An Insider’s Cultural Guide to Nairobi

Nairobi culture in five words

Sheng, sun, writing, matatus, genge.

Sound of the city

Beeps from security wands and metal detector machines are the norm in Nairobi, because of the compulsory security checks at every major building, mall, event locations and some buses in the city. In short, security checks are everywhere. Individuals are required to put their bags and phones in trays while they walk through the metal detector machine and in some places security guards also frisk people.

Everyone’s tuning into …

The Trend, NTV’s hit show, chats with popular and polarising personalities that people in Kenya are talking about on Twitter: from pop stars to skin-bleaching socialites.

Best current venue

Kuona Trust

Kuona Trust is a vibrant and accessible arts space in the Hurlingham district of the city. It’s a great place for discovering local painters, glass artists, visual artists, sculptors and photographers, who showcase their work there at regular exhibitions and installations, events, workshops and community outreach programmes. Kuona markets many Nairobi-based artists. Recently, director Sylvia Gichia spoke out about the Venice Biennale scandal, which sees Chinese and Italian artists representing Kenya instead of local artists, for the second time.

What’s the big talking point?

Digital migration – three leading private TV stations operating on analogue platforms were switched off for three weeks in February for failing to migrate to digital. The conflict caused Kenyans on social media to swap memes making fun of the situation. Now that all the stations are back on air, Kenyans are required to purchase set-top boxes to watch local channels, unless they already have satellite TV.

Who’s top of the playlist?

Fena is a solo singer-songwriter whose take on the urban-soul genre is swaggy and relatable. She is proudly African, from her dreads to her lyrics she stands out as a positive,“fena-menal” woman. The artist recently shared a stage with the legendary South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

What Nairobi does better than anyone else …

Tusker beer is made in Nairobi, and is popular with Kenyans and tourists alike. Locals often drink it with nyama choma (barbecued meat). Now that police are on the look-out for drunk drivers, Kenyans are doing their best to enjoy their alcoholic beverages responsibly and avoid failing the “alco-blow” tests.

Best cultural Instagram

A photo posted by @lyraoko on

Artist and content creator Lyra Aoko’s Instagram account is a good representation of the arts scene in Nairobi.

Cultural moment from history

Nairobi National Museum had its 100-year anniversary in 2010. It was a great moment for the city because the renovated museum holds impressive and culturally important artefacts. World-renowned paleontologist and Time Magazine cover star Dr Richard Leakey spoke at the grand celebration, which also featured an art exhibition. Some of the world’s most prized artifacts are housed at Museum Hill, including a homo erectus boy.

Best street art

Bankslave is a socially conscious graffiti artist. His work ranges from a massive portrait of Lupita Nyong’o to screaming faces with active pipelines coming from the mouths. He calls these “screaming souls”.

He recently honoured the world’s oldest primary pupil Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge on a wall in Kariobangi. The famous Kenyan started his primary education at 84 years of age, and is the subject of the film The First Grader.

Favorite local artist

Scared school children walk past a police dog during a crackdown on Mungiki sect adherents in Kosovo slum in Nairobi; Kenya. The sect is blamed for a string of recent murders and beheadings. The slum was believed to be a major hideout for the quasi-religious turned militant sect members.

Scared school children walk past a police dog during a crackdown on Mungiki sect adherents in Kosovo slum, Nairobi. The sect is blamed for a string of recent murders and beheadings. Photograph: Boniface Mwangi

Boniface Mwangi is a Prince Claus Award winning photojournalist or “photoactivist”, as he calls himself. His work focuses on socio-political issues affecting the nation, especially corruption. He used to work as a photojournalist for a national newspaper (The Standard) but left the profession, frustrated with watching politicians mislead the public. Mwangi is known for organising protests, including the Occupy Playground which made international headlines earlier this year.

Comedy gold

“Shaniqwa” (Kevin Mwangi), is an entertainer best known for mocking the socialite culture currently sweeping Nairobi. The phenomenon sees beautiful (bootiful) young women who appear in music videos and on reality shows enjoy a lavish lifestyle (mostly documented on Instagram). Depending on who you speak to, these women have aspirational lives or are dubious divas.

The comedian dons pumps, a weave and makeup while cracking jokes in Sheng and English.

Five to Follow

Baz Matters

UP Nairobi


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Article by Josephine Opar

Originally from Sweden, Chris is a journalist with an extensive interest for African culture and the arts.