NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — A soft strike on the guitar strings and a bit of tuning, and 29-year-old Samson Kule Mannasseih, a street singer in Nairobi, is ready to go.
“You can sing along. It’s time for love, joy, peace and fun,” he tells a small crowd that has gathered on Kimanthi Street to listen to him.
“I want to remind you that Christmas is around the corner. We have to celebrate,” announces the small-framed singer as he strums the guitar.
Then comes the baritone: “Silent night, holy night ….”
Mannasseih, an Anglican Christian, takes the crowd through popular Christian Christmas classics — "Joy to the World," "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Jingle Bells" — before bringing them home with a Swahili gospel tune.
"He is unique, original and a good entertainer," said a fan named Jane, who joined in the singing.
As holiday decorations appear in shopping malls and Christmas trees are set up in churches and the entrances of buildings, Mannasseih — the lone guitar man — is doing his part to get people ready for the holidays by performing what he calls “sweet street music.”
“My singing is for all categories of people or groups. It is the music that calms everyone,” he said. “My audience is not only religious people but also people from all tribes, communities and nationalities. It is music for everyone.”
Standing on the streets with a guitar, a speaker and a microphone, the singer takes street singing in Nairobi to a higher level.
It’s not easy.
Mannassieh competes with the sound of radios blaring on the sidewalks — and the occasional church choir that has taken its rehearsals out into the street. Sometimes his equipment is collected by the Nairobi City County guards and he has to pay to get it back.
But in general, he said, things have been smooth.
“The people have shown me love and respect from the beginning. I didn’t know I could get such respect,” he said.
He first came to Nairobi in 2011 from his home village of Kasese in western Uganda in the company of a Kenyan doctor who worked in the region.
Growing up in a poor family, Mannassieh said he had to drop out of school at a young age because his family could not afford school fees. With few options available, the singer — the fifth of 11 children — sold fruit along the Congo border to raise money to educate his siblings and support his family.
When he was invited to visit the city, he jumped at the chance.
“I had always wanted to visit Nairobi, so when the doctor asked me to join him, I accepted,” he said.
At first, he would visit the city and go back home. But with time, Nairobi got hold of him and he stayed.
“I started looking for something to do. I used to love singing, so I finally settled for singing street music,” he said.
He now makes a living as a singer. Listeners often give him tips. And he also performs at weddings and parties.
“He is good and natural in what he does," said Ben Mwanzia, a businessman in Nairobi, who hired Mannassieh to sing at a pre-wedding party after hearing him sing on the street. “He did not disappoint."
Christmas, Mannassieh said, is a joyful time in his adopted city. Residents celebrate the day by going to church the evening before, where they sing and dance late into the night. At midnight, it is common to hear shouts of "Merry Christmas" amid whistling, drumbeats or blowing of horns.
As he sings Christmas carols in Nairobi, he recalls that for many years, his impoverished family could not afford to host a Christmas party.
“We always got excited that it was Christmas as children, but there were no parties,” he said. “We never got new shoes or clothes like children from other families. So I am trying to correct that part of my past.”
On Christmas Day, the singer said, he plans to travel to his home village in Uganda to be with his people.
But not until Nairobi gets the Christmas cheer, he said.