An alien looks at Nairobi

I just returned to Nairobi, the city that adopted me a year ago. After seven months out of the city, it seems that little has changed. I feel confident in the city but still see things with the eyes of an alien arriving in a foreign land. Nairobi is still full of surprises.

The buildings I saw under construction previously are full of offices for sale or rent now. Other new ones are being built. I ruefully remember the tragic news about workers trapped after a building collapsed earlier this year. And I don’t think the safety measures for workers in the construction sector are sufficiently adequate today. However, it is undeniable that the construction boom, which I wrote about earlier this year, is a main source of income for many families in the Kenyan capital.

The housing market continues to expand. “Property for sale in Nairobi” and “Houses to rent in Nairobi” are constant advertisements that one finds in national newspapers and investment magazines.

Advertisements of the wonders of the construction boom in the streets of Kilimani, Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll

Billboards advertise property for sale in the streets of Kilimani, Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll.

Similarly, huge billboards advertising “wonderful” luxury apartments stand proud next to skyscrapers and multi-storey buildings surrounding the streets of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Another business, the one of mortgages and home loans, is proliferating at the same time. The bankers must be rubbing their hands since, in the words of a reporter with the Business Daily, “commercial banks’ thirst for high profit margins”.

A bus handles the bumps and holes of the pavement in a street of Nairobi / Gemma Solés

A bus handles the bumps and holes of the pavement in a street of Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll.

And while the construction of buildings and private complexes is flying along, the main streets of the city, not to mention those in the most deprived areas, are still unpaved and flooded by daily rains.

It is uncomfortable walking in the mud and bad roads make public transport like the City Hoppa buses and matatus more dangerous. But this is just another element of the everyday normality of the city that it seems everyone is resigned to accept.

The poor condition of roads and lack of further urban ring roads to decongest traffic immerse Nairobi’s commuters in chaotic traffic jams for several hours a day to. Nairobi is known to be the world’s fourth-most congested city, and although some drivers use the Twende Twende app, which helps them avoid the busiest streets, it is virtually impossible to get home before dark.

Formation of an "imaginary lane" on Ngong Road, Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll

Formation of an “imaginary lane” on Ngong Road, Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll.

Rush hour traffic in Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll

Rush hour traffic in Nairobi / Gemma Solés i Coll.

That’s when it triggers what my alien mind calls “the imaginary lane”: a number of spaces created between cars, trucks, motorbikes and matatus, invading pedestrian areas, sewers or whatever is necessary to pass the mass of metal on wheels. The horns aren’t very useful there, but the sagacity and skills of the drivers are crucial for further progress in traffic. Hopefully, the music of the matatus keeps passengers entertained. But if you decide to get off and walk (which will definitely be faster), watch where you step. Between the mud and the danger of being hit by a car, the former will be always the best option.

And despite everything this alien has been missing Nairobi!






Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.


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One Response to “An alien looks at Nairobi”

  1. simbacar

    Thanks for a great explanation


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