Time Portrait of Nairobi’s Eastleigh: From Home of the Nouveau Riche, to Bustling Satellite Town Battling a Reputation of Crime
Last updated on February 8th, 2018 at 05:25 pm
Contemporary conjecture on the piracy-industrial-complex implores that taking a drive through Nairobi’s Eastleigh would be of great benefit. We explore why
Eastleigh is a neighborhood east of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. As it follows, like in most other cities in the world, the east end of Nairobi is home to the working masses of the city.
As a rule therefore, this part of the city is less leafier and predictably, the inhabitants of these parts happen to have just enough green: Just enough money to get by.
Nairobi urban talk is that if you happen to reside somewhere to the east of the city, then you are a city dweller rather than a city resident.
Beyond the obvious comparisons of socioeconomic status, Eastleigh is special. This is because unlike other Nairobi suburbs like Githurai or Kibera Namba Nane, Eastleigh is one of those rare places that can’t even inspire a rap song.
So gangster a neighborhood it is that the unwritten rule: ‘ What happens here stays here’ applies to Eastleigh in a way that even mainstream Kenyan Hip Hop artists dare not rap about.
The necks of the hood in this end of East Africa’s version of New York is home to the city rats and vermin (human and otherwise) . Eastleigh’s nooks and crannies nurse what is arguably east Africa’s foremost black market economy. Here, if you happen to know somebody who knows somebody, parting with a few shillings gets you the whole shebang depending on your needs of course.
But it has not always been this way. Barely half a century ago, Eastleigh had a different charm.
Post Independence Eastleigh: Home To Nairobi’s Nouveau Riche
The 21st century plastic bag littered, hawker and shoppers filled chaotic eight streets that make up the heart of Eastleigh only serves to tell of a today quite detached from a glorious past.
Engage any body my father’s age and they will with nostalgia, regale the second, third and fourth looks of envy that came by whenever they met up a former village mate for a drink and in the usual tête-à-tête, the village mate reveals his new home address as: plot no xyz 3rd Street Eastleigh.
Envy? Well, that was post independence Eastleigh whose streets were tamarack paved, streetlights lined and garbage free. All that, barely 5 minutes drive from Nairobi’s central business district. What’s more? Eastleigh was one of the few neighborhoods that enjoyed scheduled city bus services.
In the 1960’s Eastleigh was home to the educated few indigenous Africans and Asians earning a living as government clerks and dukawallas in downtown Nairobi.
Where it all begun: Pre- independence Kenya Eastleigh
Notwithstanding, in pre-independence Kenya, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Eastleigh was home to the country’s foremost airport- The now Moi Air base Eastleigh- that was home to The Royal Air Force.
Even the queen would land there in here visits to the colony. By all means, the governor must have pulled all stops to put their best foot forward not to irk the queen with an upsetting frontage to the colony.
Little wonder then the inspiration behind the naming was this town in England shown in the picture above. With the then still clean Mathare river – a tributary of the Nairobi river – ebbing by in close proximity, you kind of get the ambition city planners had with Nairobi’s Eastleigh.
1990’s Eastleigh: The Garrisa Lodge Era
In keeping with our roots there, my family still attended church in Eastleigh sometime in the last decade of the 20th to around the turn of the Century. After church we would window shop in Garrisa lodge and ogle at counterfeit Calvin Klein, Fubu and Nike’s.
The fact that by the 1990’s , my middle class family had been forced to move tells us that Eastleigh was no longer the family friendly neighborhood of my father’s time.
Garbage blocked street drains resulting in sewage water filling the streets was the norm. So gangster now that even my pedigree as born and bred in East of Nairobi city didn’t make do in Eastleigh’s neck of the woods.
The roads leading to and within Eastleigh were in the worst shape in Nairobi: gaping craters filled with sewage water. So much so that try as they did, Eastleigh’s matatus couldn’t hold a candle to their peers. This was despite the heavier investment by the Somali community keen to have a pie of Nairobi’s booming transport sector. As it were, the potholed Juja road simply pulled them apart.
The 1990’s Eastleigh, was a small Somali in many regards. The infusion of Somali culture into a corner of Nairobi was palpable. This happened as hitherto unheard of culinary delights like butcheries selling camel meat and milk mushroomed.
Growing up then, being kids we couldn’t understand the tensions between the adults. For us the cultural melting pot that was Eastleigh made it possible for us to enjoy sun-dried dates and other delights for the first time in our lives during Idd.
With our Somali friends as guides, we would save up to take a round trips in Eastleigh matatus listening to loud music and return the favor in our home route matatus. Our sisters sneaked from the watchful eyes of the parents to have Mehndi drawn by henna on the easily concealable deltoid region. While the older kids experimented with Khat.
Heck! Sadly so, even the chaos on Eastleigh streets best reflected the news reports we heard about the dire situation Somalia. Thanks to the abetting conflict, it’s believed that the 1990’s marked the period when a majority immigrants from Somali integrated into Nairobi via both legal and dubious means.
Eastleigh : A Microcosm of Nairobi’s Decay From The Green City In The Sun
Moreover, the decay of Eastleigh from the 90’s ownwards presents a case study of similar happenings to pristine neighborhoods in immediate post colonial Nairobi.
A fate that also befell the likes of neighboring Kariokor, Umoja and Ngara estates. In our eyes, the trigger event for this decay was the exponential swelling of Nairobi’s population over the 90’s.
This population event had many contributing factors. History informs us that the Black Swan event must have been the increase in rural to urban migration. People were being pushed (and pulled into the cities) from the villages by changes brought about by far-reaching macro economic breakdown.
Moreover, Kenya’s economy was already in dire state following years of mismanagement and corruption (Read: Goldenberg ). The Brenton Woods backed ,Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), in the early 90’s which reduced government spending in order to liberalize the economy were just the final nail on the coffin.
Cumulatively over the years, these socio-economic changes have altered Nairobi’s portrait for good. The situation in Eastleigh is merely pathognomic of Nairobbery.
To understand what we mean by Nairobbery, we have to unpack 21st Century Eastleigh. For us to have any success, we have to attempt to answer Nairobi’s Eastleigh piracy question.
Somali Pirates and Eastleigh: In Search of The Truth
I doubt if British political writer Johann Hari has had a taste of the Eastleigh experience that mirrors Mandera’s existence enumerated above. Nonetheless, the openly social democrat whose works are syndicated in the Guardian and the Huffington post, holds strong views that can explain Nairobi’s Eastleigh in a wider piracy- industrial complex.
Before you dismiss Hari’s views as just Muzungu talk, we offer that Hari is a guy with credentials. In 2007, Amnesty International feted him for his account of the Congo war. Besides, he is the youngest recipient of Britain’s highest writing award in political writing: The George Orwell award.
Given such credentials, we sit up when he explains the piracy problem off the Gulf of Aden in one word: Enterprise.
Is Piracy is a Vocation or a Vice?
Johann Hari’s argues in his Huffington Post article ‘You are being lied to about Pirates’, that the concept of pirates and piracy is a hoax. The British government concocted this lie in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in order to protect the status quo.
The British government purposely spread propaganda so as to suppress free thought. This had manifest as rebel seamen who had then revolted against the oppressive labor practices at sea (then the norm). The seamen were advocating and practicing a humane and democratic order.
Johann Hari cites work from a historian Marcus Rediker’s ‘Villains of all nations’ to support his arguments.
Leaning on Rediker’s scholarship accumen, Hari portrays pirates as an oppressed people. Pirates act out of circumstances that are none of their own making. In doing so, in lieu of fighting a larger unjust force, pirates may opt for unorthodox means to fight for justice.
Hari disputes the commonly held view that pirates are nothing but savage thieves. He goes on to contextualize 21st century piracy off the Gulf of Aden in this world view.
Hari describes the actions of Somali pirates as the working of a rag-tag coast guard. This coast guard acts to protect Somalia’s coast by levying a fee similar to a tax. This is largely in the form of ransom money.
All things are connected: Evil begets evil
This tax is to compensate for a situation born of the longstanding war that has ravaged Somalia since the early 1990’s. Moreover, the selfish acts of rich, irresponsible Western nations taking advantage of this turmoil are to blame.
Furthermore, these Western nations use Somalia’s coast as dumping ground for toxic nuclear wastes.Worse still, western nations owned sophisticated trawlers over-fish Somali waters depleting them of an important source of food.
Hari’s account of the washing up of barrels of toxic wastes after the 2005 tsunami is shocking. It is reported that this resulted in deaths and sickness. There is no telling the long-term residual effects.
Although it’s easy to dismiss Hari’s article as well written conspiracy theory, it brings highlights human rights issues worth exploring. Walking through 21st century Eastleigh, the paradox is clear. Here, in the midst of unfathomable chaos and dirt, clean money is being made.
How does this all then connect with Eastleigh?
Welcome To 21st Century Eastleigh: Nairobi’s Booming Satellite Town
Counterfeit goods, Eastleigh’s version of dreaded Nairobi traffic jams the epic 1st avenue gridlock, dreadful sanitation and foci of diseases of low status is one half of the story of Eastleigh of today. The other half of Eastleigh’s story is told by the huge clouds of dust generated as old residential houses done in Indian architecture are torn down to clear way for symbols of 21st century consumerism.
There are the shiny, glass clad mega shopping malls stocked with apparel, electronic goods and whole range of household goods. The number of four plus stored three star hotels fraternized by members of parliament from Somalia keeps rising. At the street corners there are sparkling banking halls peddling all sorts of Islamic financial products.
Given this transformation from suburbia to satellite town, around Nairobi, it is joked that the Somali capital, Mogadishu, relocated to Eastleigh. Construction is booming and land prices have sky rocketed as enterprising Somali business outbid locals. But there are questions on where all this big money is coming from.
Shopping In Nairobi’s Eastleigh: The Experience as I Remember It
I tell you, the enterprise of the Somali people is undoubted. These are astute businessmen and women they who wouldn’t let a customer leave their shops without striking a deal.
My shopping experience in Eastleigh is unlike any other in Nairobi. First, customer satisfaction is guaranteed as your hard-earned money gets its value in Eastleigh.
***The keyword is value. Also note that value is a subjective notion***
All this is in spite of an obvious language barrier. An experience which for any student of business strategy, will test their knowledge of accepted notions of effective business communication.
However, in spite of these obvious in- your- face-honest Entrepreneurial skills, the Eastleigh enterprise continues to raise questions. Next time you are in Nairobi, try to listen in on the whispers in the streets, corridors of power and editorial rooms.
The Fight For Eastleigh
Recent street battles between hawkers (largely bantu locals) and shop owners (largely Somalis) convince us of the value of Eastleigh to Nairobi’s economy.
The latest battle for Eastleigh confirmed politics hand in trader woes as Nairobi governor aspirants, Mike Sonko, took on Governor Evans Kidero. In what has come to be the narrative of this battle, shop owners engaged in running battles with hawkers.
Mike Sonko appeared to advocate for the hawkers economic rights. While Governor Kidero agreed with shop owners that hawkers who display products on their shop fronts denying them business in a manner akin to a DoSS.
The fact that concerted international efforts have seen a dramatic decline on piracy incidents off the Gulf of Eden serves this narrative. However, other subtle hints remind us of Eastleigh’s 1990’s reputation as anything goes kind of place. Such as the recent media reports of voter registration material in the hands of non state agents.