Wooing a City: Nairobi Origins

The foreigner introduced a completely different concept – the concept of land as a marketable commodity. According to this system, a person could claim a piece of land as his own private property whether he intended to use it or not. I could take a few square miles of land, call them ‘mine’, and then go off to the moon. All I had to do to gain a living from ‘my’ land was to charge a rent to the people who wanted to use it. If this piece of land was in an urban area, I had no need to develop it at all; I could leave it to the fools who were prepared to develop all the other pieces of land surrounding ‘my’ piece, and in doing so automatically to raise the market value of mine. Then I could come down from the moon and demand that these fools pay me through their noses for the high value of ‘my’ land – a value which they themselves had created for me while I was enjoying myself on the moon! Such a system is not only foreign to us, it is completely wrong. Landlords, in a society which recognizes individual ownership of land, can be, and usually are, in the same class as the loiterers I was talking about: the class of parasites.
Ujamaa – The Basis of African Socialism by Julius K. Nyerere
On Thursday April 16 2016, ‏@Ma3Route tweeted an old surreal picture of an organized Nairobi, two skyscrapers in a candid blue skyline complete with sheep – like clouds bleating calm. There are green and white, loaf-of-bread-like public transport buses at a seemingly organized stage. There also are wide roads and no hawkers, something unimaginable for any resident in Nairobi today.  The tweet was accompanied by a nostalgic Throw Back Thursday hash tag #TBT Nairobi, before it became Nairobbery.
When I came to this City in April 2013, I decided that I was from Busia. I was here to make do and leave when I had gathered some property and a woman I had come to this city to pursue. I could not feel a part of the wreckage and I did not understand its genesis. To me, an observer, it was a plague of misery and you could see it in the columns of people rushing everywhere to do insignificant, valueless jobs. There was anxiety everywhere; angry touts, angry porters fixated on expressing themselves, violently shoving crackling metal trolleys even on the lame, who remain in front of shops, blocking the traffic of men as they begged the damp streets for attention more than for the money.
I could imagine in 1902, a stern eyed and heavily bearded Dr. Rozendo Ribeiro riding a Grévys Zebra on the Bazaar, still located at the Railway station, seeing the sickening bubonic plague he had seen in India. The outbreak from the rats breeding in the filth that led to the death of twenty people forcing government medical officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, to order the burning down of the first attempt at this city.
And like him, I saw before me a plague of men, this time, one that had led to the burning of both the city and the country for political reasons five years back; a plague that had not gone away and seemed intensified by the drudgery and confusion.
This City in fact owes its birth to the madness of colonists who built a Railway they saw no economic value in while trying to reach their ‘pearl of East Africa’ and to keep Germans at bay. It cost them men and money, and sceptics of the Railway called it the ‘Lunatic Express’. Half way through their target in 1899, they camped in deep Maasai land and called this camp ‘Mile 327’.
The swampland with little to offer other than a variety of wild animals and endless tracts of grazing land, however, took to the fancy of British taste for game hunting, something they still attach to their aristocracy. At Porter House on Mama Ngina Street, you can still catch this spirit framed and preserved in a yellowed printout of the lunatic express, sloughing the British through a circus of wildlife.
No strategic thought was given to building a town in the then windy, treeless plain despite appeals to have it moved by Sir James Hayes Sadler who was the Commissioner of East Africa Protectorate and getting advice from medics over the same. Twice, in 1902 and 1906, the colonists considered abandoning Enkare Nyrobi’ (which translates to ‘cool waters’) for Kikuyu town. The British were more concerned about their mad railway and as time wore on, it became too expensive to move.
It was not easy to set up this City. According to Tayiana Chao’s photo essay on the birth of a city, Railway engineer J.H Patterson alluded to the ’immense amount of work required in converting an absolutely bare plain… three hundred and twenty seven miles from the nearest place where a nail could be purchased, into a busy railway centre…”.
From a Railway Depot razed down under threat of a plague to the Nairobi Municipality, and later, in 1950, becoming a City by the Royal Charter of Incorporation, Nairobi has seen it all. Its Identity is captured in its emblem as we know it today; and the Uganda legacy remains on the two golden crested cranes.
Upon becoming a City, a Maasai shield was added to the armorial bearings and a golden lion was set at the crest to ‘symbolize the peace bringing character of British rule’ and it is still there even at the advent of the County government. The quartered green and gold was to signify the agriculture and minerals and a fountain was incorporated to pay tribute to the once cool waters that are now pungent and black from pollution.
Nairobi grew exponentially after independence, so much that the pressure on the City’s infrastructure that kicked in soon after has stayed with the city to date. Power cuts and water shortages were a common occurrence and have come to form a part of the City’s routine.
Drinking with my brother at Pewa Street in Umoja while squeezed under an awning, he advised me to get a piece of land in Nairobi. What he meant was probably the city neighbourhoods; there is no more land in the city.
He sought to exorcise the spirit in me that was too timid to compete with other peoples for a piece of this city. I am Luhya, a Western Kenya person, and what remains of the only Luhya Mayor—the second African, Isack Lugonzo—is a photo at City Hall and probably roads named after my home in Bunyala, and an army barrack there called Hakati. In this city, Luhyas have acquired a reputation for guarding other people’s properties. Luhyas believe they have to own land back home and build houses, which usually collapse eventually after housing bats and anthills.
Nairobi on the other hand has grown in fame for gangland killings over land, so a desire not to acquire land sounds safe, especially if one will be buried at ‘home.’ 2015 saw four land dealers linked with land-grabbing gangs killed within a month in brazen shootings in Ruai, Njiru and Mihang’o areas.
In trying to understand this madness for a piece of ground whose economic value is realised after draining one’s finances, the history of Nairobi is key.
A policy introduced in 1915 by the British, known as the Crown Lands Ordinance, saw the introduction of laws restricting the ownership of land to whites only. It was meant to ensure that Africans remained labourers for the colonialist, and it set the stage for this hunger for land ownership. When the Europeans left, the Africans came in to claim their place. What @Ma3route saw was the moment before the great invasion. It is what I saw while propped on a stool at Milestone Bar on Mfangano Street near Sheikh Karume Road. Milestone moulted out of an ancient shorter building just like Edge on Moi Avenue, and quite a number of others behind River Road. Sitting in this establishment, I saw right across the street the fading evidence of the post-colonial African invasion of the cityscape.
Murigo Mansion lay concealed by fading pink paint that Orchid Hotel, the current owners, had used to hide this history. The grandiose impression of achievement of the first invaders will soon be dwarfed by Hazina Towers when it will be completed, but it showed their ambition, a mansion in the city; a chance to compensate for the 1915 decree restricting the ownership of land to whites; something embedded into the national psyche and passed down generations. A city that by 1963 had just 350,000 is still facing the great troops of ambitious blacks and is today at 4 million. And yet this land has not expanded.
Perhaps, it was an attempt to contain a backlash from the displacement of black people that made the British react violently. In 1954 the British enacted Operation “Anvil,” an effort to rid Nairobi of Mau Mau supporters. More than 30,000 arrests were made, most of them Kikuyu; of these, 16,000 were detained as active Mau Mau supporters.
When it was all over, Africans trooped back in. Most of the Europeans left, and so did Indians. The railway men who had turned to trade and were behind the flourishing of the City crept away slowly leaving remnants to the East of Nairobi. Our version of coloureds or in-betweens were the Indians and the Somali who had Ngara and Eastleigh while the blacker men prowled on the periphery waiting to swarm in. What is left of them, as I was to discover, are scimitar window frames and arched stairways in buildings on Duruma Road and old tailors hoping the business will still pass in the family, and fabric sellers who have not accepted the advent of cheaper lower quality Chinese versions. They receded away from public sentiment and away from Africanisation policies recorded in government bureaucracy stashed away in yellowed files at the Kenya National Archives.
Nairobi has always been an informal apartheid. The West was for whites only, with bungalows, plush gardens, and cold Ngong-Forest weather. They let the Indians be the in–betweens in the East towards the dry Ukambani, and the Somali too. The Kikuyu and Kamba were left just outside the city and the Maasai were relocated. As late as 1969, according to the census records, 73 per cent of Africans lived in Eastlands, 82 per cent of Asians in the Asian zones, and 82 per cent of Europeans in former European settlement areas.
When Africans came in, the new black elites replaced the whites and the rest were left to scramble for the East. By 1969, Eastlands supported fifty to three hundred people per hectare.
When the city was first incorporated in 1900 as the Township of Nairobi, the regulations governing it published on the 16th of April, 1900 defined it as “the area comprised within a radius of one-mile-and-a-half from the present office of H.M.  Sub-Commissioner in Ukamba.”
In 1919, when the Township community formally became the Nairobi Municipal Council, its boundary was extended to include surrounding part-urban settlements. The boundary was again extended in 1927 to cover 30 square miles. During the early colonial period, Nairobi was based on the British concept of the garden city whose sprawl would be limited.
Under a segregationist administration, high-ranking government officials and other Europeans settled to the north and west of the city in areas such as Kileleshwa, Lavington and Westlands (Upper Nairobi), and on larger tracts of land in Karen, Kikuyu and Limuru. Parklands, Pangani, and Eastleigh as well as areas to the south were designated as “Asian”. Africans were relegated to the eastern side of the city in the neighbourhoods we now know as Shauri Moyo, Kaloleni, Bahati, Jericho, and Dandora.
The architecture of Eastlands is quite fascinating, especially for someone from Busia, where houses are only a slight improvement on traditional huts. They are simple square rooms stacked in a row of five or so, with a window and a door in square concrete frames on each room. Most of the houses are lined up together and called landi; several wall partitions of a rectangular block. The roof slants from the back to the front like grass used to on huts, with minimal attempts at better architecture. Most of the houses are done with porous stone and are old but strong. You can tell the new ones because they are built with red-baked clay bricks, the in-thing. Some are deceitful; clay encrusted in its profile hidden by a layer of cement, the famous ‘semi-permanent.’
In Nairobi, on leaving town towards the East, one finds exactly similar red brick railway houses built in elaborate rows and spacious compounds with overgrown grass. The famed Makongeni tells of a time when there was not only land but luxury of formidable architecture. It also tells of running down, not just because of age but of decadent users infamous for their entitlement. They remind me of Police-line estate in Kisumu, the fallen off windows replaced by carton boxes, the gutters blocked by streams of dirty water, unpainted yellow stained by soot from cooking with charcoal and spaces turned to open toilets.
Far Eastlands lacks the luxury of space.
With the expansion and rapid growth of African wage earners, there arose the problem of housing them. Ziwani was a Municipal Housing experiment; Starehe, a Government Staff Housing venture; and, finally, Kaloleni.
Under pressure from the influx of landless Africans from rural areas, the colonial government discouraged large-scale middle and low-income housing developments hoping to stem the flow. Consequently, between 1900 and 1920, almost all Africans in Nairobi were squatters.
Inhabitants of the older slums serviced the homes, farms, and shops of the more affluent, often as day labourers. However, in 1923, Pumwani was established as an African location to accommodate migrants from the rural areas. What is striking about Nairobi is how stable our space allocation has remained despite the fact that its origins were distorted.
Over time, better-educated and higher-income Africans and many public officials moved on to the more spacious parcels of Upper Nairobi. But the disproportionate consumption of urban space by the affluent remained.
As late as 1980, upper Nairobi supported only 2-25 people per hectare while Parklands, Eastleigh and Nairobi South, the historically Asian areas, had 30 to 40 people.
Meanwhile, following a population growth spurt of 136% between 1969 and 1979, slums supported densities of 1250 people per hectare, which, by 1992 had increased to 2000 people. Today, informal settlements, which have more than 55 percent of Nairobi’s population occupy just over five percent of its land.
The Independent Government continued with the expansion of the city through planned estates such as Hamza, Buru Buru, and Umoja with the government making the last payments for the 31 year loan City Hall took to develop Umoja estate block from USAID this year.
Today, the City has pushed past its fringes as the literal ring, ‘Outering’ Road, which held the last of the City’s planned estates rises to accommodate the bursting seams of Nairobi that are now jagged at the edges with unplanned houses is surpassed.
Here, we are buying plots slit between hairlines to put up small houses and high-rise buildings in unplanned strips without any hope for amenities. Here, there also are new planned estates both by the government—Komarock—and private sector—Greenspan, Jacaranda and Sosian—with manicured lawns and shopping malls which share fences with Kayole’s buildings unsafely constructed overnight that open up to narrow streets and sewerage channels running beneath food kiosks.
Here, you cannot be too sure you are buying land or the air above it. A Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisation (Sacco) will hustle you for a supposedly lucrative parcel of land right next to building foundations that have been stalled in court cases over multiple ownerships. Here land buyers do not get title deeds, just allotment letters that cannot act as security for a loan.
About the Writer:
Otiato Guguyu is a business journalist at the Standard newspaper. His job involves, interviewing business people, analysts and policy makers on news, trends and legal issues then writing clear and concise articles.
He went to school at Maseno University and attained a bachelor’s degree in communication and mass media.
He also co-published a book, Bottled up Tears, an anthology of short stories and runs a blog https://nationofafrica.blogspot.co.ke/