There’s an expression you often hear people saying whenever they get to a place where they can only imagine the extraordinary things that happened there: “if only these streets could talk…”. But in downtown Nairobi, the streets can and do talk.
As you take your first steps on a Nai Nami tour, they start coming to life, unravelling their secrets. All you have to do is, lose yourself in the spellbinding stories of the guides: Donga, Kissmart, Cheddaz and Mrembe, former street children who raised themselves hustling, begging and doing whatever they could to survive over the years. Their lives are so intertwined with the places they grew up in that these places now speak through them: “this was my shelter”, “this is where I lost my best friend”, “this is where, when I was seven years old, I met other street kids like me. I was lucky, but most of them no longer walk among us”. And once you start listening, you understand what stands at the core of Nai Nami and why their tagline is “Our streets. Our stories.”
Nai Nami roughly translates to “Nairobi with me”. It is the name of the social enterprise Gianmarco Marinello and Sriram Damodaran founded in 2018, with the aim to give youth from slums a sustainable future by enabling them to make an honest living through telling their stories.
60 percent of the people of Nairobi live in slums, and out of these 2.5 million slum dwellers, around 70 percent are under the age of 30. Poverty and lack of adequate role models lead most of these young people towards a life of crime, violence, drugs and unemployment, which is often tragic and short.
Social initiatives trying to tackle this issue focus on the skills these young people lack in order to be considered employable. The classical approach starts with the premise that they need to be trained, educated and helped. By concentrating on these youths’ weaknesses, they overlook their strengths. But, just like on a Nai Nami tour, Gianmarco and Sriram decided to go off the beaten track.
Their approach was not about teaching these young people things they didn’t know, but rather about creating an opportunity for them to teach others what they already knew. Where other social enterprises saw an insurmountable challenge in these youths’ illiteracy and criminal past, Gianmarco and Sriram saw young men with incredible street skills and life stories, waiting to be shared with the rest of the world. This is how, in 2018, Nai Nami was born.
In a little over a year, it has become the number 1 tour on TripAdvisor and it has received international media coverage and praise. Tourists have access to their own personal guide, who meets them in front of the Bata shop near the Hilton hotel in Nairobi, and then takes them on a three hour walk around downtown. It is a once-in-a-lifetime, humbling opportunity that many have generously described as “the best tour ever”, “one of the most jaw-dropping experiences they’ve ever had” and “a trip that will stick with you forever”.
Since 2018, more young men from the slums have joined Nai Nami, working as full-time or part-time tour guides, and every single tour supports their chances at a better future. They have left crime behind, they’re now earning a stable income, which allows them to take care of their families and they have become honest young men, proud of who they are and of what they’ve achieved.
When they’re not on tour, you can usually find them in Mathare slum, teaching music to children in the community schools and talking to them about their lives. Without guidance, education and role-models, children in the slums of Nairobi would eventually turn to the same kind of life, and the Nai Nami crew is determined to show them that they have other options and that a life of crime is not worth it.
For the first time ever, they have a sense of purpose and belonging. They feel valued by their own communities and by all the people who come on tour to listen to their life stories. Nai Nami has given them the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and overcome their past and the traumatic events they’ve been through by being able to talk about them. They have become the role models they’ve never had as kids and they hope to inspire more and more young people and show them the path to a different kind of life.
If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind experience you’ll never forget, join Nai Nami and discover Nairobi through the incredible stories of former street children.
Inspired by this story? Check them out at their website www.nai-nami.com and also make a point to connect with them at @nai.nami on Instagram, @NaiNamiTours on Facebook and Nai Nami on their YouTube channel.