Saturday, December 27, 2008

Roads are a mess, but memories of good times linger

Matatus, cars and pedestrians jostle for space in front of one of the many new shopping malls on a crowded street in Eastleigh, Nairobi. Photo/FILE 

By DANIEL WESANGULA

Razia Abdulhaq has watched with dismay as the serene, well-laid out neighbourhood of her childhood has disintegrated into a chaotic estate where trees are largely a thing of the past.

“Things are just not the same any more. It seems like this is another place. We don’t have roads any more. Buildings come up with each rising sun. I think this is the only place that one cannot distinguish where the road ends and where the pavement begins,” said Ms Razia, 49, who has never lived outside Eastleigh.

According to Nairobi City Council records, Eastleigh acquired its name in 1921 when it was made a township by the colonial government.

Under the colonial master plan that segregated the population according to race, the estate was earmarked for Asians and elite Africans who were clerks, builders or shoemakers.

As you approach Eastleigh from Kariakor, past the Starehe Boys’ Centre on General Waruinge Road, the tarmac gives way to large potholes that have eaten into the once smooth roads that would empty by late evening, and the only sounds to be heard were the muezzins’ calls to evening prayers.

Radio station

“You would not go out of your house after 7 p.m. There was nothing to do back then,” said Mohamud Abdullahi Sheikh, a businessman who runs a radio station that broadcasts in Somali.

“Shops and kiosks were closed, but now even at 3 a.m. it is business as usual; the official banking hours in this part of the city extend to 8.p.m.”

Mr Sheikh also misses the old neighbourhoods with paved roads and tree-lined streets well-lit with security lights. Extensive grasslands surrounding the area prevented dust from getting into houses. Today, the only vegetation visible are trees planted during one of the city council’s sporadic attempts at beautification efforts.

Now a thin layer of dust from never-ending construction projects covers everything; the only time it does not is during the rainy season when the dust turns to mud, and waterlogged sewers burst, pouring effluent into the streets.

“It is not about having a home here any more. Everything has become business. Everyone who comes to Eastleigh comes on business,” Mr Sheikh said in his fourth floor office in Eastleigh Mall.

The multi-storey mall houses Star FM, numerous electronic and furniture shops and restaurants. There is a mosque on the top floor.

A decade ago

A decade ago, the plot occupied by Eastleigh Mall was a garage belonging to the Kenya Bus Service. The conversion of empty plots into multi-storeyed buildings has become a permanent feature of the area.

“Eventually we will not have any open spaces, and all buildings will be business premises. Residential houses might soon disappear,” said Sylvanos Asanga.

The tearing down of buildings by developers may be erasing the memories of the area’s past but, of greater concern to remaining residents, is the growing pressure on limited available housing caused by the steady influx of Kenyan Somalis from the northern part of the country into the estate.

Ms Razia said that businessmen often buy up entire residential plots, pull the buildings down and put up shopping malls whose popularity was fanned by the famous Garissa Lodge of the late 1980s.

That building, which has survived two major fires, is today dwarfed by newer malls. Although residents may recall quiet, orderly streets, Eastleigh estate has for a long time been associated with all sorts of shady businesses from illegal trade to smuggling to drug and human trafficking.

Get addicted

“Only a few people dare to venture into Eastleigh. Those who do get addicted to it and in most cases never find the strength to leave,” said Moses Makona, who spent most of his childhood in neighbouring Pumwani.

“Even the lucky ones who manage to move out of the area leave a part of themselves behind; they never forget the place.”

Unlike the deteriorating social infrastructure, business in Eastleigh estate is booming. Minutes of meetings of the city council’s town planning department obtained by the Sunday Nation point to a burgeoning population as well as the failure to implement government policies to improve the area.

“Eastleigh should not have all these problems. The city council planning department has always had master plans for the area from as far back as the 1980s. But they either take too long to implement or are never implemented,” said John Barreh, the council’s assistant director of planning.

Among the problems Eastleigh residents have is the sewerage system. Recent maintenance work by the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company revealed that most drainage outlets had been blocked by plastic bags and water bottles making it hard for the already burdened system to function.

“Here manholes have no covers so they offer a convenient location for people to dump their garbage,” said Mr Makona.

High-rise complexes dealing in everything from clothing and perfume to new and retread tyres dominate the skyline of the city within a city. The modern malls border alleys that have been converted into miraa kiosks and hawkers’ stands.

“They say one can get anything in Eastleigh,” Ms Razia said. “People say if you look hard enough — and for the right price — you can even buy a human heart.”

In Eastleigh it is said you can buy a gun and ammunition wrapped up like a package of meat from the butcher.

According to Mr Asanga, the apparent ease with which firearms can be obtained has contributed significantly to the rise of crime in the area and beyond.

“Anyone can get a gun. It all depends on how urgently you need it,” he said. “The shorter the notice to the dealer the more expensive the cost. These days people are robbed at gunpoint by children barely out of their teens.”

Like many other estates in the city, Eastleigh has its fair share of urban legends. In the early 1990s, a story went round that there was a band of robbers who went by the name of 42 Brothers.

“The 42 Brothers were ruthless in their operations and mostly travelled in groups of 10 or more. They did not bother to hide their guns once they ventured out for an operation,” Mr Asanga said.

“It was a dangerous time, but they never killed anyone over a wallet or a handbag. They’d just take it from you and walk away,” Star FM’s Mr Sheikh said.

The popularity of the area with both Kenyan Somalis and those from Somalia has grown so much over the years that Somali MPs in town for peace conferences prefer to stay at hotels in the estate.

“(Kenyan) Somalis started coming to these areas in the early 1980s in search of business opportunities. Since they like living close to each other, they kept pouring in,” said Mr Sheikh. “Eventually they formed investment groups and began buying or leasing land to set up their own businesses.”

The city planning department estimates there are more than 100,000 Kenyan Somalis in the area.

“They have bought almost everything in the area. We now feel like minorities,” Ms Razia said.

“They buy whole plots and put up apartments for themselves. When they don’t buy, they rent premises at high prices for periods of up to one year, forcing the rest of us out.”

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