For over 25 years, James Maina, 65, popularly known as ‘Maina Smart’ has been wearing colourful suits matched with ties, shoes, socks, hats and accessories such as watches, rings and glasses. Maina’s colourful dressing sets him apart from the crowds in the busy Ronald Ngala Street in Nairobi, where we first meet him at the Umoinner Sacco bus stage controlling the fleets.
His photos have gone viral on social media, making people look for him to socialise and take photos with him.
When growing up, Maina admired his maternal grandfather, Mzee Onesmus Kaibere, who was always smartly dressed. “I always wanted to be like him,” he says.
He grew up in a less fortunate family at Kirinduga village in Murang’a in the 1950’s. Maina, his sister and three brothers slept hungry and had to discontinue school for lack of fees.
This saw Maina drop out in Standard Six at Wambe Primary School. In the early 1970’s, aged only 12 years, Maina left the village for Nairobi and his first stop was Mathare slums where he slept outside kiosks. “I had earlier visited my father who was then a street barber in Nairobi. That was before he relocated back to the village to take part in the Mau Mau struggle,” Maina shares.
For about a year, Maina would wash utensils at a food kiosk in Mathare slums, where he got paid with meals and a place to sleep outside the kiosk.
It is at the banks of Nairobi River in Pangani where Maina used to bathe, wash his only trouser and shirt before putting them on again.
It was not long before one of the regular customers at the food kiosk approached Maina to work as a cashier at his bar.
Seven months into his cashier job, another customer hired Maina as a bus conductor. “I bought myself decent second hand clothes, the ones called Camera,” Maina recalls in high spirits.
Other bus conductors and drivers started to notice and like Maina for his neatness and decided to make him their leader. “In 1990, I was elected the Matatu youth chairman,” he narrates.
The position gave Maina a platform to voice issues affecting the youth in Embakasi, as he rubbed shoulders with politicians in the Kanu era.
But it was in 1992, in the advent of multiparty politics, when Maina met Fred Gumo, who was then the Westlands MP, that the politician noticed that he had ideas that could assist the youth.
“Fred Gumo promised me that we would be working together on matters affecting the youth,” says Maina.
Through his interactions with Gumo, youth groups in Nairobi were allowed to establish car wash businesses on river banks across the city. “Other assistance came in the form of machines to make building blocks and tree seedlings for nurseries,” he shares.
In 1993, Maina was elected the youth coordinator of the Embakasi Youth Development Project a role that saw him get close to the then President Daniel Moi.
There was not a single public secondary school in Kayole back then and many idle teenagers were loitering around.
“I asked President Moi for Kayole Secondary School and Kayole police post, for which land was given and they were constructed,” he says jovially.
In 1997, President Moi backed his idea of a harambee to fund development projects for the youth.
“Unfortunately, the money contributed went to waheshimiwa’s pockets and was not spent on the youth,” he offers. Saddened, Maina wrote to former President Moi asking that land in Eastlands that was owned by the government be donated to the youth to set up their businesses.
“We were given land in Dandora, Sharp Corner Block 87, Land at Kayole kwa DO, opposite the DO’s office, and Makongeni in Saika. But all these parcels were again grabbed and developed by people who were known to senior government officials,” Maina explains.
He again wrote to former President Moi in letters that have been seen by the Nation. Following this, Moi stopped the illegal allocation of title deeds.
“But still those who had acquired the land built on it, even without title deeds,” he adds. In 2000, the former President allocated another 13.2 acres of land in Komarock to the youth. “Various youth groups set up garages, made building blocks with brick making machines, and the rest was used as a playground,” Maina recalls.
“In the first year, everything went well as planned, but in 2001 some of the Embakasi Youth Development Project officials subdivided the parcel into small plots which they sold. I wrote to Moi over the same and in 2001, the structures were demolished,” he shares. The demolition saw a push and pull over the control of the Embakasi Youth Development project resources which extended to 2002 when Moi retired and Mwai Kibaki became president.
“I wrote to Kibaki on the same, in October 2003. By then, almost all the land had been subdivided and sold,” Maina says. The Nation has seen copies of the letter dated October 15, 2003, which was received at the Office of the President, written by Maina requesting that the government prioritize youth unemployment, the need for a ministry in charge of youth affairs and need for a vision board for the country.
WROTE A PROPOSAL
On October 5, 2006, Maina wrote a proposal to former President Kibaki on youth unemployment. He suggested that the government considers a 15 per cent allocation to the youth on police recruitment, government jobs, employment opportunities at Industrial Area and in companies operating at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The proposal detailed poverty reduction measures for the youth, which aimed at creating jobs in the jua kali sector and agribusiness. “My dream came to pass later when Kibaki created millions of jobs for the youth,” he says.
The letter also proposed that the government sets aside Sh910 million for the then 25 national youth polytechnics. In November 23, 2006, President Kibaki wrote back to Maina, acknowledging receipt of the proposal.
In another letter that he wrote to the Office of the President on April 19, 2007, Maina emphasised on the implementation of a vision board to guide Kenya’s development agenda.
By the end of 2007, President Kibaki introduced the Ministry of Youth, fulfilling one of Maina’s biggest dreams. “This was music to my ears, even as many Kenyans questioned what the role of the new ministry would be,” he adds.
Maina never went back to school, but says he develops the proposals on his own. “It is wisdom. When I decide to write, God inspires me on what to write,” adds Maina, who is married with three children.
“In Kenya, we have seen leaders with degrees even doctorates, who have thrown the country to the dogs. Leadership needs more than education. It needs wisdom and servanthood,” he points out.
He says people’s participation is a key component in governance, to propose ideas that speak to their needs, follow up and put leaders into account.
Unfortunately, most government officials shove aside the interest of mwananchi, he notes.
“Our leaders are twins who unite in ‘eating’, while in the public view, they portray each other as enemies. Time has come for mwananchi to unite in pushing their development agenda,” he adds.
Does Maina have any future ambitions to join politics? No, he says: “The work that I have done for the youth surpasses that of any politician.”