Merchants of Nairobi

How a chance encounter evolved into a book.

I first encountered the merchants of Nairobi and their flamboyant shop fronts while working on my book Living Africa, in which I set out to capture the incredible diversity of this vast and fascinating continent.

Returning from a photographic expedition in remote regions of Ethiopia and northern Kenya, I had a day to spare before my flight home to London. The noisy, bustling city was in striking contrast to the isolated tribal villages I had just left – villages which I then perceived to be at the very heart of traditional Africa, their existence threatened by environmental and social changes in a rapidly shrinking world.

Curious to explore a side of Nairobi seldom seen by outsiders, I set off for the district of Majengo. Looking down from the top of a hill, I watched a huge river of people undulate ceaselessly. The occasional van heaved its way through the dense human tide, each vehicle bearing a painted slogan such as ‘peace’ or ‘passion’.

Deeper into Majengo, I began to notice individual shops, each one painted with a unique sign that not only announced the nature of the business but expressed the personality of the individual shopkeeper.

As an outsider, I felt as if I had stepped into a different world. The brightly coloured shop façades might have been stage sets designed for an African jazz musical.

I felt inspired, for the seeds of a new book had been sown. The vibrancy of Nairobi’s street life and the colours of the shops resonated in my mind long after I had left them far behind. For so many people, the word ‘Africa’ conjures up images of wild animals on dusty plains, or vibrant tribal cultures. But the continent is also home to scores of major cities, and the slums of Nairobi are no less quintessentially African than the lions of the Masai Mara.

Three years went by before I was able to return and concentrate exclusively on the project. I made three separate trips to Nairobi, photographing and interviewing each person for just a short time. The encounters were fleeting, because I was trying to capture my immediate first impression. If a place looked interesting, I approached the owners and enquired if I could take some photographs. Everyone was accommodating; nobody refused me. I took a series of pictures inside and out, then asked the trader some questions about his or her life, using a small voice recorder. The entire encounter, including the interview, took on average one hour. The interviews, along with 138 photographs, now appear in my book, Trading Places - The Merchants of Nairobi

Abridged and adapted excerpt from Trading Places - The Merchants of Nairobi. (Thames & Hudson 2009).

© Steve Bloom 2009