What does Kenya represent

Overlapping borders
Postcolonial Nairobi on the move

Matatu in Nairobi, symbol of informal Nairobi | Photo: © Olli Pitkänen

Nairobi represents both continuities with and breaks from colonialism. Since Nairobi has a complex density from a spatial perspective, it is important to keep this aspect in mind. As with most cities in post-colonial Africa, it is not easy to think about or even write about this point without risking oversimplification. Nairobi is not a homogeneous place that functions according to clearly visible rules; the logic can also be contradicting itself. Since there are so many different places in Nairobi, it makes no sense to say you are from Nairobi without making it clear which part of the city you are from.

An interesting, if strange, feature of Nairobi is that the city often functions in spite of planning, not because of it. Here are two good examples: Nairobi's traffic jams and the often poorly built buildings that occasionally collapse - best memories are Nyamakima in the middle of the city or a recent case in Eastlands - clearly show that the logic of planning in this city is very limited . Even if we know that unregulated building can be traced back to corruption in the building authorities, one is tempted to read the resistance against order as an expression of the dissatisfaction of the people in post-colonial Nairobi with the colonial legacies of the city, as a wish that Doing things their own way.

The other Nairobi

One could even go so far as to say that the city center of Nairobi is the "other" Nairobi, a strange deviation from the norm and does not really represent what Nairobi is all about. It makes the most sense to compare the city center with the satellite cities that people embrace and that are not subject to the restrictions of the city center. There is not one place to which the name Nairobi can be ascribed. Instead, there are many places with this name, which are due to the great diversity of socio-cultural, economic and political experiences of their residents in these diverse spaces. It is diversity, not uniformity, that defines these post-colonial places.
While residential areas were cordoned off by physical barriers in colonial times, Bahati in Eastlands, where the Gikuyu had to live, was fenced in with barbed wire, the separation - unspoken but still real - in today's Nairobi is a class characteristic that not only determines how people feel to architecture, but to space in general. Just as there was barbed wire for exclusion in Bahati in the 1940s, parts of the upscale Karen neighborhood still have physical boundaries and you have to pay an unofficial fee to the security guards there, even though the streets are public. Karen used to be a white-only place where Africans weren't allowed to buy land.
Formal Nairobi, where architecture and business are governed by strict rules, must always hold its own against informal Nairobi, where small traders, minibuses, porters, street boys and garbage collectors earn their living on Kirinyaga Road. In fact, it is the tension between the two spheres that breathes life into the city. The informal world is constantly looking to overcome barriers, while the formal world struggles to maintain its space. The fact that the informal small traders sell their various goods, from clothing to food, directly on the steps of the office buildings shows very clearly how the two worlds struggle for their territories on a daily basis.

Aura of a colonial city

For example, those who work on the UN premises in Nairobi and live near it follow a completely different logic of life than those who work in Gikomba, the huge open-air market for second-hand clothing, or in Kaburi, a workshop below operate in the open air. Since rules are followed and a lot of foreigners live there, this part of the city feels rather alienated from Nairobi. This place is incredibly quiet. With its huge fortress right across from the UN, the US embassy has been quite successful in reinforcing the feeling that this part of Nairobi is cut off. It smells like extremely strict order enforced by armed guards. The area has an aura of the colonial city. Indeed, this part of Nairobi has been given the well-deserved nickname - The West.
Gikomba and Kaburi in Kariokor, which is a derivative of 'Carrier Corps', a group of porters in World War I, on the other hand symbolize the epitome of an unrestrained lifestyle, where people loudly advertise their services, negotiate prices and fees and the mechanics' wrenches clink as you tighten loose nuts and bolts. Business is done on the bare ground here, which shows how horizontal business relationships work for people, but for which town hall planners never make plans. The logic of urban planning is determined by a vertical understanding of space, as demonstrated by skyscrapers like the glittering, energy-efficient, postmodern wonders that are being built across Upper Hill.

Architecture intensifies class differences

Today, the organized built environment is clearly finding some advocates in Nairobi. Nothing shows this more clearly than the modernist shopping centers in the city: the (earlier)Westgate, the Sarit Center, The Mall, The junction, Galleria, Yaya Centerand the Thika Road Mall, to name just a few. They all operate on the principle of “everything under one roof.” However, these shopping malls have increased the division of classes in Kenyan society. They are a clear display of how the rich lead their pompous life and have become extensions of those exclusive places that colonialism introduced; a kind of member-only club. Only this time rich African women are allowed to play. The American professor Philip Armstrong noticed the irony of this spatial concept on his first visit to Kenya. He put it to the author of this article: “These new malls and the neat streets that lead to them make me feel like I might be in America somewhere. There is a completely different world just a few meters away, with a rhythm of life that is completely alien to me. "
Whatever the colonial administration was doing with Nairobi, it didn't quite work out. According to the 1948 Master Plan for Nairobi, the city should become a contingent of ethnic and racialized enclaves: the Sikh should remain in Eastleigh, the Gikuyu in Bahati, the Luo in Mbotela, the Luhya in Ziwani, the Hindu and the Jews in Parklands. The inner city was reserved for the Europeans. It was assumed that the concept of order would shape the drained swamp in such a way that the English values ​​would be permanently copied and perpetuated. That would be the real Nairobi: an inner city characterized by order, cleanliness, predictability and well-tended, spacious boulevards. One only has to stand at the east or west end of Kenyatta Avenue to appreciate this aspect. I recommend the route between Kipande House and the Stanley Hotel on the corner of Kimathi Street.

Nairobi - Green City in the Sun?

Africans have always tried to break these ethnicized and racialized borders drawn by the colonial authorities, be it through illegal entry into the inner city or by moving to forbidden urban areas. The fact that there are slums in Nairobi today is a sign that those who do not want the formal city continue to find their way and claim their belonging to the city. While their huts offer a stark contrast to the skyscrapers beloved by city planners, the lack of basic services like water, electricity, and garbage collection is a clear indication that the city is not including this enormous number of residents in its planning. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the irony and creeping perpetuation of some of the concepts of colonialism that aimed to create a “green city in the sun” but got quite a different result.


Dr. Mbugua wa Mungai is a lecturer and director of the literature department at Kenyatta University. He has published several book chapters and academic articles on the cultural significance of forms of material culture.

Translation: Anja Bengelstorff from English into German
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Kenya
June 2015

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