Everything is a mess. And by everything, I mean Nairobi. And by a mess, I still mean Nairobi.
I grew up in the aughts, when E-Sir and K-Rupt were hailing the virtues of Nairobi and PiliPili was spicing the airwaves. When repping your hood was what’s good—“Twende tukawake; huko Nairobi West!” “South C’s finest.” “Na wasee tumetoka Githurai!” Remember those salad days? “Napita Mama Ngina nasikia… nipe shilingi!”
That was the time when being a Nairobian (coming from Nairobi didn’t necessarily equate to being Nairobian) was the stuff. But that kind of saccharine reflection has lost its lustre. Nothing lasts forever, and it’s obvious now—Nairobi is messy. It’s all over the place in an annoying way, like finding out your plane ticket is scheduled for 12 midnight tonight and not tomorrow night as you had thought.
Recently, M, a close buddy of mine gave up the Nairobi ghost and moved back to Kakamega, twisting the knife in my back. He, a 30-year-old man, got tired. (I’ll tell you how the knife got there: Last year, a colleague had wedged said knife in my back, moving to the coast and occasionally sending me pictures of himself in a dera—he says it’s a kanzu but it’s his word against mine).
But I get it. I really do. I too have flirted with the idea of moving out, seduced by the lofty callipygian hills of Nanyuki, the morning mist of Mt Kenya fluttering its eyelashes and catching my eye. And it’s not just because of Nairobi’s rent prices, which I’ll have you know are the highest in Africa—but this city is one busy blink-and-you-miss-it construction den. This is the epitome of a city as a construction site—a community slipping down a precipice towards urban demise.
The Maasai must be irked, having named Nairobi, “Enkare Nairobi” (meaning a place of cool waters, which Nairobi was apparently known for). Now Nairobi is all but a city of sharp elbows, of dealmakers who (allegedly? Likely?) file nil returns, of Sauvage Dior-smelling soothsayers—a different kind of cool—dotted with hotheads and an expansive skyline, its urban planning cracks filled with high-rise buildings that epitomise the phrase premium mediocre. Nairobi is chilling with the big boys.
This is the gift of Nairobi, but also its curse. It’s always undergoing makeup; ring lights, sound, camera, action! We’re constantly moving things here, moving things there, changing this, sky-lifting that. Always building something, somewhere, sometime, somehow. It feels like a country within a city.
When M left, followed by a distant cousin (who has now become even more distant, literally and metaphorically) in one of those tangled-branched family trees, I wished them both well as they departed what was to me—at one time—the greatest city in the world, simultaneously enamoured of their decision and incensed by it. Like so much else in modern life, the pathos of that departure was concealed by a seemingly robust exoskeleton of decorum.
Nairobi makes you listless—teetering between restlessness and recklessness, more often than not languishing in the valley, waiting for another peak. But where do you go? How far do you go? Location, location, location.
When my friends moved out, it made me think of where I stand with regards to my erstwhile beloved Nairobi. What am I still doing here? Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Lavington are no longer what they used to be. If you squint carefully, Kilimani is now just Pipeline in a Gucci belt. When you are not grappling with an acute water shortage, water bowsers offering ‘Clean Water Services’ snaking through the neighbourhoods like hungry ants, it is the fluctuating weather: Nairobi has been getting hotter. And then, we all know it’s raining, and so, flooding. Sometimes, nothing happens and yet it feels like everything has. It’s a restless city, it can break your heart, or back. Something has to give.
If you squint carefully, Kilimani is now just Pipeline in a Gucci belt.
And that is before we take a ride into the boda boda world, or as my editor likes to call it, the nduthiverse. And there’s still so much more to process. The expressway, the SGR, the matatus… But that would be pretentious, because I personally navigate this city using a nduthi. I am appalled by traffic jams, I possess the Biblical hair-trigger temper—let’s face it, who doesn’t?—and I am almost always late going anywhere. There is no hurry in Africa? Then why does it seem like we are always rushing somewhere?
(All this reminds me of an excerpt of ‘Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos’ by Igoni Barret. “And only after paying a heavy fine and settling the bill for mandatory driving lessons and a psychiatric evaluation, this last a precondition for allowing one back into the madness of Lagos Roads.”)
Nai Ni Ya Who?
I have a theory: Nairobi is only a place in which you live because you can’t leave. It also is the kind of place in which you stay until, suddenly, you don’t anymore. Nouveau riche or hoi polloi, the sybarites and the scavengers, the wananchi recognising the wenye-nchi. This is a city that bleeds with people who sell, who buy to sell, who sell themselves to later go out and buy, and people who sell themselves without being able to buy anything. This is Nairobi. This is my Nairobi. I believe that every Nairobian has their own version of Nairobi, inside and outside themselves: Is it you who is speaking to the city or is it the city of Nairobi, KaNairo, Nairoberry, that is flirting with you?
Nairobi flaunts its self-flagellation, and has a putrid, pungent smell. But it endures—once the green city in the sun, now a contractor’s wet dream. Neighbours refer to each other by their profession, title or quirks. Some are journalists, others are civil servants, most are hustlers. If you have nothing, or are nothing, then your peculiarity will define you: “Ule jamaa Kibogoyo?” “Ule Mkisii?” “Mama Caro mwenye halipangi deni?” Of course, all this can change, if you change where you live. Location, location, location.
This is a city that bleeds with people who sell, who buy to sell, who sell themselves to later go out and buy, and people who sell themselves without being able to buy anything.
Nothing divides opinion like Nairobi. To its official boosters, “If you make it in Nai, you can make it anywhere.” To detractors, it is a sunlit mortuary where “you can rot without feeling it”. And in so doing, Nairobi often plagiarises Lagos where, as Demi Ajayi writes in Finding Lagos A Jazz Tribute to an African City, dreams (may) take their time to fruition. And so the citizens of Lagos are best classified thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.
Enter the government
On 7 November 2013, then president Uhuru Kenyatta sought to fast-track the work of Morpheus, the god of dreams, by establishing Huduma Centres that aimed to improve services to citizens so that you could dream from any part of the country. For a long time, Nairobi was the nerve centre—anyone who needed anything had to know someone who knew someone who could do some things fast. The Huduma Kenya program took a multichannel approach, combining brick-and-mortar centres with digital service platforms to ensure that “citizens with differing levels of literacy and access to the Internet are reached while still keeping pace with the latest technological developments”. I know a pipe dream when I see one so despite applying for my driving licence at the GPO, I actually picked it up in Thika, just to game the system. Coincidentally, I went there (GPO not Thika) recently to take a brother, and for the last two or so months, the government has not lost any sleep in reminding me “the printer has broken down”. Of course, that could be code for anything: from the printer actually breaking down to someone somewhere needing his/her/their hands greased, and not by the national oil.
That’s another thing about Nairobi. You could get away with anything in this city if you knew what to say, and to whom, and perhaps crucially, how. Corruption suddenly seems more palatable when you call it “lobbying”. Prostitution? Sex work. Conman? No. How about businessman? If you are on the younger side, and people (or you) cannot explain your wealth, how about jumping on the Jesus bus and giving glory back to the Lord. How did you make all this wealth at 30 years old? “Ni God.” This is another way for Nairobi to exert itself, an appraisal of its moxie: success breeds largesse.
In his magical realism novel, Transparent City, Angolan writer Ondjaki (Ndalu de Almeida) deftly evokes the collusion of corrupt politicians and businessmen, the city’s ruling elite thus: “Whatever one of them understood about opening doors, the other knew about financial strategy, and if one of them immersed himself in national political intrigues, the other became a distinguished analyst of the nation’s economy.” He might as well have been referring to Nairobi’s who’s who, where everyone, it seems, is on the make, all trying to just live their lives, beat the system or grab a piece of the pie that is Nairobi.
This is the city of my father’s youth, and even the few remaining trees hold up their arms, yelling to God to save them but God is preoccupied with the president. And the deputy president. And the office of the spouse to the deputy president, and the office of the spouse to the president, and the office of the spouse to the Prime Cabinet Secretary. (If that doesn’t convince you that marriage works, nothing will.)
Nai iko restless, Nairobi has never settled
Everyone is worried about money in Nairobi. It’s our ugly personality trait, our anxiety buried deep under the second-hand Gikomba carpet. Some need it, some don’t need it, but everyone is worried. Experts are ignored, conmen are trusted, money is Jesus, corporations demand authenticity, the religious are, often, the most evil and the evil are, often, the most successful. Nairobi doesn’t have an anxiety disorder; it has a reality disorder. If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.
The Maasai may have named it “Enkare Nairobi” and taken the credit, but it is the colonialists who, with a clairvoyant touch, knew that this city was doomed from the start. (The Uganda Railway officials had not agreed on a name for the place as they were laying the railway. This was a site meant to serve as a depot before the engineers tackled the highlands and the Rift Valley—linking Mombasa and Uganda. It was simply called Mile 327—that is until an inscription on a signboard announced the place to be “Nyrobe”, borrowed from the Maasai, the name later metamorphizing to Nairobi.) A 1902 letter written by Sir James Hayes Sadler, the then Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, read in part: “Doctors are unanimous in condemning this site. They pointed out that it was a depression with a very thin layer of soil and the decomposition of animal matter was abnormally slow. It should be removed.”
Kenyan historian and journalist John Kamau posits: “The original city fathers wanted the place moved. Shortly after the swampy conditions induced a plague breakout in 1901, colonial medical officer Dr. W.H. MacDonald worried that the city was in the wrong place. In May 1903 Dr. Moffat, principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.”
Experts are ignored, conmen are trusted, money is Jesus, corporations demand authenticity, the religious are, often, the most evil and the evil are, often, the most successful.
By 1906, Nairobi had a population of 11,512. In 1969 Nairobi just had 500,000 people. The current metro area population of Nairobi is 5,325,000, a 4.02 per cent increase from 2022 which was 5,119,000, a 4 per cent increase from 2021. (The current population of Kenya is 55,100,586, a 1.99 per cent increase from 2022.)
Chosen for its centrality between Mombasa and Kampala, its network of rivers and its high altitude, Nairobi was the perfect place to house not only the British settlers, but also the thousands of Indian labourers brought to Kenya as cheap labour to work on the railway line. With such a flattering location, Nairobi grew big enough to become the railway’s headquarters. From then on, Nairobi, like a hooting train on a windy rail, has never taken a day off. Nairobi was stuck. Nairobi is stuck. Location, location, location.
Now, more than a century later—124 years if we are being pedantic—Nairobi is box on box, beside box. Once known as the green city in the sun, now Nairobi is one large mall with several smaller malls inside it, suffering from gigantism, constructionism and capitalism, a national inferiority complex, a monument to acute small penis envy. Nai is overcrowded, noisy and smells like a mass graveyard of stolen dreams.
Of course, Nairobi doesn’t entertain dreams. Nairobi is hurt people hurt people. Nairobi is that meme, emotional damage, a long con—nobody “wins” Nairobi. Remember that childhood game, “Simon Says”? Well, Simon says Nairobi provides the fire but you are the sacrifice.
Following job losses and the restlessness of living in cramped, tiny apartments during the lockdowns, some city dwellers packed up and moved to less crowded towns with spacious houses, greenery, and new opportunities. On Saturday 25 July 2020, my friends—and influencer couple—Ramzzy and Shiko Nguru announced that they had permanently moved from Nairobi to Kilifi. It’s cheaper too. Kilifi, my go-to town, charges me KSh10,000 for a one-bedroom. A decent studio apartment (née bedsitter) in Nairobi, with a window and (working) shower would demand I add KSh2,000 on top as well as a garbage fee, a security fee, a convenience fee… Nothing in this town is for free. According to the latest property listings in Meru, the rent for a spacious one-bedroom house in the Milimani area—the leafy suburbs—ranges between KSh8,000 and KSh10,000. An old flame of mine who lives in Nanyuki—and who I hope is not reading this—is paying KSh40,000 for a four-bedroom maisonette while I am paying half of that and then some for half her bedrooms. Which is making me reconsider… the rent, not the relationship. Location, location, location.
Once known as the green city in the sun, now Nairobi is one large mall with several smaller malls inside it.
Now I live in Nairobi as Nai also lives through me. From Ukoo Flani’s Dandora to Khaligraph Jones’s Kayole; Kalamashaka’s Eastlando to Camp Mulla’s NBO, Bamboo’s Buru Buru to Buruklyn’z Boyz Location 58, my Nairobi lives in music verses—Dynamq’s ‘Remember dem days in Nairobi, life was so nice you just had to see”; to Mayonde’s “Ain’t no city like my city Nai Nai Nairobi, mahustler na madame supu” to Bensoul’s Nairobi: “Naaaaiirobi, yule anakupea, pia anaipea, akikuletea, ananiletea, sote tunshare ogopa sana Nairobi.”—from a time when Nairobi was still in love with itself.
“Tulikam na dream ya kutoka kwa block
Yaani to get rich, tuomoke in short.”
The dream is to make it in Nairobi, where money buys nothing but comfortable suffering, then leave for another city. If you love something let it go—but would Nairobi even notice I am no longer around? Does it even care? Because everything has to have that subterfuge here. Nairobi’s lingua franca has become this tedious little code, which prevents anyone from ever saying exactly what they mean; for instance:
“Naenda hivi nacome.” “Tutafutane.” “Si ni me nakushow.”
This is the strange idiom of the city, like a liturgy with no service. Nairobi is a church without a God. And that’s really the great tragedy of this situation—that as Nairobi has become emptier and soulless, so have the people. But Prezzo had it right the first time. This is just how we do it. This is how we get down. I ain’t going nowhere. I am as much a part of the story of Nairobi as Nairobi is a part of my story. This is My City, My Town.
As I hailed a nduthi back home, I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful Nairobi day it is. Even the sun was gorgeous. All it lacked was a smile. In a way it was the perfect photograph for the human condition: we have been residents of Nairobi for many years, yet we are outsiders. So much so that the Treasury has formally proposed changes to the Employment Act, 2007 (in the Finance Act of 2018) to allow deductions of three per cent from employees’ basic pay to help fund President William Ruto’s ambitious plan to build low-cost homes. Both employers and employees will be required to each make a contribution of 1.5 per cent of the employee’s monthly basic salary to the fund provided that the combined contribution does not exceed KSh5,000 per month. Those not in formal employment or who are non-citizens may contribute a minimum of KSh200 per month. This is the ethos of a city (and government) that will trap you in a Chinese finger lock, so whether you move out or not remains inconsequential. This city will break you if you let it. Come in, make your money then leave. Get in, get it, get out. This is part of the city’s imprimatur. The wheel may be turning but the hamster is dead.