talented and street wise Dickson Migiro and complimented Franklin Awori’s grounded seasoned writing style. They were a dream team. Biko had a knack of digging into his subjects and extracting minute details in a humorous way. He tackled Adam’s first cover story on Cajetan Boy and dedicated the opening paragraph to talk about his beard.
“It is a growth that seems to possess a life of its own, an embodiment of ruggedness. It is also ambitious. It seeks attention,competing fiercely with his features. Although it wins the battle, it is no easy victory, for Cajetan Boy has undeniably strong features”. This attention to detail much like a pastry chef would become the signature mark of Biko Zulu’s story telling.
Two years later into my job as editor, I resigned to pursue new ventures. I was going through a transition in my life, seeking new arenas for self growth and letting go of the spaces that had defined me for over decade. One year after exiting from Adam magazine, I also tendered my resignation from the Mantalk column in Saturday Nation that I had penned for over a decade. I persuaded my editor Rhoda Orengo to listen to my succession plan because as an editor, I knew how hard it was to replace a long term columnist. I showed her samples of Biko’s writing and told her that he had that special quality required of columnists. The ability to keep returning to the blank page with fresh stories. I was an older guy and the issues that mattered to me had changed. Biko was the best guy to take over the column. She would not regret it.
The rest they say, is history and despite a rocky start weathering the backlash of fans who were reluctant to accept change, Biko earned his stripes and has grown to be one of the most distinct newspaper voices of his generation. He has matured with age, honing his craft, winning a loyal following whilst still remaining grounded and authentic. Biko still pens the Mantalk column in Sat Mag that is under the tutelage of another veteran writer and peer, Wayua Muli.
However, Biko’s greatest success has been his blog, bikozulu and his long format stories that have garnered a loyal audience that returns religiously every week for taste of his insight, humour and flair. Today he is Nairobi’s favourite blogger, a BAKE award champion and the hardest working man in the writing business. He also has big heart. He runs a successful series of writing master classes to nurture young talent where I am invited regularly to share my insights.
It is only 10 years since we first crossed paths and as I watch the management at Radisson Blu fuss over Biko, the writer, it fills me with immense pride that I had the foresight to hold the door open and play my little part in telling him, “ Here is what you need, here is how the writing business works”.
It was Michelle Obama who said, “When you walk through that open door of opportunity, don’t slam it shut behind you, you hold it open”.
That is the lesson of privilege. Hold open those doors of opportunity for those coming after you.
Now, with that out of the way, you can read the interview.