The conversation about the place of Nairobi as a city with a futuristic ambition was brought back to the fore on Monday when thousands of its non-driving residents walked to work — or walked to look for work — thanks to the city governor’s decree against the entry of public transport vehicles into the central business district. Under a month earlier, the city was reeling from near similar effects, precipitated by the hurriedly reintroduced Michuki Rules.
In both instances, the first one instigated by the national government — which is supposed to work with the city administration in making Nairobi habitable and functional — and the second, prompted by the Nairobi County government — which is supposed to have its fingers on the pulse of the citizenry — the one demographic which bore the highest brunt was that of the not so well-to-do Nairobians, who depend on the relatively cheap if chaotic public transport.
The question one might want to ask is why are some of these policies anti-Wanjiku when, in fact, in an ideal situation, government should work to create suitable socio-economic conditions to cushion the not so well endowed members of society.
For car owners in Nairobi, or those who can afford to use taxis to get from one point to another, the reintroduction of Michuki Rules or the Sonko Decree were merely news items that might not have meant much, since both interventions didn’t necessarily interfere with their daily routines to a point of creating personal inconveniences. Yet for those fully dependent on public transport, the scenarios were nightmarish, due to a lack of alternatives.
This begs the question, how much thought is given about the plight of the everyday Kenyan by policymakers when designing programmes, and do policy architects really care about the weakest links in society, especially those of meagre means? Luckily, there are always lessons to be learnt from elsewhere.
In 2013, Nigerian architect and urban researcher Kunle Adeyemi became a sensation in the architectural world thanks to a structure he designed and built in Makoko, a floating Lagos slum. As one enters Lagos from its Murtala Muhammed International Airport, one is most likely to ride on Africa’s one-time longest bridge, the Third Mainland Bridge, which is one of three bridges connecting Lagos Island, Nigeria’s commercial capital, to its mainland.
As one rides on the bridge, the one thing that’s quickly noticeable is Makoko, a humungous informal settlement built on water, credited with being the lead fish supplier for Lagos. To some, Makoko was an eyesore which needed to be got rid of — going by the number of evictions done there and in other waterfront settlements. But to Adeyemi, Makoko was an appropriate opportunity to show Africa and the world that the realisation of sustainable, human friendly futuristic cities is achievable, and that it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Borrowing the design premise used by the locals — of using plastic jerrycans to form the floating base upon which wooden structures are erected — Adeyemi, in collaboration with the Lagos State government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others, designed and built the Makoko Floating School, a highly functional and aesthetically alluring multipurpose three-storey wooden structure, which served as a school, playground and community centre, fitting right into and enriching the Makoko ecosystem.
Before then, Makoko had a single rickety school, which was prone to flooding. For as long as it lasted, the triangular structure was the crown on Makoko’s cap, contributing to residents’ sense of dignity and affirming that given more thought, waterfront communities in Africa and elsewhere are an integral part of cities of the future, sustainably built using locally available materials and techniques.
Like most non-permanent waterfront structures, the building was eventually brought down by wear and tear, and today, Adeyemi continues showcasing improved versions of the Makoko Floating School — now simply referred as MFS — making the case for the need for such dynamic models which can indeed transform a community’s way of life.
The point Adeyemi has been making for a long time is that cities of the future must embrace innovation and collaboration as their most basic survival instincts. Development might not necessarily mean concrete jungles but will instead be looked at through the humanistic prism of making life richer for city inhabitants, prevailing socio-economic inequality notwithstanding.
In thinking about the future of Nairobi, both the county and national governments must seriously think about the human element, because what is a beautiful city without its inhabitants feeling like they belong?