Accessibility links

Kenyan Craftsman Seeks Adventure in South Africa

“I lived in the bush. I was happy in the bush. Here, there’s a different atmosphere,” says Kioko Mutua, a 27-year-old trader at a market in Rosebank, a plush Johannesburg suburb.

The Kenyan then immediately adds, “Different does not mean bad!” The smoky city skyline of concrete, steel and glass shimmers and seethes behind him.

Indeed, it would be a gross oversimplification to depict Mutua as having been torn from his natural, rural habitat and forced into an urban hell.

“You know, sometimes you need adventure!” he says confidently, when explaining his decision four years ago to move to Johannesburg.

“Sometimes, people just want to change their environment. To see what other people are doing,” he adds.

Mutua repeatedly emphasizes that he did not leave his homeland because he was poor, or to escape political repression and perhaps war – the stock reasons given by foreigners when asked about their presence in the country with Africa’s strongest economy.

“I’m not a refugee. I’m a businessman,” he declares. “Business is better here in Johannesburg. People have more money than in Kenya.”

Mutua, who’s from Kenya’s Kamba ethnic group but grew up near the country’s famed Masai Mara game reserve, says he’s in South Africa to learn.

“When I go back to Kenya, I’m going to have extra knowledge, where I am able to do something totally different in my country,” he says.

‘They need kitu kidogo….’

Mutua’s business contacts are in Congo and Cameroon, from where he imports “raw” wood.

“And when the (wood) reaches here…we decorate it with beads and we put the color on,” he explains.

Mutua also imports paintings from Mozambique, necklaces from his native Kenya and an assortment of statues from across West Africa. But his work isn’t without its challenges. He says corrupt border guards sometimes demand bribes from him when he legally re-enters South Africa with goods.

“Some officials, they need kitu kidogo (a small something),” Mutua chuckles. “It’s the way of people. Corruption is there, from the top to down! Because everybody needs something – we call it ‘thanks!’ And it’s going to remain, no matter what…. In English you call it ‘tip.’ The tip must be there. And if you convert it (to Swahili), we call it kitu kidogo!”

Mutua nevertheless considers it a “privilege” to be working in South Africa, alongside so many people from all over the continent. Inside the market, the Kenyans who are reputed to be the best salespeople. Mutua says his compatriots have had centuries in which to perfect the art.

“It’s in our blood,” he stresses. “The first people to (visit) Kenya, they were Arabs, before the British. So our way to communicate with (the Arabs) was by doing barter trade. We learned a lot from the Arabs. We traded animal skins and ivory.”

As a result of all this trading, a language arose that’s become the lingua franca of East Africa, Swahili.

“Even our language is pure business, so how can you ask why we are so good at business?” Mutua asks laughingly, as a sign reading “This Is Africa – We Bargain” hangs above his head.

According to the young dealer, his enterprise in South Africa is a “natural” extension of history. Just as his forebears did – bargaining with foreigners – so he does now.

But there’s one very important difference between Mutua and those who went before him – he’s practicing his trade on foreign soil. And that’s not always easy.

‘They used drugs….’

The Kenyan says South African artists are “very talented, but sometimes lazy.”

“They are creative but they are not hardworking; (they don’t) show people what they are doing, to expand their work and business. That’s what the problem is,” he states.

Mutua says it “hurts” when South Africans insult him by calling him a makwerekwere, a derogatory word meaning “foreigner” or “outsider.”

He’s convinced that “lazy, unemployed” South African youths were the main instigators of the attacks on foreign-born Africans across the country little more than a year ago.

“That was not good. Some, they used drugs,” he says.

To explain further, he glances around to make sure that no one else is listening to the conversation and whispers, “These attackers, they can’t create work. They wait for government to give them work. They expect everything for free, and when they don’t get it, then they start looking for people to blame. And the easiest way is to blame us foreigners, because we create work, we don’t sit back and wait for government to give us.”

Mutua insists that any government’s responsibility is to reward talent – not unemployment and idleness.

“It is up to individuals to use their talents, to prove to the government what their use is to the society, so that government, they can see what I am doing, they can (then) assist me beyond that.”

Mutua equally adamantly insists that South Africa is a “good place,” while at the same time acknowledging that he’s concerned for his safety in the “dangerous” country.

He says most foreigners here “isolate” themselves from South Africans.

“If you live in an area which you know is not good, you have to be home early. After work, you go home. If you want to drink, you buy your beer, you take it home. You sleep….”

‘Something called freedom….’

For all his optimism and insistence that he’s in South Africa by choice, Mutua eventually acknowledges that he feels “locked in, at times” in the country.

He’s imprisoned by his own culture, by his accent, which betrays him as being an outsider.

“It’s sometimes like I can’t breathe,” Mutua mumbles. Here in South Africa, the young man who “used to be a very social person” is just a makwerekwere, a despised foreigner forced to lock himself away from a world he desperately wants to be part of.

“In Kenya,” he sighs, “there’s something called freedom…. In Kenya you can walk anytime you want. You can go to a club; you can drink, anytime you want. You can wake up (safe) until morning. Nobody will ask you (anything).”

Mutua acknowledges that he’s “probably” over-romanticizing his birthplace, which certainly has its fair share of problems, including violent crime.

But now the ice broken, his reserve lost like the mist of Mount Kenya, he’s on a roll. “Everything here in South Africa is different. The food is different. I really miss Kenyan food, like ugali (stiff maize porridge) and sukuma wiki (spinach). The food here is not organic,” he says.

“Even the water here. It tastes like soap!” he says.

Mutua laughs when asked if he came to South Africa to drink water…for he’s a young man, with a young man’s lust for life’s little pleasures.

“Beer also, here it’s different!” he says. “When I drink Guinness (beer) here, and when I go home and drink (Kenyan) milk stout; it’s different!”

For all that he believes he’s learning in South Africa, it’s clear that Mutua feels that life is passing him by. He wants to enjoy himself. He wants to drink Kenyan beer, and to eat familiar food. He wants to love the women of his choice – and they’re not South African.

“They are good, but not marrying material…. Sorry to say that!” Mutua apologizes.

Instead of living and sinning, though, he locks himself away in his tiny room in a dingy apartment in central Johannesburg every night.

At the end of his South African sojourn, a better businessman Mutua may well be…. But will all the sacrifices he’s made have been worth it?

“I don’t know,” he answers uncomfortably. Then he searches for a better answer. It comes, in the form of a rhetorical question.

“Do you know an old Swahili saying?” he asks. “It goes like this, ‘You have to go back to your roots, to where you belong. When you leave your culture, you become a slave."