The hustlers of Nairobi

Why is Nairobi's government terrorizing hawkers and hustlers around the city? An anthropological perspective.

Downtown Nairobi. Image credit James Hammond via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

Why is Nairobi’s government “terrorizing” hustlers around the city? This question has been pondered by many development practitioners and scholars over time. In order to answer it, this piece explores the historical lens precedent set by anthropologist Wangui Kimari and positions the urban hustle as another form of the provisional urban world described by Prince Guma.

In “Harnessing the ‘hustle,'” a special issue of Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, hustling is conceived as a political-economic language of improvisation, struggle, and solidarity. This broad definition sends the message that hustling is a survival strategy. The definition also raises the question of why hustlers must improvise in the first place. Tatiana Thieme, Meghan Ference, and Naomi van Stapele in the same issue describe hustling as “a mood, an action, a positioning, and a condition,” which shows that to understand and define both the concept and term one must understand the history and context in which this happens. This is certainly needed when discussing the hustle in Nairobi’s central business area.

Demolitions of residential and business structures have been a common feature of Nairobi since the 1920s, when the colonial authority demolished “African villages,” a handful of them in order to make the city habitable for the empire that is racially, spatially, ecologically, and economically divided. In 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and in the middle of a rainy season, a number of government demolitions brought added suffering to the residents of Kariobangi and Ruai. The government always backs such actions by calling the structures “illegal”, a word we can easily substitute with informal. This argument helps the authorities to maintain the colonial construct of segregating many of the inhabitants from the “formal” activities of  the city. The informality claims reinforces what Prince Guma describes as “hegemonic narratives or modernist imaginaries of what a city should be or look like.” This consequently necessitates improvisation by the secluded inhabitants in a bid to not only survive but to be part of the city makers.

The hawkers around Nairobi’s central business area are among the peons that the city has long considered other than critical city makers. These traders are always in running battles with the authorities and the government has tried on many occasions to “formally” relocate the traders to locations on the outskirts of the city, locations that any entry-level business class would categorize as un-strategic. This kind of social spatial erasure is predicated on the colonial hegemony that the authority was founded on. Examples of previous battles with other hustlers are not difficult to cite, including the criminalization of the matatu—the informal transportation system in place until 1973 when the then president Jomo Kenyatta decriminalized it. The battles show what Kim Dovey and Ross King call “interstitial, where informal space rubs against the formal.” They echo the dynamic of improvised survival strategies that emerge and are vital for navigating provisional urban worlds systems that are imposed on the majority of poor, urban residents.

Nairobi’s particular contextits colonial legacy and seat as a bedrock of racial capitalismhas not prevented the very resilient hawkers from taking charge of their hustles, or their city. Hustling in Nairobi is born of urban marginalization and underinvestment in infrastructure, resources, and jobs. General observance and interactions with the hustlers confirm that they come from diverse groups and agesmost of them urban youth who are disproportionately excluded. One such trader is Kelvin, a resident of Mathare and a daytime student at the University of Nairobi. Kelvin spends evenings selling clothes in the central business district  to contribute to the family income. The merchandise he sells is ever-changing depending on availability of stock at Gikomba market, where he sources the goods. Kelvin’s daily routine is reflective of Nairobi’s provisional urban livelihoods. His hustle also shows what Guma and Jochen Monstadt describe as varied possibilities of cities’ endogenous innovation capabilities.

In closing, a better understanding of history and a true description of the marginalized Nairobi hustlers will help put an end to the one-sided “inclusion” narrative and bridge the chasm between a city of elitist dreaming and a real life on the streets.

Further Reading

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