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New book reveals the many separate facets of Nairobi that rarely intersect

Sunday April 24 2011


One of the long-standing debates within Kenya’s literary community is whether foreigners have the “right” to write about this country and whether they have the knowledge and insight to analyse and describe events that unfold here.

Some argue that only a Kenyan is qualified to write about Kenya because when foreigners do, they distort or misinterpret events.

I have never really subscribed to this theory, simply because I think writers should be able to write about anything they choose.

Moreover, I think it often takes an outsider to decipher what is going on in a place, as the local “insiders” may be too emotionally and physically involved to notice the absurd, beautiful or obvious things about a place.

That is why I was so delighted to read the anthology, Nairobi Today, published by Mkuki wa Nyota Publishers in Dar es Salaam in association with the French Institute for Research in Africa (Ifra).

This anthology brings together a range of largely French-speaking researchers, anthropologists, political scientists, lecturers and historians who try to dissect the urban dynamics of Kenya’s capital city.


Most of the authors view the city through the lens of British colonialism and the apartheid model upon which the city’s foundations were built.

I am a Nairobi-born native, who has had a love-hate relationship with the city all my life. But I couldn’t understand where these mixed feelings came from until I read the wonderfully lucid and descriptive essay titled “Grey Nairobi: Sketches of Urban Socialites” by anthropologist Danielle de Lame, a researcher at the Museum of Central Africa in Belgium.

De Lame starts her sketch of Nairobi in Karen, a former “whites only” suburb (that is now being penetrated by Nairobi’s black nouveau riche), which she says is not so much a place than “a way of life” captured vividly by Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.

She then winds her way through the shantytowns of Kibera and Mathare, the lively beer halls of Nairobi West where bar patrons “mix rural and cosmopolitan values”, and then onto the distinctly Somali flavours of Eastlands, where khat is a staple diet, the largely Asian neighbourhoods of Parklands and Westlands, and finally to the leafy and up-market Muthaiga, home to the super rich.

Unlike most cities, she says, Nairobi has many identities formed purely on the basis of where one lives and works. So Nairobi is different things to different people. “Each person can concoct and gulp down the cocktail of his own wanderings — a personal Nairobi.”

The different Nairobis rarely meet, except at places of work, as when “servants go from well-equipped kitchens to their muddy slum-homes,” a legacy of Nairobi’s historical roots as an apartheid city, where each race lived in separate, unequal neighbourhoods.

The general insecurity in the city, she says, is the heritage of this segregationist approach.

And because an urban culture cannot thrive in an environment of segregation and domination, Nairobi has failed to be a city with one distinct urban culture because its urbanism is maintained through social and economic inequalities.

Michel Adam, also an anthropologist, views Nairobi through the prism of what he refers to as “Indo-Kenyans”, perhaps the only truly urban ethnic group in Kenya whose presence in Nairobi was felt from the first years of its foundation.

He estimates that there are approximately 65,000 Indo-Kenyans living in Nairobi out of a total population of some 120,000. (I don’t know whether these figures tally with those of the Kenya Bureau of Statistics).

Adam dissects the Asian community in Nairobi by religion, caste, and even profession, providing perhaps the first-ever breakdown of the industries dominated by Asians in Kenya, and the various banks they owned.

In addition, he describes the role of the newer migrants from India and Pakistan (nicknamed “rockets” by the older immigrants) in Nairobi’s economy.

Another group that has a long history in Nairobi is women escaping poverty and discrimination in rural areas.

John Londsdale talks of the women (many of whom earned a living through prostitution) concentrated in Pumwani and Pangani in the 1930s for whom the city offered not just freedom but power. Such unique insights are what make Nairobi Today a must-read for anyone interested in the dynamics of this city.