Fundi wa maneno

I picked this line off some song by Jua Cali … I think … it sounds like something he would say. And it’s a fairly good description of what I do. However, being a fundi is rarely a compliment.

‘Fundi’ is a generic Kenyan term for anything from a tailor to a plumber. They usually work off the street, in little stalls, sheet-metal shacks, or low rent premises. They generally have a specialist trade, but they will fix anything. That’s why the furniture fundi owns a sewing machine, just like the tailor fundi and the shoemaker fundi. Similarly, the electronics fundi will claim to fix anything from your short circuited TV to your overflowing sewer system.

Being a yuppie fundi – like me – means I will willingly handle anything from transcriptions to instruction labels on a VCR. This can be good thing, because I’m versatile. But it can also go terribly wrong. Allow me to demonstrate.

My daughter is at an age where her shoes [and bags, and socks, and white stockings] need repair every day. So two days after I bought her Bata Prefects, I was at a fundi asking him to reinforce the stitchery.

He was drunk, did a shoddy job, and overcharged me. So even though I was unusually polite, and I chat with him every day, I’ve never taken him anything else to fix.

A few weeks back, the shoes were spoilt again so I went to a second shoe fundi. This one has a sewing machine. He made me wait a while as he conversed in vernacular. I understand the language quite well, but I didn’t join in.

Slight digression: when dealing with fundis, it helps to speak their language. They will claim you as one of their own and give you a better deal. Ignore this at your peril. Sadly, I am sometimes arrogant among ‘my own’. Mostly because I’ve seen the negative side of ethnicity, so I prefer to ignore it. I didn’t identify myself as ‘theirs’.

Despite the long wait, he did a good job, so I gladly went again.

On the second visit, I took a school bag to have the zipper fixed. Again, I ignored the language factor, and again I was kept waiting. This time, he charged me for a job he didn’t do – he struggled to fix the zip for ten minutes, concluded that it was impossible, suggested I buy a new zip, then didn’t refund my money. Hmph.

So yesterday I went armed with the new zip, the shoes, a jacket, and two more damaged bags. I budgeted 200. He quoted 250. I offered to sit and wait, he stubbornly declined. We compromised – I could sit and wait for half the work, then I’d come get the rest later. Fair enough.

Lesson two in Fundi Mangement is to sit there until your work is done. Firstly because everybody else does, so the moment you leave, the fundi will serve another sit-in client. Secondly because it’s extremely annoying, and will therefore get the job done faster. Nobody likes you watching while they work. Except maybe footballers. And porn stars.

I came back promptly at 3, and in true fundi fashion, the fundi told me that he was ‘almost done’ and that I should sit for just a few minutes. Luckily for him, I was in major PMS, so I lowered my head and grumbled on the inside, but I didn’t say anything out loud. Yet.

After maybe ten minutes, I asked him what was going on. He said his sewing machine was broken, so he had given my jacket to the fundi next door to mend. Fair enough. At least the shoes were done.

I waited ten more minutes before telling him to give me my jacket and I’d get it done elsewhere. He spoke through the wall – in the secret language that I fully comprehend – and asked his fellow fundi to hurry up. Then he went next door to see what was going on. I followed him.

The work hadn’t even started.

I calmly asked the man to give me back my jacket. He started to protest, but was instructed – in the hidden language – to comply, so he did. I then asked for the shoes, only to see my fundi pick them up and begin to stitch frantically.


He tried to calm me down, but I stood over him until he was done, yelling a few choice words in a voice far calmer than I thought I was capable of. The man was afraid, I could see that. I wonder how he’d react to my standard temper tantrum.

Actually, I wonder why I didn’t throw my standard temper tantrum. I must be getting old.

In the end, I took my barely finished shoes and my barely started jacket to a second fundi – who, again, spoke the secret language – and sat while she stitched it. She was all smiles at first, but hiked the agreed price halfway through because ‘the fabric was messing her machine’. I was too tired to argue.

A simple two-minute collection run ended up in an hour that was so frustrating, I ended up needing a drink.

When you run your own business, do not be mistaken for a fundi – ever. Be versatile, have affordable premises, provide many services, learn many trades.

But when it comes to delivering on time, having endless excuses and doing shoddy work, do not be the quick-fix guy.

We often go to fundis because we have no choice. I used three neighbourhood people and got equally disappointed. But I’ll keep going back to them because living with an almost-tween, I will constantly need stuff fixed on the cheap. That means I either buy new items all the time, or I go to the fundi since ‘I have no otherwise’.

But to thrive in your business, don’t be your customer’s otherwise – be their preference.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through

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