Making the city possible

Re-visiting Nairobi's urban history offers a glimpse into the forces that shaped modern life.

Photo by Paulstern Madegwa on Unsplash

In the early 1920s, the colonial administration of Nairobi municipality demolished a large number of “African villages,”—some of the few spaces providing residence for Africans in this urban node of the recently declared colony. The impetus was to make the city legible to empire—racially, spatially, ecologically, and economically.

One hundred years later, in May 2020, not too far from where Mji wa Mombasa, Kaburini, and Maskini villages were demolished a century earlier, 8,000 residents of Kariobangi and Ruai were evicted—their settlements deemed illegal—despite a court order halting such action. Both the Ruai and Kariobangi lands are to be used, supposedly, for water and sewage treatment plants for the “legal” city connected to these service grids. The evictions happened at the height of both a pandemic and the rainy season, and despite the fact that many residents had various forms of legitimate claims to this land.

In their recent book The City Makers of Nairobi, the urbanists Anders and Kristin Ese draw connections between such colonial and postcolonial incidences when they write: “in creating this image,” one of illegality and unwanted informality and people, “the city turns its back on its actual centre.” Through evictions, neglect, and historical narratives of degenerate “slum” life and people, the center of Nairobi, the former “native city” has historically been overlooked. As a consequence, the actual contributions of the majority of its residents—from vernacular forms of urbanism to Nairobi’s cultural, economic, and social life—is off staged. The authors argue, above all, that this “image” has been used, both on scholarly and public fronts, to uphold Nairobi as a colonial construct and its majority black residents as historically inconsequential peons in its reproduction. Rather, that the legacy of unjust and segregated planning has been disproportionately cited as having the largest imprint on the city, while the lives, work, and everyday practices of Africans who have lived here for generations has not been duly recognized as critical “city making.”

To make this argument, they dwell in a period of Nairobi’s history that is not well documented, 1899-1960, and bring together an exemplary mix of sources from the archives, oral histories, personal relationships, photos, maps, and other varied forms of documentation. Commendably, their concern is not just the spectacular; they paint portraits of mundane African “city making” in this period: from building mosques, local music festivities, neighborhood social functions and fights, alcohol brewing, Comorian migrants in the 1930s, and even trade union activism.

In drawing out the multiplicity of these urban processes, their narration revolves around four fluid axes: between conformity and nonconformity, between structure and agency, between disruption and continuity, and between acceptance and resistance. In bringing forth these orienting continuums, they highlight the varied positions that Africans embodied throughout Nairobi, that have rendered its particular forms, and, ultimately, assert black residents’ prominence as important to past and ongoing social and spatial environments in the city.

In a context where monographs on the histories of Nairobi are still rare, and especially those that focus on the early colonial period, The City Makers of Nairobi is an important complement to this limited archive. Much of the recent work on this complex city has taken a developmental lens, focusing less on the “city making” of its residents, and more on its service inadequacies, poverty, and crime. Although these themes are important to reflect on, particularly the larger structural violence they point to, they disregard the life force and struggles that keep people’s homes in place; the different ways in which the majority on the margins respond to the always looming socio-spatial erasure. Important academic exceptions to this are the interventions by Andrew Hake, Nici Nelson, Louise White, Chege Wa Githiora, Joyce Nyairo, Connie Smith, Naomi van Stapele, and others. This academic work is expanded by the more accessible and much loved brash and often irreverent cultural offerings of writers such as Meja Mwangi, of “Going Down River Road” fame, and the music offerings of youth from former native cities, such as the recent Genje style that can only come from the heartbeat of Kanairo City (Nairobi in Sheng).

At the same time, while their argument is valid, I feel that Ese and Ese have overstated it. Though I agree that the perpetuation of Nairobi as a “colonial construct” endures, this does not mean that this one sided legacy “implies that inhabitants had and still have no command over city making.” Highlighting and privileging the violent coloniality that shaped this city, and continues to shape it, as many do, does not mean that we do not recognize and live the reality that it did and does not have total power in the landscape. The city sentiences described within the works of the authors listed above—from housing to kinships to languages to activisms—certainly do not ignore the vitality of African lives, and their primary role in shaping this city’s varied horizons, even if they highlight the enduring hegemony of colonial constructs.

Kariobangi and Ruai evictees in 2020, as their predecessors, will continue to find ways to make home within or without the vicinity of their demolished houses. And the presence of the oppressive colonial surveillance practices and ordinances, past and present, implicitly and explicitly recognize/d this power: that African forms of life and urbanism could not be suffocated, that there was and would never be an African city without them, even if the director of Public Works, from 1900 to 1922, stated that his department did more for oxen than had been done for native housing.

While cautious of the overstatement of a one-sided legacy, I commend the critical task that Ese and Ese have given themselves; that of highlighting African life by detailing housing patterns, cultural lives, and everyday practices in ways intended to decenter the colonizer. Ultimately, the authors have managed to “encourage people to reflect on the fact that this is indeed their city, and has always been so;” a supportive endorsement of Nairobi’s primary city making communities who, from 1920 to the present, continue to find the post-colonial eviction bulldozer at their door.

Further Reading

Blind to the matatus

The future of Kenya’s matatus (commuter buses) and their inherent place in the capital Nairobi’s culture and society, is all but absent in the government’s neoliberal vision for urban planning.