Finnish chef fell in love with a mtumba trader and stayed on.
“Thirty, thirty, fifty, fifty bei ya nguo hapa! (clothes on sale here)” a hawker shouts above the din.
His English has a distinct twang, and his Swahili words roll curiously off his tongue.
That is the voice of Tomi Marko Antero Kanerua, a Finn, who sells second-hand clothes in Eldoret.
For several months now, Marko has been attracting crowds to his mitumba stall at the Langas slum market largely because a white man selling second-hand clothes is a novelty for residents.
Curiously, many of them spend more time looking at him than at what he has on offer.
But the 41-year-old is unperturbed by all the attention and seems quite at home with his shorts and un-tucked shirt.
“I am surprised that people find me and what I do amusing, but I am not complaining because the curiosity favours my business,” he said in an interview with the Nation.
In a day, Marko, who lives with his girlfriend, Lilian Wambui, says he makes between Sh2,000 and Sh4,000 in profit.
“When Lilian is the one selling, she makes around Sh500 to Sh1,000 in a day,” he said with a chuckle.
HAVE A GOOD TIME
Marko is a trained chef, who has worked in numerous restaurants in Finland, Malaysia, Germany and Sweden. So, why the chef selling mitumba in Eldoret?
“I came to Kenya in 2013 as a tourist at the invitation of a cousin and fell in love with your beautiful country,” he said.
“Since my tourist visa would not allow me to get a work permit, which is very expensive for foreigners, I had to do something to survive.”
What convinced him to stay on was meeting Lilian Wambui, who at the time lived in Mtwapa, Mombasa, selling second-hand clothes for a living. Marko says they easily became fast friends.
“We spent every day together and would have lunch together, watch movies and basically have a good time.”
When insecurity at the Coast escalated early this year, tourists flew back to their countries while some Kenyans moved out. Lilian, a mother of one, was among those who left.
At the time, Marko was in Nairobi, where he was volunteering as a cook at a Christian organisation that takes care of orphans.
When he returned to Mombasa a few weeks later and learnt that Lilian had left, he called her and the next day he took a bus to her parents’ home in Eldoret Town.
He admits that life was not as easy as he had expected; there was house rent and bills to be paid. Marko decided to revive Lilian’s business, and even volunteered to help her run it, which surprised Lilian.
“I thought it was a joke when Marko told me that he wanted to sell mitumba,” she told the Nation.
“I have been in the business for a while, and know how involving it is. I also doubted he would cope, and wondered how people would receive him.”
Marko explained that compared to the jobs he held while growing up in Finland, selling clothes is like a walk in the park.
For instance, he worked as a casual labourer for a year when he was 16, and helped out at his father’s farm for a couple of years.
“These hands have milked cows,” he said, holding out his hands for us to inspect.
Selling clothes is just a small part Marko’s daily chores; he also fetches water from a nearby well, washes dishes and cleans the house despite Lilian’s protests.
Her neighbours, especially the men, find it amusing because these chores are considered a woman’s domain.
“Many of our neighbours admonish me for allowing Marko to do these chores, but he refuses to listen to me when I tell him that I will do them myself,” Lilian said.
Marko’s business is doing well and he is thinking of opening a couple of stalls in Mombasa, where he is sure the business will thrive.
“My short-term plan is to raise money to get a work permit,” he said, adding that he likes it here because Kenyans are kind-hearted and respectful.
But he is perturbed that so many young people are content to do nothing all day.
“There are so many around — they should use their skills to make a living, instead of sitting idle, waiting for miracles to happen,” he says.
He is also disturbed about the sporadic cases of insecurity in the country, as well as the pronounced tribalism.
“Why fight each other just because you speak a different language? Laughable, isn’t it?”