Former Nairobi street kid reclaims the city with his sax

On a breezy Thursday evening in August, i find myself strolling along Aga Khan Walk in Nairobi’s CBD. The streets and avenues are too congested with evening traffic and this major pedestrian spine offers a less headache-inducing alternative. Aga Khan Walk is exciting, because it could throw anything at you – a second-hand book seller, a church choir on rehearsal, a rowdy gang of skating teens, a lottery ticket vendor, a doomsday preacher, even a madman. The street is lined with park benches that have been turned into yet another ‘jobless corner’in the CBD, a place for those without employment to sit and stare into their bleak future.

Moses Odhiambo
Moses Odhiambo

My stroll is interrupted by a sultry sound. It’s Moses Odhiambo alias Mosesoo, whose saxophone performances have been making news on Kenyan TV screens and social media lately.

Most of the music on the streets of Nairobi is playback performances by gospel artists hoping to sell their CDs. It is usually loud and a nuisance but attracts passers-by because it is accompanied by dance and because the gospel in Nairobi is spread on loudspeaker. You will also find beggars, especially blind ones, playing drums or the flute.

In a city where the busking culture mainly draws fire-eating magicians, tricksters, jugglers, preachers and acrobats, his is a unique offering among street performances.

Huddled around Moses is an improvised choir of passers-by. I join them in singing along to a rhumba tune by the late Daudi Kabaka, ‘Msichana wa Elimu’, a golden oldie released back in 1967.

"Msichana mrembo kama wewe (A girl as beautiful as you)

Kitu gani kinachofanya usiolewe (What keeps you from getting married?)

Elimu unayo yakutosha (You have enough education)

Hata ngámbo umeenda ukarudi (You’ve even been abroad and back)

Miaka yaenda mbio sana (The years are passing)

Sura yako yazidi kuchujuka" (And your face keeps ageing)

It is Mzee Eddy who provides the lyrics to the second and third stanzas. Mzee Eddy is tall, grizzled and stooped, and tells me he comes every Thursday to listen to Moses while he plays old school Kenyan songs. The rest of the singers are young men, while some passers-by stand at a distance and watch. There’s companionship among these strangers as they sing and dance to the music.

Moses always steps out in a flat cap, a broken suit and a scarf, for his performances. It’s a style that makes him accessible yet professional. He plays twice a week, from 5pm to 7pm.

He is a self-taught saxophonist whose story finds its way back to the streets. He is a former street boy. The 29-year-old grew up in the Soweto slums of Nairobi’s Kayole area. At the age of 10, Moses and his three brothers moved out of home after their father relocated to their rural home to recover from alcoholism. His mother could not feed and educate her seven children, so they dropped out of school to fend themselves. This saw him becoming a street rascal, surviving by selling waste plastic and scrap metal.

He lived in the streets for five years and a local church, Kenya Assemblies of God church, later offered to pay his school fees. Despite the help, he had no money for food, so he would return to the streets in the evenings and on weekends. Because he was too grown to return to Class Two, the school allowed him to skip three classes and join class six.

He passed the primary school exams and enrolled at Pumwani High School in Nairobi. Shortly afterwards, he developed a love for music and joined the school band as a trumpeter. He excelled in his studies and school leadership and was eventually elected as school captain. Throughout his high school years, he was supported by an organization called Daraja, which assisted needy artistic students such as acrobats and singers.

But reality dealt with him. Despite passing his secondary exams, he could not pursue his education at tertiary level owing to final challenges. He was later invited to teach music students under the sponsorship programme and this saw him at playing the saxophone for the first time. Fortunately, when the donor programme ended, he was given the saxophone that he plays to date.

In 2010, he started selling second hand clothes so as to earn a living. In April 2016, he stopped selling clothes performing in the streets. That same month, he scouted the Nairobi CBD for a pitch, a place to play his sax. Some open spaces were too noisy, others too empty, and others were flanked by traffic.  At Aga Khan Walk, he found people lazing. The tempo of the street was just right, and he wanted to cheer up the idlers. Vendors discouraged him with woeful tales of dodging greedy city county officers. But one said he’d like to hear how that instrument sounds, because he had never seen anything like it. Moses realized that the sax is an instrument not accessible to most people on the street.

At Nairobi City County offices, he was asked to pay Sh26,000 (US$260) a  monthfor numerous licenses.

“It’s ridiculous! Who makes that kind of money on the streets? I didn’t even intend to make money from this!” he lamented to me.

Eventually, he picked up his saxophone, steadied his shaky hands and played. So far, no county officers (what are these?) have harassed him. He hopes the City County officials will leave him play in peace.