“After being labelled a suspected terrorist, my business failed and I ended up homeless for two weeks,” says Msingi Sasis.
The photographer and blogger is the founder of the cultural enterprise, Nairobi Noir.
Nairobi Noir is a photography, film, art and music website and company whose aim is to impact, influence and drive Nairobi as a hub of culture that can compete with other metropolitan cities across the globe.
In keeping with its name, the most unique aspect of Nairobi Noir is that everything is captured by night.
“All cities have an identity; most of these identities are driven by the inhabitants of those cities. I feel like in Nairobi, for too long, we’ve let the outside world tell us who we are. Nairobi Noir is about changing that narrative and telling the story of Nairobi through our eyes,” says 39-year-old Msingi.
“I’ve always had a love for the darkness; there’s just a different energy about it. With dusk, comes truth, people drop their inhibitions and masks.
“That’s why I capture my photography at night, when things are real, when the shadows bring out the truth. I take pictures to immortalise the Nairobi night.”
The turning point
Ironically, it was on one of these nights that Msingi was capturing images around Nairobi’s Galleria Mall when he was arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
“They thought I was casing the place and taking pictures to plan an attack on the mall,” he tells Hustle. Msingi, despite being a well-known figure in the art world, spent three nights in custody and was only released after a barrage of complaints and appeals came from his fellow artists and fans.
In the year that followed, Msingi’s business plummeted because no one wanted to be associated with a terror suspect, even though he was cleared of all suspicion.
“I think this was the most painful thing for me, because I had worked hard to grow my company, and now that honest work was tarnished.”
Msingi had built Nairobi Noir by selling portraits and the pictures he took of Nairobi by night.
Though he started actively charging for his photography in 2011 by attending concerts and taking pictures of concert-goers, the concept for Nairobi Noir came to light in 2013.
“Back in 2011, I was incredibly broke. I went to an event with my camera one day and realised I could make money by taking snapshots of people enjoying themselves,” he says.
“The first day I made Sh2,000 charging Sh200 per picture. I started doing this at least three times a week, bringing in about Sh24,000 a month.”
But Msingi felt he was made for more.
“To be honest, my real joy came at the end of the day when getting home from concerts. I’d take random pictures of scenes I encountered on the streets. Sometimes it was a person running across the road, a mother and daughter rushing to catch a matatu, a homeless person asleep on a bench. Different things.
“I felt like I was in my element, like I was speaking my authentic language.”
Msingi uploaded these pictures onto his laptop and forgot about them.
It wasn’t until 2014, a few years after consistently taking these pictures, that Msingi came across one of his original Nairobi by night shots: two ladies sharing an umbrella on a rainy Nairobi night. He decided to edit it and post it on his social media page.
“I woke up the next morning to 70 notifications on my account. I was puzzled because none of the portraits I’d previously posted ever got more than 10 notifications. This one attracted many likes and comments.”
Losing it all
Msingi, realising he’d struck a chord, edited more of his Nairobi by night pictures and the hits kept coming.
“People liked the two ladies in the rain because it made them look at Nairobi in a way they hadn’t before: kindness and sharing. That’s not how we automatically think about our city. We think greed, graft, dysfunction. In this picture were two ladies doing the opposite, supporting each other.”
Another picture that got a lot of attention is that of a man walking down the street, minding his own business. At the edge of the frame is an individual, sinister looking in a cloak and a hood.
“This character looks like the Grim Reaper, which, granted, isn’t in Kenyan culture, but is still symbolic of the unforeseen elements we’re sometimes in danger of encountering.”
Msingi’s pictures quickly attracted plenty of attention. Two weeks after posting his first piece, he got a call from a Kenyan artist and activist hub, Pawa254, asking him to give a talk on his photography.
Not long after, the BBC called to interview him on his work.
“It was surreal, to see the caller ID +44, and hear someone saying ‘this is the BBC’,” Msingi recalls.
The publicity boosted sales and he started earning Sh100,000 to Sh150,000 a month from his prints and portraits.
Yet, like the unforeseen danger of the looming ‘Grim Reaper’ in Msingi’s picture, he wasn’t to know that in July 2015, he’d be mistaken for a terrorist and arrested. And the year after this incident, his business ground to a halt.
“I’d apply for jobs and get them, but when they did their background checks, they’d cancel the contract,” he explains, the pain of the ordeal still evident in his voice.
“No one wanted to be associated with a terror suspect.”
By July 2016, Msingi had eaten into his savings and only had Sh150 left to his name.
He got home one evening to find he’d been locked out of his house owing to rent arrears.
“I’d just bought vegetables from a nearby kiosk. I went to the shopkeeper and asked him to please take back the vegetables and refund my money. He agreed,” Msingi recalls.
“My phone had been locked in the house, so I had no means of communication. I went to a cyber café, wrote about my fate and posted it on social media.”
Msingi left the cyber café and took a matatu into the CBD.
“I didn’t know it then, but I’d walk those streets, homeless, hungry and dirty for days.”
He spent his last Sh50 on a meal that evening and then walked aimlessly through the night for fear of sleeping and getting attacked. The following day, he went to Macmillan Library where he pretended to read a book and finally slept.
By the end of day two, he was so hungry, that he walked into a downtown restaurant and begged the owner for food.
“There was a patron sitting next to the counter. He overheard me pleading for food and offered to buy me a plate of ugali, meat and sukuma wiki.
“I understood what it was like to be so hungry that you’re tempted to steal because your mind is in survival mode. You look at bags, phones and wonder if you’d get away with it if you snatched one and ran.” Fortunately for the young photographer, he recalled one of his original hustles on the streets of Nairobi: selling used books along Moi Avenue.
He approached a book vendor and offered to help him sell his books at a commission.
“He was sceptical, but when he saw me talk a lady into buying a romance novel, he agreed to partner with me. It was weird because I was dirty, haggard and hadn’t showered for days. I looked like a street dweller but sounded eloquent,” he recalls in amusement.
“It threw people off. Maybe that’s why they bought my books.”
He eventually learned of places you could eat for Sh50, shower for Sh30 and sleep for Sh60. His hopes lifted as he contemplated rebuilding his life slowly using book sales.
“My fate changed when a friend and fellow artist called Ronje saw me at the book stand one evening . He was in shock that I was still alive because people had been looking for me. Apparently, my post about being homeless had gone viral. The problem was I hadn’t been online in two weeks.”
Msingi learned, when he logged onto his accounts, that his mother, who’d been in Europe when he wrote his post, had travelled to Kenya to look for him.
“I was moved that so many people were concerned for me. Complete strangers were offering me accommodation, offering to buy my work. Walking the streets for those two weeks, I’d thought no one cared because I’d previously asked for help and it hadn’t come.”
Msingi had a windfall of orders after this experience, clocking up to Sh350,000 in sales per month. He soon got back on his feet and rebuilt his brand.
“I was tempted to erase everything that had happened, but realised that it was part of my story, part of the tapestry of Nairobi Noir, so I incorporated it into the brand.”
Unbowed, undeterred, Msingi continues to tell stories on nairobinoir.com, one shot at a time.
To date, he’s invested more than Sh2 million into his business, including replacing his camera and equipment that he surrendered to a loan shark and auctioneers in 2016 when his business failed.