Nairobi: From swamp to one of Africa’s top cities

Tuesday December 12 2017

The city of Nairobi.

Nairobi’s skyline as viewed from the UAP Tower on Upper Hill Road in Nairobi on July 4, 2016. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By JOHN KAMAU
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When Charles Rubia was elected as “His Worship” the mayor of Nairobi in 1963, he was 41, the same age as the current governor Mike Sonko.

As Kenyans mark the 53rd Jamhuri Day, the place of Nairobi within the bigger picture appears to dim. Again, its significance remains largely hidden by the myriad problems that its residents and leadership faced over the years.

RAILWAY TOWN

Compared to other cities in Africa, Nairobi has not grown as fast – but it has also surprised many of those who had written it off.

When it was first mooted as a small railway town in 1899, few people thought that Nairobi would grow to become among the top 10 most important cities in Africa thanks to economic activities and consumer size.

On the early maps it had no name. The railway surveyors had marked it as Mile 327 and they had proposed that the site was suitable for the building of a depot to prepare the engineers and the workers to “corkscrew” up to 2,000ft over the next 43km towards the lake.

If the Nyika plains had been a painful exercise – forget the lions of Tsavo – the climb to the escarpment was to test the engineers and the workers.

Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi.

Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi as viewed from the UAP Tower on Upper Hill Road on July 4, 2016. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

MIRACLE CITY

Nobody expected a city here. The naysayers said that no city without a waterfront – and in the middle of the Nyika and without minerals would rise to equal Cairo founded in 969, Johannesburg founded in 1886 or Cape Town in 1652.

Unfortunately, Nairobi did not have any of those advantages and it is today taken as a miracle city that emerged in the middle of Africa by simply becoming a railway town.

As the railway and the settler economy turned Nairobi to become its administrative hub, the traders who had followed the line to Uganda built a city on what was once described by railway engineer George Whitehouse as a “desolate, windswept swamp.”

PERENNIAL PROBLEMS

Because of ad hoc decisions made by pioneers, some of Nairobi’s problems have become perennial.

During the colonial days, the number of workers who could be accommodated was restricted through a kipande system – and a notorious race segregation that marked the Asian, African and European areas.

Development of road networks, lighting, water and sewer systems in these areas also took a racial angle and that is the kind of City that Charles Rubia inherited in 1963.

With independence, Mr Rubia’s City Hall inherited the colonial bylaws that were in nature anti-African and anti-business.

While there were early attempts to revise these bylaws, the council over the years found itself stuck with rules that had been proposed in 1920s by the powerful Muthaiga Township Committee – which was governing what is today’s Muthaiga Estate – then an exclusive suburb of Nairobi’s European community.

POWER

This township committee, formed by residents, had powers to impose rates for street maintenance and advise the colonial governor on the rules that should be promulgated for the good order and government of the town (meaning Muthaiga area).

The collection of rates was strict – and since Nairobi had a population of 350,000 people in 1963 (the same as Thika town today), it was easier to manage the metro which had only a few estates.

But as the rural economy started to crumble as the proposed land settlement promise began to wither, the multitude of those who had taken advantage of independence to seek white-collar jobs thronged the city.

Infrastructure development in Nairobi had been based on income levels rather than density and this saw the mushrooming of slums as the poor and unemployed found solace in valleys such as Mukuru, Kibera and Mathare – where the city fathers hardly collected taxes.

Over the years, this has become the norm – and today, the slums hold 2.5 million people in about 200 settlements, a big challenge to Governor Mike Sonko who has inherited a dysfunctional city.

Kibera slum in Nairobi.

A photo of Kibera slum in Nairobi taken on October 9, 2016. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

MIGRATION

Nairobi has had an unprecedented rate of urbanisation that is linked to massive migratory movements of workers – despite a 1970 campaign of Turudi Mashambani.

While this natural growth is also a vital for the city, it has brought with it challenges in urban planning and thereby causing environmental problems with far-reaching effects.

While the low quality of housing and the general lack of basic infrastructure, especially sanitation, drainage, and access to energy and clean water supply, Nairobi needs a new fillip going forward.

SERVICES

At the moment only 220,000 households in the city are supplied with water and although Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company pumps 550,000 cubic litres a day to the city, officials say that 40 per cent of this is never accounted for and is either stolen or leaks to the ground – thanks to aged pipes and illegal connections.

The transport in the city has been a nightmare ever since the city fathers allowed the rise of matatus – once known as pirate taxis – into the city centre where they pushed out Kenya Bus Service, which had a transport monopoly.

It is some of these problems that have over the years accumulated to pose a challenge to the city administration as we mark the 53rd Jamhuri as a nation.

The Standard Gauge Railway passenger train.

The Standard Gauge Railway passenger train at the Miritini Bridge, Mombasa, in this photo taken on October 16, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

TOP CITIES

Despite these challenges, Nairobi is among the top 20 African cities in terms of economic activity, consumer size and connectivity.

With the building of a Standard Gauge Railway that now connects Nairobi and Mombasa, and as plans to connect it with other east African cities continue, chances are that the Nairobi of the future will be based on these connections.

Still, at the moment, it stands in the middle of the route towards Uganda and Rwanda.

Thus, it is a city with its own unique problems – and opportunities.