I may not have not travelled to many cities around the world, but, for sure I know how a clean city ought to look like.
I'm willing to bet Nairobi’s Central Business District away that the city today is not, even by the worst standards, anywhere near a clean town.
With the current rains which have been pounding sections of the country as well as the city centre and its environs, the city’s old colonial drainage system – which has never been replaced or improved or even cleaned up – has been severely exposed.
Pools of water that have clogged drains and manholes now collect on road junctions.
But the story of broken drains is an old story, just like the drainage system itself which goes back to the pre-independence days.
The pools of dirty water that can be seen in dirtier sections of downtown Nairobi are exacerbated by the broken cabro works and neglected walkways that have gone for years on end without being repaired.
Yet that is not, even possibly, the biggest threat to the cleanliness and sanity of Nairobi’s CBD: it is the burgeoning explosion of street vendors and hawkers.
If during the tenure of Evans Kidero– the first governor of Nairobi – street vendors and hawkers were the defining feature of the CBD, under Mike Mbuvi Sonko, the flamboyant and mercurial governor, the traders are threatening to overrun the city centre’s avenues and streets.
After the election of Sonko on a Jubilee ticket, street vendors and hawkers poured into the city centre with the fury of a people out to colonise, and possibly take over, the city’s streets.
HARDCORE WOMEN VENDORS
In one word, they have already turned a part of the city into a bazaar. Nowhere best captures this scenario better than the space outside the National Archives and Standard Chartered Bank on Moi Avenue.
Street vendors and hawkers alike have literally turned the space into a vegetable market of sorts. Come late afternoon, here you can buy the vegetables and green groceries of your choice: from arrow roots to cauliflowers to green peas and ripe bananas.
By evening, the space is fully occupied, so much so that unless you intend to buy any of the aforementioned stuff, it is advisable to keep off. There is no point in getting angry and dodging the mass of humanity and hardcore women vendors, who can easily hurl expletives at you at the slightest provocation.
The street vendors were emboldened by the governor himself, when he said they and the hawkers could spread their wares from 2:00 p.m. every day in the CBD and warned the City Inspectorate, the department charged with controlling street vendors in the city centre not to “harass his voters.” “These people also need to earn a living,” said the governor. No doubt.
The street vendors ululated and since then they have been so brazen that they leave piles of banana and Irish potato peels on the streets, to the chagrin of Nairobians.
PREDATING ON STREET VENDORS
There has never been any love lost between Sonko and the city askaris who answer directly to the Director of City Inspectorate.
When he was Nairobi Senator, Sonko took some of the city askaris – notorious for beating up and even maiming street vendors – to court. Some askaris were suspended from work and have a case in the High Court awaiting judgement.
To the city askaris, the greater “suspension” has been Governor Sonko’s edict cautioning them from “clamping down” on traders. This has had a dual effect on the askaris. On one hand they have been effectively declared “jobless,” but more significantly,they have lost an extra source of income.
Angry, and declared ineffectual, they have turned their fury on book and magazine vendors, whom they accuse of not observing the city’s bylaws. What irony.
Used to predating on street vendors by violently soliciting bribes from them, askaris can only now watch helplessly as street vendors dare and taunt them.
The traders have been boasting to anybody who cares to listen that they voted for governor Sonko and that is why they are now reaping the fruits, so much so that they now have the effrontery to spread their wares from 2:00 p.m. in front of an international banking concern.
When he was campaigning, Sonko told the hordes of street vendors and hawkers that if he became their governor, he would deal with the city askaris, who according to the traders, are the greatest obstacles to their earning a living in the CBD.
As one who uses the Moi Avenue Standard Chartered Bank’s ATM services, especially in the evening, I have in recent times been confronted by street vendors who are right up to the bank’s entrance.
Many are the times when I genuinely wonder whether the bank’s often solitary guard would come to help if something were to happen to me, .
The crux of the matter is that street vendors and hawkers, whether they are someone’s voter bloc or not, cannot be allowed to run amok in the city. Neither should they be mistreated nor violently removed from the city centre. A permanent solution must be found – and found quickly.
When Governor Sonko says “these people also need to earn a living” he is very right. Yet, the problems of Nairobi city, like the street vendors’ conundrum for example, will not be solved by populist antics and politics.
Dauti Kahura is a senior writer for 'The Elephant', a Nairobi-based publication. Twitter: @KahuraDauti