Bonoko looks young and innocent, but he is hardened and shrewd. He gained his life experience on the streets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where thousands of kids live. A strong genge beat under a TV interview with him talking about police brutality, made him instantly famous in Kenya. “When you see a cop, you better protect yourself and run away”, he raps in the song.
“My father was a street kid, my mother is still alive. She used to sell glue for sniffing”, Bonoko says. Streets kids don’t have a long life in Kenya. “There is always war, there is always violence”. Thugs and sects do kill, but the major killers are the police. “No money for a bribe and you end up in jail”.
All the people of the Nairobi slums, all passengers in the public transport matatu vehicles, sing loudly along with the Bonoko. “What we experience on a daily basis is being said by Bonoko”, they praise the 21 year old boy whose real name is James Kangethe Kimani.
Bonoko was born on the streets. As a baby he slept with his mother under the verandas, as an independent street kid he preferred other places, like the gutter under the highways. The government started to pick kids up from the streets in 2011 and send them to special schools to be reformed. After being caught Bonoko ran away twice, once walking for a week from Kakamega in Western Kenya to Nakuru, on his way back to Nairobi. “The watchmen at these schools beat us too much”, he complains. He ended up completing only two years of primary school education.
Back in Nairobi Bonoko made Ngara his home and place of work. Kipande became his close friend, a young butcher who sold mutura, a traditional Kikuyu sausage, on the streets. “Me and my street friends gave him our pennies for safekeeping, and he gave us leftover meat. He was a good man”.
His big rival on the streets was Kisi wa Central, a nickname for a cop who exhorted money from people in the neighbourhood. “That cop had already killed some kids. One day a rich man hit me with his car. He wanted to take me to hospital and gave me money as compensation. Kisi wa Central took it and told the rich man to get lost”.
One day Bonoko’s life took an unexpected positive turn. Kisa wa Central had apprehended Kipande because of urinating in an alley. Knowing the reputation of the cop, Kipande fled. Kisi wa Central shot the butcher dead and planted a fake gun near his body, a ‘bonoko’ in local slang. James Kangethe Kimani saw it all happening and from that time onwards he would be known as Bonoko.
That afternoon a crew from Citizen TV came to do a story on the killing. “The butcher is not thug, the cop is the dangerous one”, the words flowed out of his mouth for the TV camera. Many months later he heard his words back as a ringtone on a mobile, and after a while also on his favourite Ghetto Radio. Somebody in the slums had used his interview to make a raw rap song on his computer.
The angry cop has sworn to kill Bonoko and that is one of the reasons Ghetto radio has given him a safe place to stay. “I finally sleep without lice on my body”. Ghetto radio dj Mbussy has given him a slot on his daily show. “I have been liberated from police terror. It is so nice to go to sleep, knowing you are safe from the police”.