Octopizzo: Rap king from Nairobi slum inspiring Kenyan kids

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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, poses with a fan during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, looks out from a bridge over a now sewer-polluted stream in which he used to play before it was polluted, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, stands at the spot where his family's home once stood, now a construction site for a charity-run school for disadvantaged children, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, stands at the spot where his family's home once stood, now a construction site for a charity-run school for disadvantaged children, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, speaks in a recording studio in Nairobi on January 16, 2018. Like most youngsters in Nairobi's largest slum, Henry Ohanga grew up believing he would never amount to anything. (AFP)
Updated 30 January 2018
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Octopizzo: Rap king from Nairobi slum inspiring Kenyan kids

NAIROBI, Kenya: Like most youngsters in Nairobi’s largest slum, Henry Ohanga grew up believing he would never amount to anything.
Making it big, even leaving Kibera: these weren’t things that happened to an orphan who once robbed people to buy food.
Now 29, he is Octopizzo, one of East Africa’s most recognized hip-hop stars, and is using his success to break down stigma around the slum and inspire kids in a world devoid of successful role models.
Clad in a black Adidas tracksuit, with bling in his ears, a gold-colored watch on his arm and a large dazzling pendant of Jesus around his neck, Ohanga gestures over the undulating hodge-podge of corrugated iron roofs where he grew up.
“It’s everything, everything I rap about... I feel like if I wasn’t born here I probably wouldn’t be a rapper,” he told AFP in Kibera, where most of his friends and family still live.
Kibera stretches over an area of about 2.5 square kilometers (one square mile), a poor ethnic melting pot wedged among richer areas of the Kenyan capital where its residents work, mostly as casual laborers.
The slum’s population is subject to heated debate, with the old NGO slogan of “the biggest slum in Africa” challenged in recent years by a government census and other independent studies which say between 170,000 and 250,000 people live there.
While for some a byword for misery and poverty, to Octopizzo, Kibera is the place he loves “more than anything else in the world” and it features in every one of his hits, with some of his slick, foreign-produced videos racking up more than a million views on Youtube.
In Kibera it is not the rubbish packed into dirt or debris-choked streams that strike Ohanga.
Rather he is inspired by the “uniquely beautiful vibe,” children in brightly colored uniforms making their way to school, music blaring from speakers around every corner, the whirr of sewing machines set-up in open air, the rhythm and beat of the hustle.
“I don’t blame the people. If you look at Kibera this is the definition of a failed system,” he said.
While he describes himself as more “socially conscious” than political, it has been hard to avoid tough topics in the slum, which is often the first place sparks fly when political tensions rise.
During Kenya’s 2007 post-election crisis, when he recalls having to walk everywhere with a machete for protection as the slum was torn apart by ethnic violence he blames on politicians, his anger spilled into his first recorded song: “Voices of Kibera.”
However his big commercial break only came in 2012, through an arts program at the British Council, which launched other successful artists such as afro-pop band Sauti Sol.
Ohanga has moved on to rapping about things like food and fashion from Kibera, to change the negative image of the slum that has long led those who do make it out to hide their roots.
“I feel since I started rapping we have changed the narrative, it is cool now to be from Kibera.”
But politics and Kibera remain deeply intertwined, and when post-election protests broke out last year, Ohanga came to the slum to speak to both protesters and police, and criticized police violence that left scores dead in Kenya, including residents of the slum.
“I have a voice and I have to use it, whether people like it or not,” he said.
Ohanga had never planned to become a rapper — growing up he wanted to be a horticulturalist. “I like flowers,” he said.
But the opportunity never came his way. His father died when he was 14, his mother a year later, and he ended up living with a friend and joining a gang, robbing shops and people.
“I never regret being part of that, I never killed anybody,” said Ohanga, who has an entire song dedicated to gangsters and drug dealers — the only ones to help him when he was down and out.
Through his own foundation, and work with the UN refugee agency, he wants to help youths realize their potential through the arts.
In 2016, artists from the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps who were trained and mentored by Ohanga released an album called “Refugeenius.”
“I want to be the face of possibility. When we grew up we didn’t know anyone who was successful. Kids are told by their teachers, their parents that they will never be anything, it is not our destiny,” said Ohanga.
One young man he has inspired is 22-year-old Daniel Owino, who Ohanga described as a “bad kid” in trouble with everyone in the neighborhood.
“I told him: ‘Even me I used to be there, we’ve robbed guys it’s not a big deal but we change’,” said Ohanga.
Owino, now known as Futwax, turned his life around, and is working as a motorbike taxi driver as he pursues his passion for music, with 13 songs recorded so far. He was also recently crowned Mr.Kibera.
“He is a role model to me. I used to go to his house here in the slum, Octopizzo was so hardworking. I felt that even I would make it one day,” Owino told AFP.


Where We Are Going Today: Shatllah

Updated 22 March 2019
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Where We Are Going Today: Shatllah

  • Shatllah’s prices are reasonable, while the assistants are very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful

Do you need to add a little life and color to your surroundings? Houseplants are often said to be a source of positivity, and Shatllah has taken this concept to the next level.

Forget the idea of a lonely looking plant in a boring beige pot; this shop adds beautifully designed containers and creative touches that turn them into delightful decorations that are almost works of art. One in particular that caught my eye was designed to look like a tiny garden, complete with a miniature table and chair.

Shatllah’s creations make for perfect gifts, which is how I discovered the shop, in Jeddah’s Al-Zahra’a district, while looking for a present for a friend who loves houseplants. I was so impressed with its wares that I ended up buying some for myself as well. After all, who would not rather have a living plant decorating their home rather than artificial flowers or other fake items?

Shatllah’s prices are reasonable, while the assistants are very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. They are more than happy to offer advice on picking the perfect plant and how to take care of it when you get it home.