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Nairobi is decaying, choking and mired in shopping malls

Monday July 4 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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I was 11 years old when I came to Nairobi, and the city fascinated me.

I had heard that it was a different kind of place, but what I saw then exceeded my expectations. 

I got to Nairobi after an arduous 12-hour bus journey by the Overseas Transport Company (OTC), covering over 350 kilometres through Rift Valley and the highlands.   

Waiyaki Way was a single lane then and its streetlights appeared to run past me in turn. 

Eastleigh, my final destination was a well-organised residential estate.  The streets were clean, with street names.  It was easy to find places because its addressing system was coordinated. 

My first lesson from my cousins there was not to relieve myself in public.  I was warned that city askaris would come from nowhere and say maliza twende (finish and let’s go to jail). 

Nairobi was clean and prided itself as the Green City in the Sun.

Having resided in Eastlands for most of my life in Nairobi, it still feels like home every time I drive through the estates. 

The more affluent areas of Nairobi like Karen, Lavington and Muthaiga were my tourist destinations, where I visited once in a while to attend church or travel to what we referred to as arcades or shopping centres. 

I was attracted to the beauty of their architectural designs.  The St. Austin’s Church at St. Mary’s School was baronial to me. It has powerful messages on the inside and outside, and it will be centuries before we make such a powerful statement in architecture again.

Karen Shopping Centre, though small, had some character.  Today it stands bewildered in a morass of urban architectural abuse.

VOTE-RICH AND POOR

After driving through many estates in the past week, here is the summary of my findings.  The green city in the sun is decaying.  There is no coordination or leadership that can give its residents some direction. 

Solid waste is choking every part of the city, and considering that city leaders and national government have not done enough to solve the problem of water scarcity, it is by God’s grace that there has not been a serious epidemic. 

The recent cholera outbreak is a portend of serious, new combinations of viruses to come. 

Some of the infrastructure in slum areas is in such a bad state that disaster is just waiting to happen.  Electric cables hang loosely over tin-roofed houses, while sewage flows in the open as children play nearby. Yet these are vote-rich areas. 

People seem to enjoy total freedom without knowing the benefits of our collective responsibility to safeguard the future. 

Nairobi is without rules or discipline.  Everybody seems to be making their own rules, and in the process, infringing on the freedoms of others.  You can build a carwash right on the highway and interfere with the flow of traffic without being taken to any court.

The leadership of Nairobi County needs to legislate orderly urbanisation if it doesn't come naturally. 

It is right to assume that as other counties do, the Nairobi government has taken benchmarking tours to exemplar cities around the world.

Let them implement at least three of the lessons learned: controlled development, waste management, and transportation.

Then there is the dirt, mountains of it, yet we don't need that much money to be clean. Surely we can tackle this menace, simply by placing it high on our agenda. 

In just a short period of time, all of Eastlands has become one huge mound of garbage.  Informal structures dot the entire region.

ROADSIDE RESTAURANTS

Perhaps the biggest monster the Nairobi County government needs to tame is the matatu menace. The aggression with which public transport is conducted in this city is not tenable. Nowhere else in the world is public transport handled with such recklessness.

I posit that we would reduce at least 50 per cent of Nairobi’s traffic jams if we forced matatus to follow the established Highway Code.   

We have often read of statistics that indicate that road accidents, which are avoidable, kill more people in Kenya each year than isolated acts of terrorism. 

The National Transport Safety Authority  (NTSA) needs to work closely with the Nairobi County government to stem the wanton recklessness that has become fashionable on our roads. 

Add the signature matatu cultural behaviour and you get not a city, but one giant slum. 

Indeed the “slummisation” of Nairobi seems to be a deliberate exercise.  Karen, which was once an affluent part of the city, has become an open effluent, with clogged drainage, pot-holed roads, and mushrooming eyesore construction. Open restaurants on the side of the road have also mushroomed here. 

The city's health authorities are oblivious to the dangers of unhygienic cooking places.  Matatus overlap, making driving here a nightmare. The new buildings coming up are so ugly that whoever approved their construction must have been high on something. 

Although new places like the Hub have come up, a tour of Karen gives a feeling that Nairobi has lost the plot.  Instead of developing, it is degenerating.

The arbitrary developments springing up in the city are a cause for great concern. How many shopping malls are economically feasible in a given area?

In the Lavington area which used to be known as Lavington Green, and now fast degenerating into a slum in hot pursuit of its Karen cousin, there are about five shopping malls within a radius of less than five kilometres.  For what?

A large proportion of the floor space in these malls is unoccupied.  Why are we building more and tying down resources that could be used for industrial development and the creation of more jobs?

RICH HISTORY

Someone at Nairobi County also needs to explain the rationale for approving hundreds of car bazaars in the city. What goes on there?  Is the car business really that lucrative?

Previously pristine, stately homes have been reduced to parking lots for fuel guzzlers. Who buys these cars? It's unbelievable the number of these establishments on Ngong Road and James Gichuru Road.

There is much treasure in some of the Eastlands estates where Kenya’s heroes once lived and organised the struggle for Kenya’s independence.

These rich historic parts of the city should be the basis of employment and preservation of the country’s cultural history.   In major cities worldwide, one can jump on an open bus and visit historical sites.

Hundreds of young people working on tourist buses can recite their past to visitors.  Leaving such critical sites to decay is one way of destroying the country’s history, while denying young people employment. 

Tourism is not just parks and beaches.  We must strive to use other products, like cultural tourism, to keep the city clean while at the same time providing much needed employment.

Whilst devolution is revamping cities in rural Kenya, Nairobi, which had a head start, is regressing. 

Perhaps the constitution should never have created Nairobi City County, simply because it is the seat of the National Government. 

As such the city, which represents the image of the entire country, should be run by professional managers.  There is no need for politicians to manage a critical resource like Nairobi. 

The first amendment to the Constitution should seek to address the management of cities, since devolution in other countries does have separate management systems for cities. 

In the absence of constitutional changes, there must be a mechanism to manage Kenya’s dysfunctional voting patterns, which, more often than not, put wrong faces in place to manage city affairs. 

VILLAGISATION OF A GLOBAL CITY

Citizens should not wait until political parties identify the candidates, but must exert pressure on all political parties to nominate credible candidates who can reverse the chaos that is Nairobi. In an ideal world, it is the followers who lead the leaders.

Such transformative leaders who could, in the next few months, break the city into manageable boroughs that must be run by professionals. 

No one but the city’s citizens will do what is required to make change. If we do not use our voice to ensure a cleaner city, we shall all be vulnerable to the diseases that emerge out of the filth now engulfing it.

The image of Nairobi is not only destroying the image of the country but that of individual Kenyans. 

It is now time for the Nairobi County government to, very objectively, consider its record in the new dispensation of devolution. 

It is the one county that had an 'unfair' head start because it is where all government attention was, and still is, concentrated. How then does the government explain the villagisation of an erstwhile global city?

An American artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, once said:

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.

Let us make Nairobi a rose that will become a world for the moment to everyone, by interrogating the men and women who aspire to lead it.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito