Crossed Lines The Fluidity of Postcolonial Nairobi

A woman enters a public bus "Matatu" as the country prepares for the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama, in Kenya's capital Nairobi on July 24, 2015. Obama visited his father's homeland and raised a lot of hope and excitement on the continent.
A woman enters a public bus "Matatu" as the country prepares for the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama, in Kenya's capital Nairobi on July 24, 2015. Obama visited his father's homeland and raised a lot of hope and excitement on the continent. | Photo (detail): Noor Khamis © picture alliance / REUTERS

Nairobi represents both continuities with and breaks from colonialism. It is important to bear this point in mind given that Nairobi is a complex density, in spatial terms.

By Dr. Mbugua wa Mungai

It is not easy to think or even write about it, just as with most cities in postcolonial Africa, without running the risk of oversimplifying things. Nairobi is not one single space that works according to a set of clearly visible rules; the logic can also be conflicting. As such there are so many disparate spaces in Nairobi that it does not make sense to say one is a Nairobian without specifying what part of the city one comes from.

An interesting albeit strange characteristic of Nairobi is that the city works not because of planning but, often, in spite of it. To pick two telling examples, Nairobi’s erstwhile traffic jams and poorly constructed buildings that occasionally tumble to the ground — most memorably at Nyamakima right in the CBD but most recently in Eastlands - readily show that the logic of planning only works in very limited ways in this city. Even though we know that unregulated constructions are a function of corruption amongst building officials,  in a sense one might also read the resistance to order as one of the ways in which people in postcolonial Nairobi express their own dissatisfaction with the colonial workings of the city, a desire to do things their own way.

The other Nairobi

Indeed, one might go so far as to say that Nairobi City center is the ‘other’ Nairobi, a strange exception to the norm, and not really representative of what Nairobi is; it makes best sense to compare the CBD to its elsewheres, satellite spaces that people configure to work differently from the constrictions of the city center. There isn’t a single space to which the name Nairobi might be assigned. Rather, by the sheer multiplicity of socio-cultural, economic and political experiences of its dwellers in diverse spaces, there are many ‘Nairobis’. Plurality, not uniformity, defines particularly these postcolonial spaces.

Where during colonial times residential zoning was enforced by means of physical barriers, like Bahati in Eastlands, where the Gikuyu were confined, was cordoned off with barbed wire, the segregation—unstated but real nevertheless—in contemporary Nairobi is a function of class which in turn governs how people relate not just to architecture but space in general. Where there was barbed wire fencing in Bahati in the 1940s, today we have still have physical barriers in parts of the upmarket Karen neighborhood, which was formerly a whites-only location where Africans could not buy land, and one has to pay an unofficial levy to the guards to buy passage through even though these are public roads.

The formal Nairobi, where architecture and businesses are governed by strict codes, has to always contend with the informal Nairobi where hawkers, matatu, handcart pushers, street boys and garbage collectors Kirinyaga Road earn their livelihoods, and it is in fact the tension between the two that suffuses the city with life as the informal world inveigles itself onto the formal one and the latter scrambles to keep its space. Hawkers selling diverse wear from clothing to food right at the doorsteps of office blocks are a good way of thinking about how the formal and informal contend daily for space.

Aura of a colonial city

For instance, those who work at and reside around the UN Complex in Nairobi operate on a very different logic of life compared to those who work in Gikomba or Kaburi, the vast used clothes market and open-air mechanics’ field respectively. With rules being observed and the presence of so many Westerners around the UN, that part of town actually feels alienated from Nairobi. The whole place is eerily quiet. The US embassy, with its formidable fortress structures, imposingly standing directly opposite the UN offices, quite successfully reinforces the feeling that this part of the city is cast off from Nairobi. Reeking extreme order, enforced stringently by armed security personnel, this zone has the aura of the colonial city. Indeed, this part of the city has a well-deserved moniker: the West.

Gikomba and Kaburi at Kariokor, fashioned from ‘Carrier Corps’, on the other hand are the epitome of the unrestrained pursuit of life in the city as people shout for business, haggle over prices and fees and the clanging of spanners as the mechanics wrench loose bolts and nuts. Mainly the business in these spaces is conducted on bare ground, demonstrating how horizontal relationships work for people whom the planners at City Hall never plan for. The logic of city planning is governed by vertical understanding of space, that is buildings, especially sky scrapers such as the glitzy green energy postmodern wonders being erected all over the Upper Hill area.  

Architechture enforces class cleavages 

Today the organized built environment has quite obviously become fashionable with some residents of Nairobi. Nothing illustrates this better than the modernist shopping complexes seen in the City today—(former) Westgate, Sarit Center, The Mall, The Junction, Galleria, Yaya Center, Thika Road Mall among others. Built around the all-under-one-roof concept, what these malls have in actual fact done is to enforce the class cleavages of Kenyan society. A stark demonstration of how the haves lead their ostentatious lives, these shopping malls have ended up being seen as extensions of the exclusionary spaces that were introduced through colonialism, a kind of Members-Only club. Only this time, rich Africans can join in the play. Philip Armstrong, an American professor on his first visit to Kenya, captured the ironies these aspects of the cityscape represent when he remarked to this writer: “These new malls and the neat roads leading to most of them give me the feeling that I could be anywhere in America, yet just a couple of blocks away there is a totally different world with a rhythm of life so unlike what I am used to.”

Whatever colonial rule had wanted Nairobi to be, it did not exactly become. According to the 1948 Nairobi Master Plan, the city was envisioned as a contingence of ethnic and racial enclaves; by keeping the Sikh in Eastleigh, the Gikuyu in Bahati, the Luo in Mbotela, the Luhya in Ziwani, the Hindu and the Jews in Parklands and reserving the downtown Nairobi to the Europeans. It was assumed that the notion of order would be drawn on the reclaimed swamp in a way that would replicate and perpetuate English values forever. That would be the real Nairobi; a CBD governed by order, cleanliness, predictability and neat, wide boulevards. One just needs to look stand either at the Eastern or Western ends of Kenyatta avenue, I recommend the stretch between Kipande House and The Stanley at the Kimathi Street junction, to appreciate this point.

Nairobi - Green City in the Sun?

Africans always attempted to breach the ethnic and racial borders set up by colonial authorities, whether by illegally invading the CBD or by seeking residence in non-designated areas. Today the presence of slums in Nairobi is an indication of how those who are unwanted in the formal city continue to devise ways and meaning of belonging to the city. Whereas their shacks offer a stark contrast to the vertical buildings beloved by city planners, the lack of basic services like water, power and sewerage is a pointed reminder about the vast populations that the City authorities don’t include in their planning. They also enable us to think about some of the lingering continuities and ironies of the colonial project that sought to create a "Green City in the Sun" but ended up with quite a different sort of achievement.