Review: Nairobi, Kenya: Migration shaping the city

Author(s) Shadi Rahbaran and Manuel Herz
Publisher Lars Müller Publishers
Year 2014

The book effectively delivers the contradictions of Nairobi in pictures and maps but fails to make coherent arguments for embedded contradictions. This comes out in the first paragraph of the book as quoted below:

“Migration has had an evident impact on Nairobi’s urban formation. Its short history of urbanization has been shaped by an inflow of different social groups, each transplanting its distinct culture, social, ethnic, and physical forms into the city. Through these different forms of migration and urbanization, multiple power systems have emerged in Nairobi, impairing the role of local government and limiting its authority to act as a single dominant ruling body. Consequently, the emerging multiple power systems have been affecting the scope of the government’s actions to a greater extent than vice versa. The different and segregated urban patterns in Nairobi are inclusive of the coexistence of these multiple power systems.”

The authors make a good attempt to present and provide analysis relating to the first sentence on how different social groups are transplanting their attributes into the city. However, how these forces work with and impair local government is neither presented nor discussed, but assumed right from the introduction to the conclusion. This notwithstanding, the book makes a good contribution on how migration has shaped the development of the city since its inception in 1896 as a railway camp.

The book is written in a unique manner without chapters. Instead themes of focus interspersed with excellent pictures and maps dominate the book. The themes are brief and written with clarity which enhances reading – it is a book, a fast reader can read while on a two hour trip and get out with a message. The book uses four illustrative case studies, namely: Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi; the UN Blue Zone, an exclusive leafy suburb of Nairobi; Eastleigh, home to the largest Somali population in the region; and Central Business District (CBD), with its towering buildings informed by different architectural designs.

In providing briefs of the illustrative cases, the authors highlight a few factors which they conceive as power dynamics. In Kibera, the authors note the rural-urban dynamics and urban-urban influence and relationship to urban poverty which is formalized by multiple urban actors from inside and outside of Kibera boarders. The CBD brief puts emphasis on modernist buildings produced during the 1960s and 1970s alleging that they were meant to reflect nationalism but ended up reflecting international influence of foreign architects, engineers and migrant workers. This is not in line with existing literature; the buildings of the 60s and 70s reflected modernism and not nationalism as argued in the book, unless the authors want to equate nationalism to modernism.

For the UN Blue Zone the authors note a migration of professionals and experts, while in Eastleigh, the in-migration of Somali refugees from Dadaab is perceived as an urban catalyst. While this brief may satisfy the authors’ analysis, it does not provide a full picture of the situation of the two cases. The UN Blue Zone is not only a suburb of the migrant professionals and experts but also home to other elites, including the `money’ elites whose sources of income are often unknown. The same case applies to Eastleigh, which is not only a home to Somali refugees, but also a home to indigenous Kenyan Somali and a few other non-Somali ethnic groups. This point is important since in isolated cases, the Kenya Government has used a similar lens and ended up harassing citizens on assumption that the majority who live within the suburb are refugees who have moved out of the Dadaab refugee camp. Consequently, if the four illustrative cases are to be viewed as exemplifying cases of multiple power systems that contributes to Nairobi’s urban formation as a city as argued in the book, then there is need to go beyond the lens used by the authors.

According to the authors, the different and segregated urban patterns are indicative of co-existence of multiple power systems, which are discussed in the book. Segregation is conceptualized to include ethnic, spatial, and economic differences in the city which result in multiple power structures which in turn influence the urban transformation of Nairobi. However, the nexus of segregation and migration does not come out clearly in the book. Segregation as a concept in the development of the city of Nairobi connotes the historical planning policy which zoned Nairobi residential areas along racial lines with Europeans, Asians and Africans having separate living areas. This zoning dictated access to services and infrastructure, with the African areas having least consideration.

The introductory part of the book outlines the historical development of Nairobi pointing out the colonial policy of segregation and the rapid migration after independence in 1963 and the various plans dating back to the 1st plan of 1927 and the 1948 plan. The latter plan strengthened the spatial zoning of the 1927 plan and also disconnected urban activities in the city. These plans were not inspired by indigenous values but foreign garden city concepts which generated extensive road construction and travel time. Although both the 1927 and 1948 plans were not fully implemented their impact is still being felt in the city. The independent government and the 1973 Nairobi Metropolitan Growth Strategy, which was expected to deal with rapid urban growth and change the trend by the year 2000, did not achieve much. The plan proposed self-contained metropolitan neighborhoods aimed at containing the city by integrating residential, commercial, industrial and administration areas in every neighborhood, but this has so far not succeeded.

From Nubian village to a slum: This section of the book discusses Kibera. Quoting Amis (1980), the authors note that the classification of Nubians as `detribalized natives’ is the origin of insecure tenure and ambiguous land use in Kibera and the origin of Kibera slum conflicts. I think the lack of titles to the land and the fact that the land was large, owned by government, and a huge part was not allocated to the Nubian community are key factors which attracted invasion and latter commercialization of the area as the rate of migration increased at independence coupled with the removal of restriction of movement to the city. A mere documentation of the Nubians would not have changed the situation, since tracks of land were lying idle and migration pressure was building up. Furthermore, colonial government and recruitment of some ethnic groups mentioned in page 29 of the book should also take into consideration the fact that the colonial government largely provided housing to its employees, whose relics are still visible in the city.

The subsection notes the densification without planning which set a stage for emergence of slum structures tolerated by colonial administrators despite few attempts to eliminate the settlements. The authors attribute the tolerance of colonial government to exploitation of the labour of the migrants without providing planning and providing for labour migrants. To the authors of the book, this resulted in the ambiguous use of land through `landlordism’ on unauthorized land and urban order of densification without concomitant infrastructure and services. Consequently, the government declared Kibera government land due to its ambiguous nature with Nubians being given right to structures but not land. While this action of government was not initially viewed as problematic, in recent years it has become contentious with Nubians claiming a right to the entire land which has since been appropriated by informal land and housing development entrepreneurs. This has generated many interests including local administrators who provide rights to others to occupy land whose tenure they do not have and investors including absentee structure owners with powerful ties.

The subsection brings out urban contradictions including the fact that the rules of urbanization are not defined by the city governors. Kibera is still being defined as informal while the government with the support of the UN is making interventions in the area of slum upgrading. This seems to be the outcome of the presence of many actors and interests, including influential social, political and ethnic networks. The authors view this convolution as `formalized urban organization preserving its informal status as a settlement’. What does not come out is the fact that local government is not excluded in this convoluted outcome, and could be both a beneficiary and an arbitrator.

Urban Parallel – Blue Zone: The book notes that `the parallel urban condition has proven to be highly efficient and beneficial for NGOs which in contrast to the UN and local government are also involved in local and national operations, mainly focusing on `slums’ and informal settlements (page 63). The authors argue that both UN and NGOs manage poverty from the leafy Blue Zone located in the North and North West of the city. To the authors this `echoes the racial and economic footprint that Nairobi has experienced during its colonial era and beyond’.

While the authors acknowledge that both the NGOs and the UN contribute to the economy of the city, it is not clear how their contributions translate into improving the divisions in the city. Furthermore, this seems to be the appropriate sub section to discuss how local government comes in but this is not done. The city governors and the national government contribute to this skewed development and the study should have been strengthened by a brief discussion on how the two governments contribute to the status of the Blue Zone, Kibera, Eastleigh and the CBD. This discussion could respond to what I raise in the overview of this review and answer the question of social and urban disconnection, which enhances segregation and polarization of the city.

Eastleigh: Refugee Migration: This sub section of the book has a number of sweeping statements and assumptions which are not well founded. First the authors assume that Eastleigh is largely a suburb of Somali refugees but there is not enough evidence to support this assumption. The authors note that the refugees have succeeded in organising their livelihoods in striking difference to other neighborhoods in the city, and the area has well established infrastructure. The authors further state that the neighborhood has unregistered refugees who do not have legal documents and basically live informal and illegal lives; and have been ignored by the administration of the Kenya capital. This raises a number of questions, for example: are the same individuals who have succeeded in organizing livelihoods the same ones who require support? Are the entrepreneurs who are building huge shopping malls, the same ones who are living informally and illegal or are these different entrepreneurs?

It seems Eastleigh is a complex settlement that cannot be understood by generalization that conceptualises all residents as informal and illegal refugees. The settlement is not only connected globally, but many of the investors within the settlement have good political networks that provide required administrative support. What remains unclear is the proportion of this group compared to the `real’ desperate group that requires support. Indeed, the authors observe that quality of life in Eastleigh is problematic, and the rising population is putting pressure on the settlement resulting in expansion outside the settlement, including beyond Kenya. This fact makes the authors conclude that the Somalis are likely to be the pioneers in the process of metropolitanisation (page 103). This has implications for spatial planning within the metropolitan area of Nairobi, which is not discussed in the book. As indicated in the case of Kibera and the Blue Zone, the authors ought to have briefly discussed how these settlements interact with the city and national government authorities before making conclusions. Being pioneers of metropolitanisation without effective planning is a recipe for disaster. This is already happening in isolated suburbs of the metropolitan area, and the book could have given some direction on this issue.

The Architecture of Independence Nairobi – CBD: The last subsection of the book concentrates on architecture of the 1960s and 1970s, noting the foreign aspects of the architecture. The architects who produced the many buildings discussed in the book came from different parts of the globe, including Norway, Britain, Germany and New Zealand. Indians were the constructors while the former Italian prisoners were the craftsmen. One of the buildings discussed by the authors, the UFO-shaped discotheque adjoining an office building and a petrol station has since been demolished, an action which raised emotions of many city residents. The green space (page 131) in one of the buildings at the University of Nairobi has also been destroyed and a 22 storey building University of Nairobi Towers under construction.

The authors argue that through architectural output, national identity was prescribed by outsiders’ perspectives, and that `buildings played a role in shaping a new national identity and a new relationship between the state and the public. As indicated earlier, it is debatable whether this was an issue of national identity or mere excitement with values of modernity, which did not have anything to do with national identity. However, there is no doubt as argued in the book that construction played a major role in the urbanization of the city and country. This was reflected in the rapid population growth of the city creating new economic opportunities, access to services and educational facilities which further triggered rural-urban migration. Besides this growth, contradictions remained as many migrants moved to unplanned areas.

The authors are concerned with the projection from the outside with buildings conceptualized by foreign means and methods. They see this as a dilemma that may be at the core of the reason why this architecture, with few exceptions, has remained in an uneasy relationship with the local population. While this concern is valid, a lot has happened since the 1960s and 1970s with many buildings conceptualized and constructed by local architects in place. It would have been useful to have a brief rejoinder using architecture of the post 1980s. This could provide a good input for the theory of urban contradictions triggered by architecture of the 1960s and 1970s.

The book concludes by noting that `Nairobi has grown to be one of the most varied and international cities of the contemporary world, exhibiting continuous rapid urban growth’. The book maintains its argument that `the neighborhoods have developed – with a substantial level of autonomy – into separate powerbases that are largely independent of any central government authority arguing that foreign and migrating community, in particular architects, engineers, and craftsmen shape the city. The authors provide examples of cities such as Cairo and Kampala where there is presence of the Somali and other foreign migrants to show that Nairobi is unique and specific in the manner the Somali and other foreigners operate without limitation in self-organization and economic success.

The conclusion comes close to starting a new debate using the Somali in Eastleigh. The authors note that in other cities the Somali are in constant threat of expulsion and try not to attract the attention of the authorities, which is not the case in Nairobi. While the book acknowledges that what is happening in Nairobi, in particular the Somali resilience can be attributed to globalization, it argues that it is specific to Nairobi due to a combination of factors: proximity to home country, efficient infrastructure, demographic size, relative weakness of the local political authorities, and physical grain of the chosen neighborhood. The authors further conclude that Nairobi represents a laboratory that is constantly being reinvented.

Overall, the book makes a significant contribution, although it leaves gaps in understanding the role of local administration in the context of growth and migration. It is not enough to wish away the city authority in the complex fragmented development of the city. The city authority has a role, and should be part of the equation resulting in the production of Kibera, UN Blue Zone, Eastleigh and the Central Business District.


Winnie V. Mitullah is the current Director and Associate Research Professor of Development Studies at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi. She has a PhD in Political Science and Public Administration from the University of York, UK. Her PhD thesis was on Urban Housing, with a focus on policies relating to low income housing. Over the years, she has researched, published, taught, networked and consulted in the area of local governance focusing on urban policies, institutions and governance among others.

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