The evolving culture of watch (wo)men

Saturday March 28 2020

A security guard at the entrance to the East African Tea Trade Association in Mombasa screens a tea broker on March 17. In their 70-year history in Kenya, watchmen have evolved into a formal unit with its own State regulator. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Stephanie Nyairo

There is a new danger in town and once again, we have turned to watch(wo)men to relieve our anxieties. To contain the new enemy — coronavirus — we are urged to wash our hands with soap and water often, maintain physical distance, and as much as possible, stay at home.

Consequently, a visit to a supermarket or a building housing essential services now entails new rituals of public safety.

A guard — male or female — mans a handwashing station or thrusts a sanitiser bottle at you. S/he points a digital laser thermometer at your forehead or ear and notes your body temperature.

His/her colleague, clad in a face mask and surgical gloves, pats you down or runs a scanner over you, and looks through your bag. Finally, they glance at your ID, or scan it on a desktop for an entry code, while offering you a chirpy greeting.


These actions signal shifts in our socio-cultural practices. They also signal shifts in the perils we have called upon guards to shield us from over the last 70 years. First it was freedom fighters raiding settlers, then petty thieves and vandals followed by armed robbers, carjackers and street muggers, next came the terrorists, and now it is coronavirus.


The trajectory has not been straightforward, so in any one era, on any day or night, guards have been required to watch out for more than one kind of threat. As the perils have multiplied, watchmen’s skills have grown in leaps and bounds.

In Dare to Defy, the autobiography of Peter Leroka ole Shompole, an autodidact who rose to be the headmaster of Kiserian Primary School, he tells the story of his first job in Nairobi.

He travelled to the city in 1954 to look for a job, at the height of Operation Anvil, when Africans were being indiscriminately arrested and some sent back to the villages.

He was hired “at Unga Limited as a watchman … guarding big stores where wheat and maize flour bags were kept. I was in a group of ten workers of mixed ethnic origin. We were all in charge of security, but I was the only one who could speak English…”.

When the office messenger was arrested, Shompole’s boss, Mr Ratan Singh, recommended him to take up the position. At the interview, the general manager, Mr Watson, asked Shompole where he was from, whether he was married, and one other question: “How many items are there in a dozen?”

When Shompole gave the correct answer, in English, he was promoted, and his salary doubled to Sh60 per month. Shompole was ahead of his time. In the 1950s, a literate person belonged inside an office, not outside at the gate.

But literacy is a spectrum, as this story about a boarding school in the 1980s shows. Some adventurous schoolgirls discovered (or perhaps engineered) a hole in the fence behind their dormitories.

They used it to leave the school on Fridays or Saturdays to dance the night away at discos in Nairobi with their well-wheeled boyfriends. The following day, they would be brought back to school via the main gate, where they signed in along with the traffic of visiting parents and guardians. (In those days, every weekend was a visiting weekend.)

Their cover was blown when the headmistress studied the ledger at the gate and noted the names Millie Jackson, Donna Summer and Anita Ward! It wasn’t just a matter of the watchman’s literacy. It was also the socio-cultural differences between him and the girls. They knew he was not tuned into global pop culture so even if he could read them, those names would mean nothing to him.

Colonial stereotypes shaped security in urban neighbourhoods. In the 1970s, when petty thieves started stealing clothes left out on hanging lines, yanking radios and tyres from cars, and occasionally poisoning guard dogs and breaking into houses to steal TVs, it was Maasais who were hired as watchmen.

Their choice was based on the colonial legend that they are strong and fearless.

The warriors came with rungus, sheathed swords, bows and arrows and for some, oltaika (red ochre) braided hair with beads. Fashion-conscious women of the 1980s started getting their hair similarly braided by these watchmen, who they invariably called sopa — a Maa greeting.

Our growing socio-economic inequalities, marked by yawning needs on one end of the scale and mounting fear on the other, saw new items added to the arsenal of sopa. Gates and metal grills on windows and front doors changed the design of city estates permanently. It is funny to think now how difficult it was circa 1976 to find someone to make a gate. The well-connected sourced them from the Prisons Workshop.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of buildings in the CBD remained an open house, with the exception of banks, which armed robbers of the day targeted. Security became corporatised in 1977. The first of these companies were owned by white Kenyans, private investigators or former policemen, operating international franchises. They shed the stereotypes, sought literacy, and hired from across the ethnic divide.

It was not immediately clear what the role of these companies would be, vis-à-vis that of the police, but they found their niche combining guard services with courier operations.

From 1988, these companies led the way in changing the gender dynamic in the security business. Women were hired to man reception desks and manage courier documents.

Back in residential areas, sopas guarding individual homes were gradually being replaced. Homes were zoned into courts, one main gate installed, and day and night guards hired to log entries and exits. At dawn and dusk, watchmen became car-washers, moving from house to house to provide the additional service for a discretionary tip rather than a standard fee.

As vehicular traffic in the capital city increased, parking spots shrunk. Watchmen became valets — in charge of managing double-parked cars outside buildings and in car lots. A driving licence was now an added advantage in securing a watchman’s job and selling reserved parking spots became the new side-hustle.


The 1990s era of carjackings marked a new high in the threats to the personal security of watchmen. Carjackers tortured watchmen, tied them up, beat them, abducted them, and even shot them dead.

The watchman’s arsenal of rungus and machetes was no match. Many retail businesses and middle-class homes installed alarms and CCTV cameras to boost surveillance or track thefts after the fact. In the 2000s, these new measures stemmed the tide of rogue security guards who were using insider-knowledge to raid banks.

When banks made ATMs the norm, guards mastered the new digital protocols. It is still possible today to find a guard showing a new customer how to use an ATM. At hospitals, it is not unusual to see guards manoeuvring a patient on a wheelchair.

At embassies and visa-handling firms, guards check forms and help applicants navigate the dense protocol of application, entry into the premises and service. No wonder these guards volubly reject the name watchman and tell you “sisi ni soldier!
The range of work that watch(wo)men in Kenya do confuses young visitors to our country, who find it hard to distinguish between policemen and guards. And the more we stretch their duties, the cockier the guards become, demanding tips with a playful, “sasa unaniachia nini?”


This culture of side hustles and tips has sometimes bordered on crime. In the wave of secondary school fires, watchmen were said to be complicit in the purchasing and ferrying of the fuel that was used to stage arson.

Enter Al-Shabaab and large-scale terrorist attacks. This necessitated new devices and new skills for guards to detect and bar intruders with weapons strapped to their bodies. Enter body scanners and the intrusive patting down — our personal spaces became public spaces, in public!

But even before guards needed digital literacy, with buildings acquiring high-tech scanners and software to track identity documents and supervise entry, they were already handling tonnes of personal data in their ledgers — ID number, name, cell phone number. In the run-up to the 2013 General Election, it was said that this data was sold to political parties to obtain registration and, later, help them bombard voters with campaign messages.

To be a good watch(wo)man is to be versatile, a perpetual student. This steep learning curve is the best defence against the cheap, disparaging put-downs about a community of “cooks and watchmen” as politician JJ Kamotho allegedly called Fred Gumo in 1996; a comment rehashed in Parliament by Dr Otieno K’Opiyo and Moses Wetang’ula.

The Private Security Regulatory Authority was established in 2016 to vet firms and register guards and the Protective Security Industry Association, which oversees professional development, have plenty to do.


According to Prof Michael Chege, in 2018, the industry employed 300,000 unarmed guards while the police service stood at 109,000 officers. These numbers magnify how much we entrust to guards.
They have front-row seats to the live-action events in homes and offices, access to bags, cars, belongings; full view of personal data and M-Pesa names, all in the name of protecting us from the terror(s) of the moment.

In this shrinking economy when they are overseeing public health protocols, the job of watch(wo)man seems to be the most secure one.

They have come out among our first responders, just as the firemen of New York saved the day during 9/11, and there is a lot we can all learn from their selfless adaptability. Some day they must tell their story.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst; [email protected] Stephanie Nyairo is a designer;