Downtown Nairobi streets

Nai Nami: The Inspirational Storytelling Kids In Nairobi

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Looking For A Unique Experience In Nairobi – Check Out This Tour

Wondering what to do in Nairobi today? We have the perfect solution. When we decided to spend two days in Nairobi, Kenya after our Tanzania Safari adventures, we were looking for something different; something that would put us in touch with the heartbeat of this famous cosmopolitan city. 

Downtown Nairobi

That ‘something’ turned out to be spending a half day with the inspirational Storytelling Kids in Nairobi. Below we outline what you can expect on this Nairobi tour.

✅ Click here to book the incredible tour that we took.

Highlights of the Storytelling Kids Tour in Nairobi

What Is The Nai Nami Project?

The Nai Nami Project is an entrepreneurial business venture co-owned by former street kids who serve as its tour guides.  The mission of Nai Nami is to provide disadvantaged kids from the streets of Nairobi an opportunity to use their street skills in a positive way that will add value to society. 

The Nairobi “kids” are actually a group of young men, mostly in their mid-20s who lived in the streets of downtown Nairobi.  All of these kids grew up and survived in poverty and got by using skills they developed from the streets.  Most of them belonged to gangs from the time they were very young. 

Our guides for the day

They survived by begging, hustling and through petty crime.  Many were heavy drug users.  All of them found a way out and are now dedicated to making a better life for themselves and others.

Nai Nami literally means “Nairobi with me”, and it is a true representation of what the tour entails.  Each tour is a personal experience, with one guide allocated per 2 guests.  What is special about this tour is that the focus is not so much on sightseeing as it is on storytelling – the true-life stories of what it is like for a lot of kids who live on the streets and in the slums of Nairobi. 

✦ Check out a video about the Nai Nami project here.

Where Does The Tour Go?

The tour takes place primarily in what is referred to as Downtown Nairobi – the part of the city that runs east of Tom Mbyo Street and up to the Nairobi River.  This is the domain of the common majority of Nairobi. 

Streets in downtown Nairobi

It is important to note that there is a significant socio-economic disparity between “Uptown” Nairobi and “Downtown” Nairobi.  Uptown Nairobi is where most tourists that visit spend most of their time.  It includes higher-end hotels and restaurants, museums, Government buildings, parks, and other tourist attractions. 

Downtown Nairobi on the other hand, supports the lower-income residents of Nairobi who eke out their livelihoods in its cluttered streets and markets.  This is where you will spend most of your time on the Nai Nami tour.

Downtown Nairobi streets you will see on the tour storytelling kids in Nairobi

The tour starts at the Bata Store near the former Hilton Hotel on Watalii Lane, just off Moi Avenue.  Moi Avenue is considered the dividing line between Uptown and Downtown Nairobi. 

Outside the meeting point

We met our guide, Priest, and 3 other guests who were joining us on the tour, at 9:30am.  Priest is a soft-spoken young man of 26 who lives with his mother and sister in a slum 6 kilometres from downtown.  He gave us a brief introduction to the tour and told us we would be joined along the way by some of his colleagues.

Our guide Priest

We started the tour walking south on Moi Avenue along its wide, tree-lined sidewalk and mid-rise buildings.  After about 10 minutes we stopped at the August 7 Memorial. 

This is the site of the 1998 US Embassy bombing by terrorists that killed 218 people.  The site includes the Peace Memorial Museum along with the Memorial Gardens; both designed to commemorate the victims and the lives of the survivors.

Outside sign at the August 7 Memorial

Before leaving the August 7 Memorial, we were joined by 3 more Street Kid guides – with nicknames of Tsunami, Typhoon and Godfrey.  All greeted us with big smiles and friendly handshakes, welcoming us to their city. We later realized that these folks were following along behind us as security.

We followed Priest across Moi Avenue heading east along Haile Selassie Avenue for one block to Tom Mbyo Street.  Here, Priest pulled us aside and gave us some rather stark facts about where we were going.

Roundabout between uptown and downtown Nairobi

We were about to cross over Tom Mbyo street to the core downtown area.  According to Priest, this area is colloquially referred to as “NaiRoberry”.  He indicated that the way of life in downtown is very different from uptown.  Once you cross into downtown, there are virtually no rules.   

The Streets of Downtown

As we followed Priest across Tom Mbyo Street, the contrast between Uptown and Downtown became quickly apparent.  The streets and intersections were much more crowded.  Pedestrians, scooters, cars and mini-buses converged from every direction.

Streets of downtown Nairobi

The sidewalks were much narrower than in Uptown, many of them broken with missing tiles or crumbling concrete.  As a result, quite a few pedestrians walk in the street sidestepping the slow-crawling traffic. 

Those who remain on the sidewalk are constantly shifting to avoid oncoming walkers and vendors who are sitting or standing outside their shops.  The first impression is that things are quite chaotic here – and they are, but it is amazing how quickly we adapted to it.  Priest told us that downtown is busy all the time – day and night.

Vendors on the street

As we crossed over a busy intersection near a bus depot, Priest pointed out a crowded Smoking Area, where a large group of people were congregated for a puff.  Smoking in public places is strictly prohibited in Kenya and convicted offenders face heavy fines and even jail time if caught smoking outside of the designated areas.

Smoking zone in downtown Nairobi

We passed by several intersections and along the way Priest told us facts about the people who live in this area and some discouraging commentary about how the government is letting down the impoverished people of Nairobi.

We eventually came to a bus terminal where Priest explained that this is where he would come as an 11-year-old to hustle and pick-pocket the tourists that came out of the terminal.  This is where it became very real as we listened to him tell us about the scams he ran and as foreigners what kind of activity we should watch out for.

The Matatus – Graffiti Blazoned Mini Bus Transport

One of the most striking contrasts between Uptown and Downtown Nairobi, is the noise level.  A large part of that has to do with the high concentration of matatus – the privately owned, colourful mini-buses that blast out loud music through giant speakers to attract riders. 

They are the main source of transportation for a significant number of locals.  While there are scheduled stops across the city and outlying regions, the timetable seems to be rather flexible.

Downtown Nairobi

The buses are decorated in a kaleidoscope of graffiti-style art, many painted by local artists.   The music that blares inside the buses also features music from local up and coming musicians.  These, along with attendants working for the operators, are the strategies used to persuade potential riders to hop aboard in this ultra-competitive industry.

We noted that a lot of the buses were parked at the side of road with destination signs on the top, partially filled with passengers.  Priest explained that, in order to make a profit, the buses don’t leave for their destinations until the bus is full

Sometimes riders will wait several hours before there are sufficient passengers to make the trip worthwhile for the owners.  This is why owners go to extremes to fill their buses as quickly as possible.

There is quite a bit of controversy regarding the matatus.  They have become part of the urban culture and vibrancy of Nairobi and as such, they are particularly popular with Nairobi youth. 

For several years the government has tried to restrict or regulate the matatu buses, citing safety and traffic congestion as the main concerns.  The matatu culture is so ingrained in the day to day life of Nairobi residents, that those attempts have so far not come to fruition which was evidenced by the numerous buses we saw.

The Role Of The Nairobi River In The Life Of The Street Kids

The Nairobi River defines the eastern border of the core downtown area, and its significance to the Street Kids is indelible.  Many, like Priest, would find refuge along its banks and under its bridges where they would sleep at night, wash their clothes and bathe. 

Nairobi river where the kids slept

After hustling and begging during the day they would return to the river at night, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, but always seeking a sheltered spot to rest up for the next day’s grind for survival.

On our way up to the river we went through an area that was lined with car part vendors and kiosks on both sides of the road.  Each seemed to specialize in certain types of parts – exhaust systems, tires and rims, engine parts, light fixtures, and stereos.  Priest referred to these as “used mechanical stolen parts”. 

He then joked “You might come here and buy back the stereo that was stolen from your car”.  Apparently, the stolen part business is quite lucrative in downtown Nairobi.

Insider Tip

Remember that this is the home of many people and showing respect is important. Listen to your guide about where you can or can’t take photos.

We finished our tour at a small, local eatery that served typical Kenyan cuisine in a simple, understated environment.  We sat in a small room off to the back which Tsunami referred to as the “VIP” lounge.  There were two rows of small rectangular tables covered in plastic tablecloths with 6 kitchen chairs at each table. 

There was no written menu, but the owner told us what the specials of the day were.  These included ugali (a thick corn meal paste), a goat stew, pilau (a rice dish) and chapati (a flatbread similar to naan).  We didn’t order food as we had eaten a large breakfast before coming on the tour, but we had tried similar dishes at a Kenyan eatery the day before.

Meet Our Nai Nami Street Kids Tour Guides

Throughout the tour and at lunch, our guides provided insight into what their lives were like as kids growing up on the streets of Nairobi.  Those stories are compelling and tragic, yet they offer a message of hope and resilience which is manifested in how each of these young men managed to change their lives.

Priest

Priest was who we spent most of our time with on the tour.  He was 11 years old when he began living on the streets and managed to survive there until he was 17.  He spent most of his youth begging and pick-pocketing.  Unable to make it on his own, he ended up joining a gang.  He coped with life by turning to drugs. 

At the age of 17, he got a wake-up call when he realized he was the only one of his gang members that was still alive.  He returned to the slums to find his mother whom he hadn’t seen in 6 years.  She took him in but then sent him to live with her parents who had a small farm in the country.  He worked with his grandfather on the farm and that changed his life.

After 2 years, he returned to the slums to live with his mother and younger brother, whom he now supports through his work as a tour guide.

Priest has a very positive outlook on life which is commendable given his upbringing. He understands that he needs to set goals, take baby steps and really put in the work to make changes in his life. We were very impressed with him and feel confident that he will accomplish many things in his life.

Tsunami

One of the most jovial folks that we met with a large, happy smile. His friends refer to him as Bazu (Swahili for boss). We were stunned as he shared with us since he was born on the streets (his mother was homeless) that he never received a birth certificate since his birth was never registered.

He has spent a lot of effort trying to raise funds that he uses to buy off the authorities to secure the initial paperwork that would give him an identity. It is hard for us to imagine as people who travel around the world, not being able to secure a passport and having no freedom of movement from within our country due to having no identification.

Donga (Mr Cool)

We got a chance to talk with Donga while we were sitting at the restaurant.  Donga was born in one of the many slums in Nairobi where he lived with his mother and sister.  His mother was an alcoholic who abandoned Donga when he was 8 and he was forced to live on the streets.

Like many other street kids, he found solace by hanging around other young kids his age who became his street family.  And like so many others, he survived by begging, stealing food, pick-pocketing and other crimes. 

Through perseverance and some good fortune, Donga managed to turn his life around.  A couple of years ago, his sister, who like his mother was also an alcoholic died from drinking some bootleg alcohol.  She had 4 children whom Donga is now raising. 

Equally heartbreaking was that when his sister died, Donga did not have enough money to bury her.  Instead, he managed to incent the morgue to keep her until he could raise enough money to have her buried properly.  This took 3 months.

Today Donga has dreams of becoming a fashion designer.  And his stylish clothes and engaging smile along with his incredible determination are sure signs that he will make that happen.

✅ Have more time in Nairobi? Be sure to read our blog on how to spend one very full day in Nairobi.

The Final Word…The Amazing Storytelling Kids In Nairobi

One of our goals in visiting Nairobi was to get a good understanding of the city, the people and the culture of the place once known as “the Green City in the Sun”. 

From our perspective, the Nai Nami Street Kids Storytelling Tour provided the best way to do that by taking us to a part of Nairobi that represents the life of nearly half of its inhabitants.  We would classify this as one of the most interesting and adventurous things to do in Nairobi.

Our picture in downtown Nairobi

This isn’t a typical sightseeing tour, but it is a tour that you don’t want to miss.  This tour is not so much about the buildings and museums and the monuments.  This tour is all about people, and the incredible strength skills and determination that a group of young men have found to make a difference, not only in their lives but as an inspiration to others as well.

Put the Nai Nami Street Kids Storytelling Tour on your bucket list.  Not only will you have an awesome experience – but you will be contributing in a small way to the future of other kids as well.

Our selfie with Priest