Martin Sharman1 Brussels, October 2009 The traffic in Nairobi has to be experienced to be believed. The roads of the city were built, for the most part, in the second quarter of the 20th century for a sleepy little provincial town of fewer than 100 000 people. By the time I left, 6 years after independence, the population was around 500 000 and the roads were already crowded. The next ten years saw the city’s population grow by more than 60%, a rate of growth that it maintained consistently for 3 more decades. Last month’s official census is thought to have recorded close to 4 million people. And the roads are still the same thin winding lanes as they were in my day – only worse, because patched, potholed, and clogged with traffic.
Population of Nairobi
4 500 000 4 000 000 3 500 000 3 000 000 2 500 000 2 000 000 1 500 000 1 000 000 Independence 500 000 I came back to work in Kenya in 1986 exponent of 0.057575 means Nairobi's population doubled every 12 years since its birth Population of Nariobi today
I left Kenya in 1968 0 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020 Year
Step outside your tranquil oasis of a hotel, and you find yourself instantly in solid traffic. Two rows of traffic in each direction oppose one another in one-lane roads, inching forward in permanent city-wide traffic jams. At the edges of the road the tarmac ends in a ragged cliff, sometimes dangerously high, though wherever they can, matatus2 use the road verges as alternatives to the tarmac. The sidewalks, where they exist, are eroded muddy banks interspersed with puddles from last night’s heavy rain. Bicycles are rare, being both low
The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission. 2 A matatu is a privately-owned share taxi, typically an old, polluting and dangerous Isuzu minibus.
status and impractical. The heavy traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, leaves no space for bicycles. It was Saturday, the day after an exhausting week-long inter-governmental meeting. I had left my hotel with the intention of driving to my parents' old house, a trip across town I fully expected to take some 20 minutes. Half an hour later, I was no more than 50 metres from where I started. I could see that the line of vehicles ahead of me was blocking oncoming traffic from turning off, and nobody behind the vehicles that wanted to turn could get past. Presumably, somewhere in the more distant confusion, that constipated oncoming traffic was blocking somebody in my queue from turning, and we were in gridlock. Since there was no oncoming traffic in my vicinity, I finally did a U-turn and started off in the opposite direction, meaning to work my way round through side streets back to the main road I’d been heading for. Nairobi has changed out of recognition. Last time I came here, for a brief visit in 2007, I thought I saw hints and traces of the beautiful town it once was. This time, I realised that nothing remained of the old place. All the roads are unfamiliar. The landmarks you depend upon unconsciously have all been swept away, the trees, hedges and gardens replaced by third-world buildings, corrugated iron fences, razor-wire on walls, and traffic, traffic, traffic. Where forest or bushland has been replaced by smallholdings, the roads seem oddly naked, a kind of anatomical display of sinews that I found disquieting and disorienting. I was quickly lost. After a long time, I found myself, quite by accident, driving past my hotel again, in the wrong direction. In a mixture of alarm and amusement, I admitted defeat and dug out my hopelessly inadequate map of the city to figure out a long way round that would avoid the Westlands logjam and get me out of the traffic. Plotting a course and navigating it turned out to be two different things. Several of the roads on the map failed altogether to materialize. Others were a moonscape of fragments of ancient tarmac interspersed with great holes, filled with rubble or muddy water. Yet others were mere goat tracks wandering through nothing. As a consequence, I found myself many miles further out of the city than I had intended. But from there I could see an easy way back to a bit of the city that I thought I would know. On the way, I passed a crowd of people standing around looking at an overturned truck. It had been travelling towards the city along Wayaki Way, a fast road parallel to mine and a few metres above me, which it had, for some reason, left. It must have rolled; it was mangled, mostly upside down, in the ditch between the two roads. A crane on a truck straddled the upper road, blocking it entirely. Traffic was backed up out of sight. Moments later my road joined the Wayaki Way. The accident had left it empty of traffic on my side, and I felt fine, driving along in the kind of traffic I remembered. But the road was no longer lined with fields, and no longer gave distant vistas of Nairobi. Instead the view is constricted by an endless shanty-town, a shambles of shacks, sacks, signs, people, people, people. Among the roadside signs advertising butchers and shoe polish I glimpsed dozens and dozens of hand-lettered signs proclaiming, among other marvels, the Nairobi Lighthouse Church, True Shephered Apostolic Ministry, Fragrance of Christ Ministries, Jesus Embasy 2
Ministries International, Arise and Shine City Church, Prayer and Revival Fire Ministry, Fire of the Holy Spirit Ministry, Maximum Miracle Centre Umoja, Jesus Fountain of Life Ministry, Oasis of Grace Church, Amazing Grace International Ministries, Faith Mountain Movers Ministry, Jesus is Alive Ministries, Directors of Diverse Vision (International), and the Most Extraordinary Hericopter of Christ Ministry. By the side of the road knots of people stood waiting in the sun for the matatus that had so mysteriously stopped appearing. Between these clumps of humans were random pieces of furniture both wooden and plastic, great stacks of sacks of charcoal, and so many toddlers! A man in rags hauled on the shafts of a heaped cart that lurched forward on bald and airless tyres. A barber's shop flew by, a sign announced "Ladies & Gents Accommodation" in uncertain black letters above a dark doorway, an assortment of shacks sagged unsteadily on rounded stones, a carpenter sawed at a plank, an unfinished cement edifice displayed a sunbleached advert for Peter Stuyvestant. I soon left that fast road, and started down Naivasha Road, which would lead, in some 5 or 10 kilometres, directly to my old house. I remembered this road clearly from when I lived here. Only everything was changed. Where there had been forests, interspersed with small fields of maize and occasional huts, now there was a dense muddle of buildings, bustle, and buses. The whole world was transformed. From the beginning the road was choked with humanity in every shape and form, the works of humanity – much of it Japanese humanity, Toyota, Nissan, Honda – a confusion of ugly buildings, and more children, hand-painted signs, traffic, gruesome looking puddles, rickety shops and bars, more traffic, smouldering heaps of trash, roadside garages, plastic bags, even the occasional goat. Briefly, the chaos gave way to fields and the traffic thinned to nothing. I reached a roundabout I'd never seen before, which caused me some puzzlement, but a few minutes after leaving it, I found myself in a nightmare. The open country vanished as makeshift housing congealed around me, and abruptly there was dust and smoke and noise, colour drained into shades of reddish grey, visual confusion, and movement everywhere. I nosed through heaving masses of humanity, and became part of the traffic, traffic. Seconds turned into minutes, and minutes into limitless ages of slow movement deeper and deeper into an alien place in which I had no business. The edge of the road was no longer defined, but was transformed into some indeterminate uncollapsed wave-function forever unknowable under the people, buses and carts between where my car was inching forward and the wilderness of shacks that lay beyond. Although the map was still in my mind's eye, the scenes around me had so disoriented me that I had no idea where I was. I might have been on the other side of the city, or in a dizzying alternative universe. In this great press of people and cars, and the ubiquitous matatus jammed full with
sweating people, I was the only white person I had seen for a very, very long time. I was in a slum that had grown out of the earth while I wasn’t watching. I could not close the window of my car because it was so darkly smoked that it was almost opaque, and I had no desire to run into anyone or anything here. Severely hyposmic though I am, the mixed smell of burning plastic, rotting trash, shit, diesel and fried fish was on the limit of intolerable. The confusion steadily grew worse. Ahead of me and around me matatus overtook heedlessly on the wrong side, vehicles crawled across the road to avoid asteroid-sized holes, people strolled casually out from narrow gaps between the buildings and through the traffic, trucks belched out great clouds of black exhaust. Slower and slower we went, starting forward for a few centimetres, stopping for minutes at a time. Finally it became plain that the traffic was at a standstill. Off to my right came the sound of a monstrous mobile phone, ringing and ringing. Perhaps that was the sign of a phone shop. A little further away the jagged corrugated iron walls of another shanty were almost visibly vibrating with the insistent wail of Kenyan pop music. I concluded that this bit of the slum, at least, had electricity. But there were no stacks of charcoal here, just small tins of the stuff on sale at the edge of the traffic. Behind them, just where I had come to a halt, a ditch was oozing onto the road its contents of black water and dirty plastic bags of human shit. Beyond, between two mud and wattle shacks, a small stack of raw timber mutely attested to what had become of the forests. My vision was filled by soiled sackcloth doors, piles of rubbish, cardboard walls, and humans everywhere. A truck ahead of me, piled high with sofas and overstuffed armchairs, did a U-turn. I stopped the driver and asked if there was another way round. “Yes,” he said, and drove off. I did a Uturn and tried to follow him, but the waving pile of sofas was soon lost as more and more buses and trucks forced their way into the stream of traffic from the side of the road. Road? Well, let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and say it was a road. I glimpsed the sofas weaving off down a side alley, and followed. If I thought it was bad before, now it got a lot worse. I began to get waves of claustrophobia and sensed that if this turmoil continued I’d be seriously frightened. I wasn’t even sure I’d ever find my way back to the hotel - or that if the car broke down, anyone would ever find me. Metre upon painfully negotiated metre, bedlam, pandemonium pressed in on me, flowed turbulently over me. The idea that this unbearable chaos, this press of 50 000 per square kilometre, could be home to these people, these hundreds and thousands of strangers! It seemed grotesque that these endless faces could be familiar to one another, that they had names and could laugh, that each survived the dangers and disease of this ghastly swamp year on year, that they paid hard-earned money to live here, that women were giving birth in this shit-hole as I passed by outside. The air was hard to breathe, I found it hard to think, harder still to keep calm. And then suddenly, in a matter of metres I was free. One minute I had been struggling in a confused hell on Earth, the next I found myself in a disciplined, gated, hedged, barbed-wired suburban neighbourhood. Seconds before, privilege had extended as far as the paint on my car; now it suddenly once more encompassed the world. Business-class in an Airbus was no longer beyond belief. Reality is too hard to remember for long. In my case, the relief of my sudden escape erased the terror of Kawangware in moments. Moreover, and to my astonishment, I found myself on a parallel street from where I used to live with my parents. I drove around the block to my old house. Ah, what a difference 40 years has made! It’s clear that the house has been maintained, but in a hit and miss, uncomprehending way, a mere 4
forestalling of entropy rather than the creation of an agreeable environment. It has a sad, resigned, bedraggled look. And whoever thought that pink was a good idea is perhaps colourblind. The house had a big annex which has now been cut off from the main house by a corrugated iron divider. It’s inhabited by a loud family, and washing is everywhere. The main house was locked and shuttered and looked empty. I took a couple of pictures, for the record. At the end of the road, not 75 metres away, the people of the slum went about their business in their different world. Then I began the second leg of my pilgrimage, setting off for my old school. At first glance, the roundabout at the junction is very much as it had always been. Facing me on the opposite side, the headquarters of Kenya's Meterological Department stands, reassuring, shaded by pepper trees. The passing decades are marked only by a disappearance of a Kai-apple hedge and the appearance of barbed wire. But a second glance is unsettling. To the left, where the little Indian duka used to stand, a great modern shopping mall serves cappuccino to the people who drive there in air-conditioned 4x4s, while on the other side of the roundabout, where the local butcher had been, lie the beginnings or the ends of Riruta, another (or perhaps soon to be the same) gigantic informal settlement. The road from my house to the school used to run through scrub and old-growth forest. It was always a busy road, linking Nairobi with a suburb named after Karen Blixen, who lived there. But “busy” meant a road where you travelled at 60 miles per hour and met five or six cars coming in the opposite direction over the few kilometres before my school’s turnoff. Now the road runs along the edge of Riruta, which here is less slum than industrial shantytown. All along the road enterprises flourish. Open-air wrought-iron workshops, timber warehouses, charcoal sellers, places to buy hubcaps, beds, flower-pots, home-made stoves, old radios, coffins, and sculpture. You have plenty of time to appreciate all this, because the traffic is as sclerotic as everywhere else in Nairobi. People wander across the road, ears glued to mobile phones, as indifferent to the traffic as if they were walking along a deserted beach. This is still an upper-class neighbourhood and not a slum, because, after all, people here have mobile phones. And the sense of deadly oppression is missing, because the shanties are restricted to one side of the road, giving the impression that all we have here is a quaint commercial roadside outlet of open-air stalls. The menace is lurking far behind the façade. The turnoff to my school used to be marked by a grand maroon sign saying “Duke of York School” and showing the school crest (a white rose) and the motto “Nihil Praeter Optimum”. The sign is gone. Now its solitary regal presence has been replaced by a jumble of drunken signs that almost hide the rather insignificant indication that there is a school somewhere down this road. “Lenana School,” it says, rather uncertainly, “Nothing but the Best”.
Back when I was a schoolboy there, the school was the only reason to drive down that road. Now the shanty town lines one side of what remains of the road - a rutted obstacle course up and down which trucks lurch and bounce. The school survives behind a fence and a gate and a guard, who let me through despite the sign that said “visitors are strictly prohibited on weekends”. The school used to be surrounded by forest. Now it is surrounded - at least, on three sides by people. The wilderness is gone. Humanity has replaced it, and where bees once hummed in the trees, lives naked under the sun in what is euphemistically called an "informal settlement." The school was always a bit shoddy, but now it is frankly dilapidated. When I went there its 550 pupils benefited from the best academic education in the country. Now the collective academic achievement of its 1200 pupils, who live and learn in the same buildings as we did, earn it not 1st, but 26th place. The teaching block, a long 2-storey line of classrooms, looks as if it has not been painted since my time. The windows hang carelessly open, one or two of them broken. Chunks of cement are missing from the walls, and the irregular roof-line suggests that year after year, repairs have been foregone. The building in which I spent 6 years of my life – a kind of prison block named Delamere – is gone, replaced with an even less appealing brieze-block construction called Kibaki, modelled on the cheap housing that is built for poor people. The sight of the housemaster's house behind it brought back memories of Kate Spenser, who used to train the school choir. I no longer know the words of the school song, and since it was in Latin I never knew their meaning, but they can't have been as bad as the song that replaces it, which starts: "Thoughts and deeds shall bide with task. Keep the Rose brightly ye our emblem. Sieve the trash dear Lord we ask." After a few more photos, and wondering whether any of this mattered to me in the least, I left the school and set off towards Karen again. I had intended to call in on an old friend, Oscar, with whom I had been at school. I wanted to ask him what he made of all these changes, and how he dealt with the continuous slide towards slime and chaos that was so evident to me. But as I drove, I found I hadn’t the energy. I couldn’t face, somehow, the necessary social manoeuvres of people meeting for the first time in 40 years, strangers stumbling over their old friendship, working our way towards some semblance of joviality. It fatigued me just to think of it. So I turned the car along the Langata road, heading back towards Nairobi National Park and the city. Like the Ngong road, this was once a favourite race-track for me. I’d drive my little car – an ancient Simca Arondé - as fast as it would go. And it went pretty fast, fast enough to bounce mightily along the lumpy road, shooting weightless over the crests of the hills, thumping into 6
hollows as the forest, and further on, savannah, went whipping by outside. Every now and then a hedge along the edge of the road would mark the boundary of a hidden house, or a school. Today, people on bicycles, wobbling along the bumpy red-dirt verge with goods piled high on the carrier, went faster than me. Looking at the back of the same vehicle for endless minutes while we ambled lazily along helped me to understand why Oscar goes into Nairobi as seldom as possible. Still, even without the traffic, there would have been no opportunity for seeing how fast my hired car might take me. The potholes could swallow a giraffe and have room for more. And, of course, the forests were gone. Humanity again, though a far wealthier humanity, had crowded in, filling the spaces between existing houses with ever more houses, in a fractal packing of space. After forever, I reached the entrance to the Nairobi National Park, a landmark I recognised, even with its disguises of wire and fence and cement. At the same time the road widened from a narrow two-way route adequate for the horses and carts it had accommodated when it was built, to a modern four-lane expressway. The traffic accelerated markedly. A little beyond, I was shocked by the view ahead of me to my left. I had not felt shock up to now just fear, disappointment, hopelessness, dismay, horror, sadness, despair, and even grief, but not shock. Glimpsed briefly, the valley I remembered so well as a vast expanse of forest, with a line of houses guessed more than seen through trees on the crest of the far ridge, was gone. Replacing is was a gigantic jigsaw of irregular, aimless roofs, crammed together so tightly as to make me imagine one might walk from one end of the mess to the other without once touching the ground. An immense assemblage, a plague of rooftops, this is Kibera, said by some to be Kenya's largest slum, and certainly its most famous. Package tours take tourists there on slum safaris. And in a moment the vision was gone, as the road took me toward the city. The traffic was heavy, buses were bumbling, matatus were manoeuvring, and people were overtaking on the inside, but at least it was moving. But once again, I found utterly unfamiliar a road that I might have driven with my eyes closed so long ago. The open spaces, the trees bordering the road, the occasional person walking along the rough sidewalk, are all gone, shadows consigned to memory. What exists today bears no comparison. I could not take a citizen of Nairobi younger than me and explain what has been lost. Today all is construction and commotion, cars waiting to join the traffic, people waiting to board the next overloaded matatu, overpasses for pedestrians that the pedestrians largely ignore, car showrooms, supermarkets, and places to buy furniture. I drove to the next spot on my itinerary - the house I lived in when I was at primary school. Last time I saw it, it was abandoned and pillaged. Today, expecting to discover a high-rise in its place, I found it restored and converted to a primary school. The old Swahili doors are gone, replaced by what looks like armour plating, and at the back a great new wing has been added, in the generic grim institutional granite, but the house is still there, looking remarkably as it did half a century ago. I spoke to Robert, the 7
guard, who let me through the solid steel gate and let me take a photo. The biggest change for me was the vegetation - once covered with golden shower vines, the house is nude, and the garden, once glowing with the many colours of tropical flowers, and shaded by pepper trees and mimosa, is a naked and balding expanse of kikuyu grass. It seems that poverty regards plants as a luxury it can do without. Enough is enough. I decided to go back to the hotel and work on my report of the meeting. So I plunged back into the traffic, and another of Nairobi’s ghastly roundabouts. The traffic lights controlling the flow of the traffic are universally and utterly ignored. You just nose forward bravely into the moving metal and hope that the guy next to you knows to the centimetre how wide his vehicle is. At one point on the Westlands roundabout, I found myself looking at the massive wheels of a great tractor-trailer as it passed in front of my car leaving less than a handspan to spare. Incredibly, locals consider this mayhem to be light traffic. Today was a Saturday and a bank holiday, so hardly anybody was out and about. Working my way painfully onto and off the roundabout and into the traffic jam on the other side, I knew I had no idea how to find my hotel, which was mildly disconcerting. But quite by accident, I suddenly saw it on my left. And so I managed a U turn in the middle of the traffic (nobody finds that odd) and worked my way back to the pleasant tree-shaded carpark behind the barrier, parked my car, and with relief, switched off. I sat there for a few moments, alone with the growl of traffic, and with what has become of my childhood.
5000 4500 4000 3500 3000 2500 2000 1500 1000 500 0 1960 Cost = 51.873e R = 0.9665
Effect of inflation: Nominal c ost of an item that in 1960 was worth Ksh100
0 .0 9 1 3 * (years s inc e 1 9 6 0 )
corresponds to value of money halving every 7.6 years