Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The City of No One

Nairobi skyline

No city can probably match the possibilities provided to private security companies offered by Nairobi. It’s crowded, chaotic and very informal in all possible senses.

Although the city is often mentioned as a symbol of colonial city planning, it feels as if Nairobi wasn't basically designed at all. No settlement worth mentioning existed at the site until 1898, when a British engineer building the railway line from Mombasa towards the great lakes decided to camp in the middle of nowhere, in what happened to be the last flat spot, to take time to plan the way ahead down to the Rift Valley.  So the city can’t be accused of being all that ‘African’ and therefore less than perfect. It was designed and built from scratch by Europeans. And it was never planned to become the metropolis it did. It was meant to be a small, possibly temporary base for railway building across the wilderness. Still, in little more than a century, it has grown to a stereotypical Third World City with all the accompanying problems and three million inhabitants.

The fact that Nairobi has grown way too big compared to how it is designed (as have so many other cities around the world) means that there’s simply too much people around with no housing or a formal, regular income. This, as was known as early as by the ancient Romans (really love to say that!), causes problems, especially when we’re talking about a young population. They get along best as they see. At best, this means an oversupply of all possible services, legal and illegal, formal and informal, needed and not needed. You wont find yourself desperately looking for a taxi, you will be ripped to pieces (a friend calls them Vultures) by the ones keeping watch on the street once you step out from your hotel. Almost the same applies to anything you might ever want to buy. Where is the Maasai Market? No worries, you’re already dragged in that direction.

At worst, this means lots of crime. You cannot avoid being constantly reminded to mind yourself. There are guards and metal detectors at the entrance of every mall and hotel in the favor of tourists, and I've understood this was the case even before the events of last month. Personally, I've had zero experience of crime during two brief stays in the city, so common sense should get one through, but the atmosphere speaks for itself.

The sense of trouble and a quick pulse is boosted by the architecture that is a disconnected blend of western skyscrapers and concrete giants that look like they've been both drawn and built in great hurry to serve the growing city. Everything is so dense that you can’t really get a good look at the city from within or describe it in any useful way.

Guesthouse in Posh Nairobi

The threat of crime is not very surprising since one could say that there’s a demand for it. The main entrance roads outside the city, far away from the noise and dirt of the CBD, are lined with posh, high-end residential areas, classical gated communities where outsiders have no business to enter for. The newer ones look like the setting of the TV series Weeds and in the older ones, built during colonial times, you will not know if you’re in Kenya or Kent. This highlights the fact that Nairobi, while located in a very poor country, has a very high density of very rich people. And everyone understands what such contrasts among a dense population bring about.
Kibera, viewed cowardly from the outside

Then there are places like Kibera. Many foreigners (or other residents of Nairobi, for that matter), me included, seldom consider going there. It has a reputation on par with the favelas of Rio de Janeiro when it comes to violence, criminality and misery. What makes Kibera worth mentioning is not its bad conditions as such, but that it is said to embody the great underlying problem of Nairobi. Since it was bred by Europeans, it is not seen as the home of any single one of Kenya’s many ethnic groups. Blend in also considerable groups of European and Indian ethnicity. All are immigrants and no single group has deep roots in the city or the surrounding area. If Kumasi is the city of the Ashanti, and posh Cape Town a city of the white, Nairobi is the city of no one. Given a history, both distant and recent, of conflicts between these groups, this means that social cohesion, networks and capital, on which many African communities strongly rely on, are extremely weak. So even forms of informal social security are very hard to find.

Still, Nairobi is definitely worth a visit but maybe not a longer stay.

PS. Apparently the government is doing something in Kibera: There is a housing project in Kibera, building proper housing in large concrete buildings for the residents of shacks to move into. The new problem is apparently that once residents of the area are awarded (don’t ask how they’re chosen…) one of these ‘better homes’, they sometimes don’t move in themselves but instead rent the flat out for great revenue. Informally, of course. Again, scramble for scarce resources.

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