NAIROBI 5453 FT.
By Susan Wakhungu-Githuku and Natalie Githuku
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 27, 2017)
Susan Wakhungu-Githuku shares the spotlight and authorship with her daughter Natalie this time round as the publisher of Footprints Press comes out with her latest canonical tome.
It was just a few months ago that Susan came out with ‘Visual Voices’, another substantial book that vividly documents the dynamic cultural scene of Kenya currently. It’s a massive and beautiful book that already occupies the centre of attention on countless Nairobi coffee tables.
Now that book may have to move over slightly since ‘Nairobi 5453 Ft.’ has just been released and it’s also bound to capture the public’s attention with its multifaceted approach to exploring the life and times of this remarkable city.
There have been a multitude of books written about Nairobi in the past. But none has been as ambitious as this two-volume text. Not that it’s steeped in statistics or geological data or even paleontological facts of the kind that made other parts of Kenya world-famous (such as the Leakey family’s fossil finds at Olduvai Gorge).
Instead, what this Nairobi book does is capture the rapidly-changing pace of life in the city. It apparently aims to put multiple fingers on the steady pulse of everyday life. And with a combination of personal texts and insightful testimonies, candid as well as classic photographs and vivid paintings reflective of so many facets of working people’s lives, the two books reveal a kaleidoscopic portrait of our shameless city.
Nairobi 5453 Ft. doesn’t try to paint a stereotypic picture or tell a clichéd story of a ‘green city in the sun’. Nor does it negate the reality of the city’s magnetic appeal. What it does do is present a multifarious perspective with one book filled with what the authors call ‘Photographic slices’ and the other sub-titled ‘Personal Musings.’
The photography is by some of Kenya’s finest photographers. Among them are Bobby Pall (who has often worked with Footprints on its other beautiful books), James Muriuki, Mutua Matheka, Joe Makeni, Thandiwe Muriu, Osborne Macharia and Jolene Wood among others. What’s fascinating about their work is that each photographer has a distinctive style which contributes to the variegated view of the city.
The vivid paintings which are sprinkled throughout the books are by award-winning Kenyan artist Elias Mong’ora. The cartooning and graphic designing of the book are also key factors contributing to the overall appeal of the two texts. And even the varied font sizes that appear in big bold print arrest our attention and alert us to the fact that one can study these book for hours and still need more time to read and understand all there is to appreciate about our unique global city.
But it’s the ‘personal musings’ that further flesh out the complex essence of Nairobi. One thing about the 35 individuals whose musings are in the slightly thinner of the two books is the honesty of their appraisal of the city. Most of the 35 are ‘natives’ of Kenya; others are migrants who moved in some time back and adopted the city as their own. But all have strong sentiments about what they like and don’t like about Nairobi. Or as Joe Wainaina put it, “Love it or hate it, this is home sweet home.”
The one question most people will ask about Susan’s and Natalie’s book is what ‘5453 Ft.’ in the title means? The answer is to be found in the small print at the front of both books. 5453 feet is the elevation of the city at the Railway Station where the first city-wide photo found at the front of both books was snapped. Who took that photo isn’t specified.