As he walks on the sandy roads of Mandera town, a trail of dust struggles to catch up with Ibrahim Khalif Abdow.
He carefully balances a bundle of the day’s newspapers in his hands.
He is known by his nickname ‘Dikaya’, which in his mother tongue means a ‘famous person’, thanks to his work. Abdow has been the only newspaper vendor in Mandera County for almost 20 years, delivering the papers to his clients in offices and sending copies to those in remote villages.
He started with only two copies of the then East African Standard in 1997, but has since progressed to selling almost 100 copies of The Standard. He learn the trade from a friend in Maua, Meru, where he had gone to take care of a miraa business. So great is the thirst for information in Mandera that a copy goes for Sh100, mostly to his clients, most of whom are regulars. No one complains.
“Back in 1997 only one school and another organisation bought a newspaper. My friend living in Maua would send the copies in a vehicle transporting miraa to Mandera. Some days, the vehicle would be delayed and the newspapers would arrive two days later,” he said.
Old news is news
Even then Abdow would still get a buyer for his newspapers. Over time, Abdow has diversified and now sells all the mainstream newspapers, including The Nairobian.
Even though he has never set foot in a classroom, Abdow knows the day’s headlines well and explains the newspapers' contents to his buyers, in the process recruiting new customers.
“I never went to school because my parents were poor and could not pay the fees. Maybe I would have become a journalist if I had,” explained Abdow in Kiswahili.
The 36-year-old vendor's day starts at 5am when he gets up to pray before tuning in to regional vernacular radio stations to listen to newspaper reviews. His best business days are when the day’s papers carry news on Mandera County.
“When the radio station highlight issues concerning Mandera County, including news stories, tenders and job vacancies, I note this and later use the information to sell the papers,” he explained.
“When there is any news concerning Mandera, however small, I sell all my copies by early afternoon. The following day, I even order the previous day’s paper due to demand.”
At 8.30am, when the plane lands in Mandera, Abdow sets off to pick up the papers and starts distributing them.
A mobile vendor
“A newspaper vendor in Mandera cannot sit in one place and wait for buyers. You have to go to them and explain why they should buy the paper. That is why you have to know the content,” said Abdow.
During weekends, he joins boys playing football, dividing the competing teams according to the two main newspapers, The Standard team and the Nation one.
“The boys have learnt to own their teams and now have an attachment to the specific newspaper. Team Standard, for instance, comes to me in the evening after school to peruse the day’s newspaper,” he said.
Before the plane started making daily trips to Mandera, Abdow would arrange to have the papers transported in vehicles carrying miraa. Sometimes the papers were delayed for days, even weeks, during rainy seasons.
“During the El Nino in 2007, I suffered for a whole month after the vehicle from Maua transporting the newspapers got stuck in the mud. When they finally arrived, I sold them to shopkeepers at Sh60 per kilo,” he narrated.
To ensure that the business runs even when he is unavailable, Abdow has taught his friend the trade.
“One time, I fell ill and had to have an operation to remove my appendix. For more than six months, I did not work but my friend Isaac helped me out. He picked up the papers and distributed them. The sales were, however, low since he did not know most of my clients,” he recalled.
The business is not without challenges, especially because of the digital age, which has arrived even in marginalised counties.
“Some people ask why I am stuck with this business in the changing dynamics with a huge part of the population moving to digital platforms, but I tell them that nothing keeps better records than papers.
“Some of the people who tell me newspapers don’t sell in Mandera are wasting their lives abusing drugs and being idle. I tell them that I have a wife and seven children, who all depend on me,” he explained.
Thanks to his good relations with the airlines serving the area, Abdow gets his papers delivered on time.
“Sometimes, not so often though, the newspapers are not delivered because the plane is heavily loaded. But I have friends at Wilson Airport who facilitate their transportation and the following day they arrive.
“In such cases, I go around the town informing my clients about the inconvenience. Most of them understand,” he said.
In 2014, there was only one flight to the area, so Abdow paid a partner to send the newspapers in vehicles transporting miraa.
Later the number of flights from Nairobi were increased to two. Currently there are flights to Mandera every day.