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It’s business 24 hours on River Road

In his 1976 novel, Maja Mwangi’s, Going down River Road states, “Near the dirty old western-type swing doors an old spaceship type jukebox roars, grunts and screeches.

Its defiant noise produces such a racket that the whole bar, tables glasses and bottles dance in resonance…. In the clam quiet of the bar one can smell the toilet.”

Meja Mwangi devotes pages to vivid descriptions of drinking and drunkenness in tawdry, working class bars in Nairobi and most specifically River Road, in the early years of independence.

The book depicts life for the working poor, who at any moment can find themselves cast into a rapidly growing underclass, eking out marginal existences of sex workers, petty criminals and distillers in disease-ridden shanty towns. 

Defining term

Years ago Asian gold jewellery merchants sold their wares and it was great fun to wander from shop to shop admiring the intricate filigree work executed in 22 and 24 carat gold. 

Rich stuff. But as time went by, the gold merchants moved out and words like, prostitute, thieves, conmen, pick pockets, became the standard defining term for one of Nairobi’s most popular streets.

Located in down town Nairobi, River Road is like a market place for spare parts and cheap substandard goods. It has a poor reputation for security today, partly because it is near one of the major matatu stops in the city, and therefore draws big crowds of all kinds of people.

How is it then that behind the dirty alleys, misplaced buildings and stifling crowds stands multi-million shilling business enterprises?

That, coupled with the fact that some of the business owners in these streets might as well pass for one of the wealthiest people in Nairobi.

Stationers, printers, automobile shops, fabric shops, beauty products, household items, electronics, jewellers, branding and signage companies are just among the few that form this equation of financial success.

Moses Mule, a 26-year-old offset machine operator has worked in River Road for the past five years (credit chayra). Straight from the village in 2008, with basic secondary schooling and no experience, his only option was to start hawking groundnuts. 

This was before his cousin introduced him to the printing business and from then on, he has never looked back.

“Life is hard, but I hardened with it. River Road is not a place to sleep, it took me a year to fully master how to operate a litho offset machine,” he says.

For Mule, an eight to five job is a luxury; many times he has had to sleep in the office after hours and spend hours printing during the night shift.

“No one forces you to do anything, my boss always gives me a choice, but if you sleep then you will be disappointed at the end of the month,” he adds.

In an economy where, prices of everything are going up, spending is almost inevitable. For the majority of Kenyans are below the poverty line, anything extra is priceless.

I was quite surprised in the beginning, unable to contemplate the fact that people can work for hours without so much as the required eight hours rest, and so I paid a visit. 

At midnight uptown Nairobi is a ghost town, most if not all the shops are closed, save for a few 24 hour supermarkets and chemists, walking downtown the difference is as clear as night at day.

Except for the darkness, you would mistake this for a normal working day at 10 am. 

Machines are on and running, in offices designers, cashiers and shop assistants are glued to their computers, casual workers are pushing carts and transporting stack after stack of paper from one street to the next, even the ordinary mkokoteni driver is in transit to and from the busy streets to ensure he has transported as much bananas and onions to Muthurwa dawn.

Thomas Mbole, a business owner tells me he opts to operate nocturnally because: “As opposed to the normal eight to five jobs, we, have the power to dictate how much we want to bring in terms of monthly turnover.”