Nairobi: Reclaiming the Essence of Accidental City


Rasna Warah, left in blue,when she was about 6-years-old, pose with family and neighbors outside the house in Nairobi. [Rasna Warah/Sahan Journal]

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series examining the city of Nairobi.

The plot of land in Nairobi where my three-bedroom family home once stood is now occupied by a towering office block. They tell me it is an ultra-modern building with several floors of car parking space. I have not seen it; I actively avoid passing through the street where the house stood, because I cannot bear to see what has become of a place that held so many happy memories for me. I know that the verandah where my sisters and I played is gone, as are the frangipani and mango trees that littered the garden. Where do I go now to rekindle memories of my grandmother’s storytelling, or the fragrance of my mother’s special chicken biriyani?

However, my story is not unique. All over Nairobi, old houses are being torn down to make way for apartment blocks and offices. Real estate has skyrocketed in recent years and a housing boom, partly fuelled by Kenyans living in the diaspora and lower interest rates, has led to the creation of dozens of gated estates all over the city. Construction sites are mushrooming everywhere. Chinese-built highways criss-cross the city centre and its environs. A massive eight-lane highway now links Nairobi to Thika town, northeast of Nairobi, and there are plans to build a high-tech city called Konza (dubbed “Silicon Savannah”) in Machakos, a sleepy town in the semi-arid southeastern outskirts of the capital.

All these projects are part and parcel of Kenya’s Vision 2030, an economic blueprint drawn up by former President Mwai Kibaki’s administration to make the country a middle-income country within the next two decades.

‘Too big to put your arms around’

The up-beat forward-looking optimism of the city’s planners, however, is not shared by all residents. Long-time Nairobi resident Dana Seidenberg, who describes herself as a “conceptual historian,” says that in the mad rush to become a modern “world class city,” Nairobi is losing the very essence that drew her to the city from her native Syracuse in the United States more than three decades ago.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the city was much more pedestrian-friendly, she recalls. The public bus transport system was reliable and inexpensive and it was easy to get around. Now the roads are choking with traffic and mini-vans, locally known as matatus. Commuting times have increased so much in the last decade that people are leaving their homes as early as 4 a.m. to be at work on time. Meanwhile, pedestrians, who make up the bulk of the city’s low-income commuters, have fewer places to walk as they navigate the massive highways that fail to consider their needs.

“The highways have ruined Nairobi’ sense of community,” said Seidenberg, who is currently finalising a book on the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. “The city has become too big to put your arms around any more. There are fewer intimate spaces where people can meet.”

Seidenberg said that there is also a gap between the physical city and the “intellectual city” where ideas are generated and where innovation happens. This has created a disconnect between what people desire and what the city offers.

“People are not looking at the social costs of all this physical infrastructure. In the United States there is a move towards reclaiming towns by removing highways that run through them and increasing the amount of public space available to residents,” she said. “People are realising that highways are destroying communities.”

In the 1990s, women like the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai waged a long battle against the then President Daniel arap Moi’s regime to save Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s largest green public space, and Karura Forest on the outskirts of the city. However, since then the urban environmental movement in Kenya has lost much of its steam.

Seidenberg says that Nairobi has not been able to prevent the destruction of the city’s heritage and green spaces because people in the city have not been able to organise effectively to save their environments and combat demolitions. This could be because most do not feel that the city is their “real” home, and therefore do not see the need to invest in it emotionally or fight for its survival.

Apartheid city

This sense of alienation is probably rooted in the “apartheid city” model favoured by the British colonialists that separated the races by clearly demarcating which urban zones each race could occupy.

In the colonial period, Africans were only encouraged to come to the city to work, not to move permanently. Many came as single male migrants, leaving behind wives and children in their ancestral villages or British-created “reserves.” They lived in Nairobi, but were not a part of it. Nairobi belonged to the whites.

Indians, who came as migrant workers during the colonial period, were prohibited from operating in rural areas, and were relegated to certain areas within the city where they could trade and serve as middlemen between the ruling whites and Africans. Many of Nairobi’s early pioneers were therefore of Indian origin, who came from what was then British India to help the Empire extend its tentacles in East Africa. Many served on the Uganda Railway; others came as traders, clerical staff or craftsmen.

Writer and entrepreneur Shalini Gidoomal describes Nairobi’s humble and accidental beginnings in an essay published in the pictorial coffee-table book called Nairobi, which came into being when a group of Nairobi-based photographers and writers came together in 2007 to explore and document their city:

Nairobi was born from a deep intake of breath, a pause in a relentless determined trudge of forward movement. The steep walls of the Rift Valley, scouted in 1899 by Englishman George Whitehouse, then head of the Uganda Railway, are what caused the halt at Mile 327 while the daunting task of attempting to ascend the rail track into the escarpment was assessed. Ordering the construction of a depot store at this spot – known locally as Nyrobi, place of cool waters – it was this interruption of the Englishman’s obsession to build a railway from the Indian Ocean coast, through the vast natural obstacles of the hinterland, to the shores of Lake Victoria that fixed the spot of Nyrobi. In the ensuing six years, traders, labourers, and colonisers of all hues flowed in and out of Mile 327 utilising the railway to seek wealth and work, extending the growing small shanty into a thriving town. Its local name was bastardised into the more pronounceable Nairobi, and it became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1905.

Independence in 1963 removed the barriers that prevented Africans from moving to the city permanently. This led to a sudden surge in urban population growth in cities such as Nairobi, which has since then been characterised as a city of migrants, where rural folk come to escape the poverty and hopelessness of village life.

However, Nairobi is still not “home,” even for those who have lived in the city for generations, says Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai.

“It has been unable to shake off the feel of temporariness – of the place of opportunities that close as fast as they open,” he said. “People live and die in Nairobi every day. But they are buried outside the city limits, in shags – at ‘home.’”

Rasna Warah is a contributor to Sahan Journal. She is a writer, photojournalist and columnist based in Malindi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter @RasnaWarah

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