Urbanisation: The Detour

Published on 12th April 2011

Nairobi’s social and spatial inequalities make me wonder. Why are some people so rich while others so poor? Why do some live in leafy suburbs with grand edifices while others dwell in rickety mud and iron structures? When and where did the detour from urbanization begin?

When the British came to Kenya, they were enthralled with the country’s topographical and climatic diversity. Fort Smith was especially captivating. To the north were the leafy rolling hills of Lavington. Beyond Lavington lay the undulating flood plain of Muthangari that gradually rose in gradient to form Kirungie and Waruku. The urge to settle was irresistible. It paved the way for urbanization.

Kenyans who took the urbanization road sent their children to school. They got employed as teachers, clerks or did business with the white man. They became the athomi, frowned at their local traditions and became pacesetters in the new socio-economic and political order. Others however resisted the white man’s way. Such stopped their daughters from going to school, rejected Muthungu’s medicine and refused to farm the exotic crops he introduced. In a fast changing society, they found themselves marginalized.

Mandatory taxation at the onset of colonialism forced many people to move from their tribal lands in search of work in factories, farms, shops and households. On finding the spaces of affluence already occupied, they had no option but to detour to vijiji’s in town that social scientists call slums. Here, they pitched their tents. From Gatharaini, Muthaiga and on the banks of river Mathare, they set up villages where they brewed traditional liquor and cooked githeri and mitura. What was a mere detour had gained permanence.

Travelling in a matatu that detours from the Thika – Nairobi highway and traverses the sprawling Mathare slum to avoid the morning traffic jam, one notices mabati and mud houses that are as high as the matatu, on both sides of the road. Their brown and grey colour tells of the vagaries of weather they have borne. At 6.30 am, most houses are locked. Their occupants have already left for some place in the city to search for work. Although some live closer to the city, they leave earlier perhaps to avoid seeing the heartbreaking reality of living in slums that comes with daylight.

On the sidewalks, men and women bake mandazis and chapatis. They constitute the small businesses that the latest journal of World Development acknowledges as contributing to improved living standards. The aroma of the deep frying mandazi wafts in the air and intermingles with the smell of decaying garbage, urine, pig and goat droppings. In this environment, children are born, grow up, marry and die. They are at the back of the urban highway. Nobody can see them. They are only visible when someone wants a passport to go to parliament or local council; attract donor funding, do a research on poverty or hire ‘armies’ and hecklers to terrorize opponents. They are visible when there are fires or when police are arresting illegal brewers. Yet these are the people who sustain the city. They supply the city’s guards, cleaners, mechanics, drivers, office hands, shamba boys, maids and casual labour in industries. They sell food and essential wares in Wakulima, Gikomba and Kamukunji markets.

Can their lot be improved? I wonder as the expert matatu driver negotiates bends, potholes and traffic. What is there to show of the donor aid that comes here? What is there to show of the poverty alleviation efforts, reports and recommendations? What is there to show that they have government representatives?

Perhaps we need a matatu planner to engage the right gears of urban planning; a matatu politician to help bring to reality the vision of the electorate; a matatu chief to ensure that law and order are maintained; a matatu public health officer to oversee proper sanitation and hygiene; a matatu NGO that will solve peoples’ problems instead of feeding on them; a matatu education system that will enable learners solve problems facing their communities; a matatu finance body that will reach out to those at the bottom of the pyramid and a matatu business that will craft differentiated pocket-friendly goods to trickle down to low income earners.

By Dr Mary Kinyanjui

Institute of Development Studies, University of Nairobi.

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