The beauty of Kenya’s capital lies in its unpredictable pace and compelling contrasts, which are often missed in favor of touristy safari game trips. But to bypass Nairobi is to skip the thriving heartbeat of East Africa. For its four million citizens, the city is a bustling hub where a mosaic of tribes (43, to be exact) and cultures co-exist, hustle, and more often than not, harmonize. A surge in economic development in the technology start-up sector and wave of accomplished Kenyans returning home from abroad has only increased the city’s clout. And its thriving creative class, of which women are increasingly at the forefront, has never been more determined to use arts, fashion, and education to further build community. Meet sixteen of the city’s most stylish powerhouses who are combining passion with purpose, and consider them your guides to the best places in town.
Wanuri Kahiu, filmmaker
A lauded storyteller in the African entertainment community, this writer and director uses her work to aesthetically delight, challenge conservatism, and ignite timely debate. Her second feature film, Rafiki, a love story between two young women, received a groundswell of social media support, and a standing ovation at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, after it was banned by the Kenyan government for illegal displays of homosexuality. Kahiu is also the co-founder of Afrobubblegum, a media collective and local arts genre she defines as “fun, fierce, frivolous content about people of color.”
Her spot: “The GoDown is full of artist studios creating amazing work and Afrobubblegum art, which has joy and hope at the center of it. It’s an incredibly inspiring place to be. You are surrounded by some of Kenya’s best artists all in one space.”
Cafe select: “Tin Roof Cafe in Karen has fresh juice, cocktails, and great vegan food. I always do the salad bar and bunless vegetarian burger.
Wild life: “Driving through the Nairobi National Park and staying at Emakoko, the gem of a lodge inside the park.”
If she were mayor: “I would cover public spaces with roadside exhibitions of art, increase access to cultural events, and I would encourage freedom of expression and support artists in their quest to create.”
Weekend getaway: “Diani beach, my favorite place on earth.”
Sam Mugatsia, musician and actor
With swaggering style and remarkable acting chops, this 25-year-old rising starfrom Nairobi’s artistic South C neighborhood recently made her film debut in Rafiki. After a whirlwind reception in Cannes, she’s currently working on her demo album with Yellow Light Machine. Come August, she’s collaborating with reggae artist Mighty Joshua on a live electric show.
Must-try: “Zucchini green grocers in the Village Mall for Madafu baby coconut water with key lime."
Fashion fix: "Nyeks is an illustrator and clothing designer I currently have been rocking. I also like the hats from creative collective Bongosawa, which means ‘like-minds’"
Local style: “It’s in our culture to dress up on Friday, not knowing what kind of party we’ll go to, but the whole crew has to look fresh.”
Key Kenyan trait: “Waiting until the impending doom of a deadline to act on something.”
If she were mayor: “I would improve on garbage collection, disposal community recycling, find a way to accommodate hawkers without increasing traffic/insecurity, create designated bicycle lanes, increase skate parks, playgrounds and tree cover in town however possible.”
Wild life: “Get up early and do a forest hike at Oloolua or Ngong Hills.”
Sheila Munyiva, actor and filmmaker
As Rafiki’s enigmatic co-star, Munyiva has the kind of rare beauty and talent that signal big things are to come. Not content solely gracing the screen, she’s currently training as a director and producer, with her first short film in the works. She also recently scripted and directed a Kenyan children’s program “The Krazy Kool Show” for ZUKU.
Go explore: “I like going to Kitengela Glass to watch the artisans make glass sculptures as well as walk around their beautiful property to find little hidden glass gems and art pieces.”
Cafe select: “Crave Kitchen. I order a plate of ugali and sukumawiki with a side of guacamole. This meal is the staple of our Kenyan runners—and we all know how well we do at the Olympics.”
Going live: “The Alchemist in Westlands is one of my favorite places. There’s always live music and it’s a great place to listen to underground and established artists. The vibe is always electric.”
Sound off: “It’s so wonderful to see how Kenyan women are taking a front seat and becoming vocal and unapologetic in what they do. There’s been an increase of women embracing their African beauty.”
Pro-tip: “Get MPESA, a local mobile phone-based money transfer service. It’s convenient because everyone accepts it and safe because you don’t have to carry money.”
Wild life: “The Giraffe Manor has to be my favorite. If you stay at their hotel, you get to have meals with Rothschild giraffes. They normally poke their heads through the windows at breakfast time and as a guest you get to interact with them.”
Ajuma Nasanyana, model, agency founder, and philanthropist
In a culture where skin bleaching is still practiced, this model, or rather, role model, has become a national symbol for natural beauty. After walking the runways from Alexander McQueen to Vivienne Westwood, she recently returned home and opened her own agency, Ajuma Limited (she’s pictured here at her headquarters), which seeks to increase African representation in fashion. Her search for models even extends to Kakuma, Africa’s second-largest refugee camp, through her project Beauty Without Borders.
Her spot: “My offices. As a former Victoria’s Secret model, I have experienced first-hand the excitement and media buzz that show generates. With a rapidly growing and highly aspirational urban market spurring me on, I am launching Kenya’s first African lingerie fashion spectacular, Afrodisiac, on October 27. It will raise funds for our 2019 Beauty Without Borders project.”
Must visit: “Bomas of Kenya, which displays recreations of traditional villages belonging to the several Kenyan tribes.”
Weekend getaway: “Try to visit more exotic areas of Kenya like Turkana, where I am from.”
Chief Kenyan trait: “I was The Kenyan National 400m champion in 2003.”
Wild life: “Visiting our adopted baby elephant at the Sheldrick, picnics at Paradise lost and walks at the Aboretum or Karura forest.”
Fashion fix: “Kikoromeo, Kidosho, Trendy B and Yvonne Afro Street. They make amazing looks with that beautiful modern African touch. The Maasai Marketcraftsmen and women also make beautiful, vibrant accessories that I love to wear and gift to friends and family abroad.”
Night spot: “Mercury Lounge. The music cuts across board which makes it fun for everyone, and the crowd is a great mix of locals, expats and visitors.”
Niccola Milnes, education development consultant
A Canadian expat who has called Nairobi home for the past seven years, Milneshas overseen the building of local libraries across Kenya, stocking them with a curated collection of local authors and international thought leaders. “I am currently working on groundbreaking research using fiction as a tool to prevent violence. It’s exciting because I’ve been able to show that reading can be a simple and cost-effective way to reduce extremism, in any country.”
Her spot: “The office of Knowledge Empowering Youth. I helped build their trademark program, which designs and donates libraries for government schools in Kenya, and then uses the libraries as a platform for democracy and peace. The book collection there is always different depending on the project you are working on.”
Dine out: “La salumeria, in Valley Arcade. I always end up ordering the eggplant parmesan; on the cooler Nairobi evenings it’s perfect with a glass of red wine.”
Culture club: “Circle Art Gallery. I’ve slowly been building up a collection of East African artists discovered there. My current obsessions are Patrick Kinuthia and Donald Wasswa.”
Shop talk: “Diana Opoti’s store is out of this world if you want to discover African designers. Go hunting for textiles on Biashara Street. I am currently obsessed with designing furniture for my home in Vermont.”
Anyango Mpinga, fashion designer and social activist
Through her eponymous label, the half-Tanzanian Mpinga creates not just striking clothing, but a pressing dialogue that addresses stereotypes of African prints, and questions overconsumption through season-less collections. This dynamo is also the founder of Free As A Human, an anti-human trafficking initiative which counts Gloria Steinem as a supporter and rallies to end the sexual exploitation of young girls, the use of child labor and modern slavery. Check out her t-shirts here.
Her spot: “The Tribe Hotel (pictured) was founded on the principle of inclusivity. Their belief that unity is the foundation of a prosperous world is something that speaks to my values as a Baha'i. I love visiting their Jiko restaurant for meetings. I order the ginger salmon and coconut rice in banana leaf.”
Shop talk: “If you're looking for a special piece you won't find anywhere else, visit the Erika A. Style Store. It was started by a stylist who worked for Louis Vuitton.”
Art scene: “Check out Paa Ya Paa, Kenya's oldest indigenous arts centre, currently directed by renowned artist Elimo Njau.”
Weekend getaway: “Nothing beats a trip to Lamu Island on the North Coast of Kenya. It is a former slave port which carries with it a rich history and beautiful architecture with its centuries old settlements. I love that there are no cars on the island.”
State of affairs: “People are supporting local brands more. There was a time when Kenyans wouldn't go near anything that was made in Kenya because they assumed the quality and standards wouldn't be good. However, in the past few years there has been a great shift.”
Annabel Onyango, stylist, television personality and retailer
As one of Nairobi’s most influential tastemakers, Onyango uses her multimedia platforms to highlight Kenyan design talent. Originally from Ivory Coast and raised in Zimbabwe, with stints in England and Canada, she brings her worldly eye and passion for promoting African design to Republi.ke, her new multi-brand boutique dedicated to locally-made fashion. “After I had a baby, I threw out all my old clothes and set myself a goal to rebuild my closet with mostly Kenyan brands.”
Her spot: “Tribal Gallery is a furniture, art, and design haven. Shopping here is like going to visit the home of your friend who has superb taste and being allowed to take things home with you. Owner Louise Patterson travels the world sourcing exquisite things. She will give you a glass of wine and let you chill with her dogs. It’s one of the most inspired places in Nairobi. The in-house artisans also create custom furniture from old boats sourced from the Kenyan coast.”
Cafe select: “Wasp & Sprout is a family-owned coffee house, brunch spot, and artsy shop. Most Sundays we’ll stroll over there for the spinach and mushroom omelette and a couple of mimosas, and a look around the shop for stuff to style our house.”
Night moves: “J’s in Westlands hosts live Kenyan music on Thursday night, showcasing local sounds, from traditional to more urban. It’s a converted colonial manor house with a large outdoor area. After the live music stops, the DJ takes over, so the dancing continues until very late like most Nairobi nights.”
Eco find: “Ocean Sole make children’s products from discarded flips flops recovered from beaches and dumpsites. It employs local craftsmen, allowing them to provide for their families while alleviating marine pollution by recycling hundreds of tons of flip flop rubber waste every year. The art of transforming trash into sculpture is something Kenyans do very well.”
Must-visit: Every Sunday, the Nairobi Flea Market hosts brunch and live music and is a popular spot to shop emerging local artisans and fashion brands.”
Nairobi myth: “I think Westerners have this vision of Kenya as politically insecure, on the brink of civil conflict, or teeming with terrorists, which isn’t at all accurate. We have no more of these things as any other major city in the world. We strive for the same things everyone else does—peace and prosperity.”
If she were mayor: “Women need more maternal support—resources, information, healthcare and benefits like longer maternity leave and subsidized baby care products. Mothers need workplaces that protect their right to care for their babies by providing daycare centers or flexible hours. More female representation in government is necessary.”
Diana Opoti, fashion retailer and brand strategist
Opoti’s store, Designing Africa Collective at the Village Market (pictured), is a compelling ode to the region’s buzziest labels and emerging lines, which customers are prone to shop directly from her daily Instagram looks. With glamour in spades, Opoti is a champion for design talent across Africa and consultant for foreign brands looking to enter the Kenyan market.
Art crawl: “Visit One Off and Circle Art Galleries for their curation of top East African artists, and always discover new names."
Fashion fix: "A favorite new name is Kepha Maina. Also, you have to check out Anyango Mpinga, Katungulu Mwendwa, and Ami Shah."
Dine out: "Zen Garden’s Bamboo restaurant for their pan-Asian cuisine and scenery."
State of affairs: "Nairobi is growing rapidly. I love the tech innovations, but worry about the quick real estate growth without strategic urban planning and the city water supply. I’d love to see more recreation centers and parks as well as better waste management.”
Weekend getaway: "For a quick day trip, drive up to Naivasha and have lunch at the Ranch House Bistro. I love the beach. And for longer breaks, I’d recommend the Majlis in Lamu or Hemingway’s in Malindi."
Angela Wachuka (left), book publisher, and Wanjiru Koinange (right), writer
Meet Nairobi’s most ambitious culture curators. The Tokyo-born Wachuka’sbackground is in publishing some of Africa’s leading literary voices, while Koinange is a writer, arts programmer, and podcaster. Together, they co-founded Book Bunk, an organization that restores and repurposes some of Nairobi’s oldest libraries and installs new ones in public spaces.
Their spot: “The McMilan Memorial Library (pictured) is our newest labor of love,” says Wachuka. “It was opened in 1931 and has somehow remained trapped in the past. We’re transforming this space into a modern library and a public arts center."
Lunch spot: "Roasted Truth at the co-working space Ikigai. The grilled cheese, salad and soup combo is the perfect lunch, and they also make the best coffee in town,” says Koinange. "The goat pepper soup at Valley Arcade’s Mama Ashanti is a staple, “ says Wachuka.
Going live: "The Elephant on Kanjata Road for concerts. I will also go anywhere the Too Early for Birds crew are putting on shows. They bring history alive in breathtaking ways, exploring everything from newspaper headlines to Kenyan idioms,” says Wachuka.
Fashion fix: "Angelsmile House of Design—Wambui Kibue creates such masterpieces. Check out Kiondos, which are handwoven baskets made from sisal and wool, my favorite Kenyan-made accessory,” says Koinange.
Kenyan pride: "Right now, Rafiki, a groundbreaking film by Wanuri Kahiu,” says Koinange. "Our athletes bring me tremendous pride. They excel against so many odds,” adds Wachuka.
State of affairs: “There’s something shifting about the way that Nairobians are imagining their city and I am thrilled to be among the people who are concerned about the utility of public spaces,” says Koinange. "On the flip side, our creative economy is under the threat of unreasonable and uninformed censorship. This is worrying."
If they were mayor: "We’d would institute a regeneration plan focused on the city’s arts and culture as not only channels for public consumption, but key drivers of an economy whose demographics are mostly young and who more than ever consider the arts as a viable career path,”says Wachuka.
Gladys Macharia, jewelry designer and brand consultant
While her bespoke jewelry label Loyangalani has a cult following in Kenya, the Florence-trained designer is equally in demand with international labels seeking to manufacturer artisanal products in East Africa. She’s a key connector between artisans, ethically-aware brands, and a diverse group of the city’s creative class.
Her spot: “The home of Dodo Cunningham Reid, a friend and mentor known for her impeccable style. She is a woman of many talents, best known for interior design and her magical boutique hotel in Naivasha called Hippo Point. She has been a driving force in my life.”
Go explore: “My favorite part of the city is downtown. I am lucky as a majority of the stone merchants and gold smiths I work with are based there. There is lots of quirky buildings and you see the real hustlers of Nairobi. Watching them go about their work inspires anyone."
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.