The old GoDown Arts Centre on Dunga Road was a den. A lair. You walked in and were hit smack in the face with the powerful creative forces curling and uncoiling like a slow python on a river bank, with something twisting inside its belly. 

A creative mchuzi mix energy was coalescing in that crumbling old place from all corners of the country – and the world – to brew something; not a magic potion. But something big that you could see if you were standing in the correct position, and which you could also not see if you were not putting on the right lenses. It was like Chinua Achebe’s mask dance, a deceptive place that played mind-tricks, a laid-back place where you could also spend the whole day just getting fed on Doreen’s ugali and bone-soup with a murenda side dish and keep your eyes wide open but seeing nothing. Doreen ran the restaurant at The Godown, and her specialty was African cuisine, whose generous portions sat very well with the restless creatives. The Godown was also a place where demons occasionally possessed people and they labored away for hours on end, battling their idea, smoking piles of cigarettes and other things, wrestling with their mind as they sought to attain that rare thing called perfection. A creators’ Mecca. It was a place of charm; albeit a good sort of charm.

The people at the old GoDown were the eclectic mix that you find at an artists’ haven, starting from the centre’s Executive Director, Joy Mboya. If you walked in and met her coming out of her office next to the gate, you would easily pass her by, or worse, ask her for directions to the GoDown’s front office! That is because Joy looked nothing executive; nothing like the muscle that had put all that together. At most, Joy cut the image of an artist, a troubadour pianist or kora player who was passing by town enroute elsewhere, or on residency from her usual performance haunt in Timbuktu, Djenne or wherever it is that koras come from. Her spiky locks standing in the middle of her head and slight frame clothed in a rock punkster’s leather jacket belonged elsewhere but in a CEO’s swivel chair.

And then there was Ketebul Music’s Tabu Osusa, who was my then boss; again as eclectic as they come. In his tailored Ankara shirts and jackets and trademark Kangol cap, this guy was always chewing gum as he poked around on his iPad like a geologist reading seismographic data about some wild territory somewhere in the Kalahari for where to dig for diamonds. He reminded me of the legendary Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Fergusson. The few times I saw him eating ugali and fish in his office, he was picking at the fish as if they were forcing him to eat. He was a walking encyclopedia on matters music, specifically benga. Which is where his problems started. Editing him was a job manufactured in hell. When we were working on Ketebul’s Shades of Benga, Tabu would send in text and you would edit out repetitions in sections, explaining to him why you were doing so. But he would send in the same text again with the names you had expunged back in the same place they had been. That was how his mind worked. Every detail had to be repeated right down to the dot.

So sometimes you just uncapped your quarter brandy buried in a plastic Coke — the primordial version of chewing the creative cud — that you had sneaked in to those head-spinning editorial meetings on Saturday afternoons, where everyone knew everything and you were arguing back and forth like market women without attaining any mileage, and simply sipped and watched, thinking about a quarter tumbukiza with lettuce dressing and potatoes at your local later that evening after you were done with this troublesome lot. 

To make it clearer, try picturing cartoonist Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba, journalist Bill Odidi, journalist, thespian, playwright and Mwalimu John Sibi-Okumu, researcher Steenie Njoroge and Tabu on one end of the table (we secretly called them the project’s ‘old guard!’), squaring it out with the younger ‘vifaranga wa computer’ comprising the design and layout guy Steve ‘64’ Kivutia, the photography guys Drix and Sappat Opips –these are what those guys called themselves – and myself, arguing over where to place a comma in a sentence for close to one straight hour on a dozy Saturday afternoon after a heavy meal. Managing a bunch of creative people must be the hardest job on earth!

That was the management. 

Now to the creatives, the guys who put the spokes in the wheel. 

To your left as you came in was Michael Soi, announcing his presence loudly and colourfully on his studio wall. I had met Soi previously on other journalistic assignments I had done with artists but I did not really know him well at a personal level. And when his now famous tote bags went viral after purchase and publicizing by Lupita Nyong’o, and later his ‘wars’ with the Chinese, I thought he was this big guy who you had to approach through a secretary. I was therefore mildly surprised when I sauntered into his studio one afternoon with a request that I wasn’t sure he would acquiesce to.My New York City based publisher, The Mantle, was getting set to reissue my novel, Forbidden Fruit, and he wanted to have Soi’s unique artwork on the cover. Actually, the idea was, for each title they issued by African writers, they would feature African artwork on the cover, as a way of marrying the two arts so that they travel the globe together. I expected Soi to quote an outrageous figure, since he was already a big name in the US and Europe, and was worried because my publisher, an indie, didn’t have a huge budget for the book. To my surprise, Soi accepted the publisher’s opening offer without argument, and asked me for the contracts so that he could append his signature.

Once we started hanging out at the GoDown I came to learn that he is one of the coolest guys you could ever deal with. He puts on absolutely no airs for his fame. And so, where are the eccentric bits? He keeps a bottle of whisky that has gathered a coat of dust on its shoulders in the studio, amidst the colour pallets and carefully stacked wooden art frames. He also listens to old American classics on vinyl on an old turntable when relaxing. One day, Soi was driving past the Ketebul Studio and saw us lounging outside, looking bored, wondering how we would convince Doreen to give us a few beers on credit at the GoDown gig, the much-anticipated monthly free music event where Doreen provided food and drinks, because we were broke and the month was taking agonizingly long to end, and Tabu was being slippery as an eel in water about an advance. Soi stopped his car and pulled out a few bottles of Heineken and passed them out the window before driving off. And – voila! –just like that, our afternoon took a different turn, for the better. 

Patrick Mukabi, better known as ‘Panye’ – the GoDown and the Eastlands culture that prevailed there liked to slap monikers on people – had a shock of gray locks, and an unkempt gray beard that I never saw him take to a barber and the serious demeanor of an Old Testament prophet. Panye liked to walk barefoot around the studio, pausing to embellish a detail here on one of the canvases or add a brush stroke there. And then he turned his attention to the kids he mentored and you realized that the guy had a witty sense of humour, especially when he slipped into that hardcore Eastlands Sheng with the kids from Mukuru and other ghettos neighbouring The GoDown; a far cry from when he was being more formal presenting his art lessons on Saturday morning kids’ TV. With these kids in the mtaa setting, and off camera, the guy could be funny. 

Beyond Panye’s studio were these other guys in locks or shaggy turn-ups who didn’t talk much, but were polite and useful to anyone who needed help in the studios. They might have been assistants or interns, it wasn’t clear; or maybe they were just there waiting for their next station in life. Some of them were amateur painters and sculptors who were always splattered in paint, others aspiring acrobats taking a break from rehearsing their set, flexing their sinewy muscles jutting out of rolled faded pants. 

And, if you were walking in that enclosed yard lost in your thoughts, you were bound to have a heart attack if you bumped into someone carrying Raila Odinga’s or Uhuru Kenyatta’s head in their hands, a grotesque expression frozen on the wax cast as if the artists had intended to spite their subjects. Those were the XYZ guys, rushing the cast to the studio for the even more weird voice-over artists to finish doing their session for TV production. 

Perhaps the only artist in there who didn’t look like an artist was Mary Ogembo, who dressed like your everyday office worker. Everyone else had this one quirk or the other.

Further down, if your nose was keen, you might sniff the smell of frying maandazi in the air. I am told the artists, when bored, would go to that part of the property to smoke some weed for inspiration, and that they sometimes doused the roll in Cowboy fat so that if Joy sniffed it in the air in her front office she would think it was the women in the vibandas on the other side of the perimeter wall frying maandazi

That was the old GoDown, where everyone melted into their workspaces like termites in a nest and confronted their madness in private; where there was a pleasant order in disorder; and where everyone knew everyone else because they were community, a little mtaa within the larger Nairobi city that didn’t have boundaries.

And life continued at The GoDown!

Sometime in mid-December 2022, while I was upcountry in Vihiga in Western Kenya where I had been domiciled by Covid 19, I was idling away on Facebook on my phone after a day on the farm when this post with photos of a group of artists that looked familiar popped up. The artists were standing amidst rubble and steel skeletons, and on a closer look at the images, I saw that the place was familiar, albeit in a surreal way, since what I was looking at was a skeleton cleaned of all meat. They were the ruins of the place I had previously worked in. It was close to two years since I had been at the GoDown, and the sight of the artists and what was certainly a brought-down GoDown had a deluge of memories flooding my mind.

A number of creatives, among them musicians, dancers, painters and sculptors whose careers had been shaped one way or the other at the arts center had gathered one last time on 16 December 2022 to reflect. They were standing amidst the rubble and steel skeletons of their former home one last time before the earthmovers came in to knock everything down and begin excavating. It was a sort of lying-in-state for the old place, which had to die in order to bring forth new life. 

I wasn’t there, but I could read the mood in the ensemble of the GoDown ‘orphans’ by walking through the photo gallery. Uncertainty, awkwardness… do we really have to do this? Do we want to? Hanging above that awkward crowd was Joy Mboya’s mantra: “in order to create something bigger something’s got to give.” Change was inevitable. 

The old GoDown very much had the DNA of its founder embedded in it. It was a reflection of Joy’s engaging personality and outlook on life. “This idea of processing reality by focus-pulling between the micro and the macro, between the logical and the creative, between the material and the spiritual, between the big picture and the detail is the way that I approach life,” she says of herself in an EngageTalk.

And as the centre makes the big leap into the future with its transformation into a state-of-the-art multi-discipline production and performance centre like none built in the region one question remains: will the new one retain its ‘GoDown feel’, or will the GoDown as we knew it lose its soul? 

If you talk to a typical Nairobian, it’s highly likely they’ll tell you that every time an old structure that they frequented for long transforms, it is more often than not a signal by management that prices are about to go up and the clientele to change. At least that is what the people who patronized Njuguna’s, a popular old pub along Waiyaki Way, were saying on social media when it was knocked down in January to pave way for a new Njuguna’s. That is how pessimistic Nairobians are, and they don’t mince their words.

The envisioned futuristic GoDown will be the first significant investment in cultural infrastructure since Kenya’s independence over half a century ago. The vision is to convert the old 7,000 square metres of industrial warehouse space into a 25,000 square-metre mixed-use public purpose development housed on five levels, with underground parking; space for film and music studios; craft workshops; conference rooms; a multi-purpose auditorium; a library; a small museum; among other art-related enterprises. A tower block within the centre will house a boutique art hotel that will provide income to help sustain the centre.

The project is a collaboration between the Swedish firm White Architects and the Kenyan firm Planning Systems Services Limited. At the design stage, the main challenge was coming up with a structure that is not your everyday post-and-beam project. Although the structure was rectangular, the architects needed to come up with patterns that do not repeat themselves and the final product needed to break the grid while at the same time reflect elements of African culture. 

The envisioned offices (or ‘work spaces’ as Mboya prefers to call them) will host up to 20 organizations, over double what the old GoDown hosted. They will also have 20 visual art spaces for painters, sculptors, fashion designers and so on; again double what the old centre hosted. 

“In addition, they have an open courtyard if they want to work outside,” she added.

The main stage will accommodate a sitting audience of 5,000 and a standing one of up to 14,000, but there will be a smaller and more intimate stage that can sit an audience of 200. “These spaces are flexible,” said Mboya. “The seats are retractable to create even more space. We are calling them multi-purpose stages. The open courtyards are also performance spaces. We want the space to combine recreation, knowledge and creativity.”

“One of the things that we try to do through the space is to help individuals and communities find, define, and express themselves in the fullness of everything they experience,” Mboya said in an interview with Barnard College’s Art History. “Whether they are expressing themselves because they are disenchanted about something; because they want to be present with their voices and stamp their identities at that particular time; because they are part of a community, a city, a nation, or the bigger global space. It’s working at negotiating the relationship between individuals, community, institutions, and the globe. We do it through culture, and we do it with artists.” She was Barnard College’s spring 2020 Visiting Gildersleeve Professor.

In an interview with Clicking With Purpose, MK Mbugua, who is leading the team behind the centre’s refurbishment, said, “Godown is changing because the artists have said they need more space. The old GoDown was big in that it had a lot of space, but even that space was outgrown by the sector. The visual artists needed more studios, the dancers needed more space, we needed a bigger theater facility . . . so it was a natural evolution of the GoDown as an institution.”

In line with their founding vision, the transformation of The GoDown is going to be people-driven. The fundraising for the new GoDown is being driven by the people. “The GoDown staff and board have over the last ten years been saving the small amounts of money that artists pay to use the space,” said Mboya in the Engage talk. “And in that period of time, we have a reserve of a million dollars. We are asking you the public, ordinary people – not the big philanthropists, not the corporates, not the big international funders and donors, but you the public – you the ordinary people to match that one million dollar. How? By giving what you can.” They have fixed a baseline of 200,000 people to help them match the one million that The GoDown has raised.

Construction work on the new centre was to start in 2020, but had to be postponed because of Covid. According to Mbugua, the completion date is pegged on when funding will be available. Fundraising for the project was interrupted by Covid. 

“But now that things are getting back to a new normal, we are able to now start the construction,” he added in the December 2022 interview. According to him, if the funding drive goes according to plan, the new complex should be ready for occupation by December 2023. “It may not be a finished building but there will be a few spaces that the GoDown office can move back here and we can start programs in full.”

Mboya concurs that if they can hit the anticipated deadline with the project, then they will have created a game-changer. “In order for a country to really show itself, it will show itself through those cultural institutions. That hasn’t been done yet and I think this is also significant because of that,” she said in defense of the necessity of a centre of the magnitude they are envisioning as opposed to the scattered various spaces where traditionally artists and creators have been operating from.

When I spoke to Mboya at their temporary home on Kayahwe Road, Kilimani, I asked her if the artists will have a place to smoke weed in the new place with all its CCTV cameras and smoke censors as new buildings in Nairobi tend to come after the old has been knocked down. I reminded her of the Kenya National Theatre and what happened to the hobos who used to hang around its famous ‘bakawolla’ backyard beating solemn rhythms out of hand-me-down djembes and nyatitis after a corporate refurbished the place in 2015 and kicked them out.

“We are fully aware of that,” Mboya said with a laugh, conceding that artists, by their nature, are ‘resourceful people’ who will always find ways to do what they want to do. “As far as we are concerned, as an institution, we want to be in a position where we can be able to say we haven’t broken any law. Which is why I am saying artists are resourceful people.” She added that the levels of security in place will not be designed to intimidate anyone. ‘‘The people on the street have to be able to walk into the new GoDown and just sit there or walk around without anyone asking them ‘‘Wewe ni nani?’’”

As for the mtaa artists who may feel intimidated by the new centre, street graffiti will be incorporated into the design to make it feel like theirs. The management also plans to occasionally hold street jamborees and exhibitions on the adjacent Dundori Street, to make the community feel welcome to the new place.

If what they are showing on their website will actually be brought to life on Dunga Road, then you certainly won’t speed past without noticing, especially when it is lit up at night. 

The city’s skyline is already transforming tremendously up on the hill across the expressway as companies move away from downtown Nairobi and set up their headquarters in Upper Hill. As for Industrial Area, which is where the GoDown is domiciled, the blocks that are coming up are mostly utilitarian standard brick-and-mortar types, with little care for aesthetics. The new GoDown will certainly add style and elegance to that part of town. The only difference is that unlike the intimidating towers coming up in Upper Hill, this one will be a futuristic stylish project owned by the mtaa, and for the mtaa. A place for Nairobi to congregate and feast her senses. And as they gaze forlornly at Lupita Nyong’o’s fading mural on the old place’s wall and follow the rumblings of the excavators at work on the premises, the kibanda owners across the road no doubt miss the artists who used to dash across the road to eat ugali or chapo dondo at their open-air eateries whenever they could not afford lunch at Doreen’s. They no doubt await their return to bolster their businesses, same to the hooch sellers in adjoining kiosks, the fruit seller who used to bring her salads to Ketebul and chat us up as we worked and the South B matatus that used to ferry people to the GoDown Gig.

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