Nairobbery: life in the fenced city

Last September the world was shocked by terrorist group al-Shabaab’s killing of 67 people in Nairobi’s Westgate mall. But long before al-Shabaab’s brazen mall attack, in retaliation for Kenyan military intervention in Somalia, Nairobi already had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. So much so that it has earned the nickname ‘Nairobbery.

Armed robberies in broad daylight, rapes, and recently terrorist attacks, and explosions in public spaces, seem to be the order of the day in the Kenyan capital. And it’s clear that security measures have greatly increased after the Westgate attack. Security in the city’s malls, hotels, Matatus and compounds has intensified in recent months. At the entrance to supermarket parking lots, security guards thoroughly check cars. Commuters are searched for weapons before boarding the buses at rush hour.

At housing compounds, which are protected with electric fences, guards control who goes in and out. Luxury hotel chains have introduced screening machines, and wherever you go there are signs warning of the presence of surveillance officers from major security firms.

Mercedes, a former employee of the Spanish embassy, does not rely on such security actions and says that “it only intimidates the crooks, but I sincerely doubt that these guards can prevent further attacks”.

Beyond terrorism: security in residential neighborhoods

Radar, Starlight, G4S, Lavington and KK are some of the main private security firms in the city. A sector with clear benefits thanks to the widespread fear of Nairobi’s residents.

Eric is one of many security guards working in the city’s residential compounds. He is 26, lives in the Kibera slum, and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. works as a guard in the Kilimani neighborhood. The wealthy minority that lives here sleeps in cramped compounds that are monitored around the clock. A cell phone, a baton and some prayers are this young Kenyan’s inseparable companions.

“They give us free training, teach us how to defend ourselves and how to ensure the security measures,” explains Eric. “When you finish the course, you have a job guaranteed and that’s why I decided to devote myself to this.”

Eric says sometimes he is afraid because “you never know who may appear.” But inside the security hut there is an emergency button, which will alert nearby patrol cars. “So if something happens, I know someone would be here soon,” he says.

While residents in wealthy Nairobi neighborhoods enjoy this type of 24-hour security, the reality in the peri-urban areas is very different. Kenya’s police to population ratio is 1:1,000, a figure that makes it impossible to combat violence and theft in most of the city, but especially in neighborhoods abandoned by the government, like the slums.

“It’s very difficult to live without fear at night in neighborhoods like Kibera,” says the young guard.

Most people in Nairobi can not afford a safe house.Working 12 hours a day, six days a week, Eric says he earns 9,800 Kenyan shillings per month ($113). But most secure apartments usually cost about70,000 shillings per month ($810).

“I wish I could live in a safer place,” he says, pointing to the electric fence surrounding the apartments he protects.

Not everyone believes that private security companies really work. “I do not feel safe at home. There are many cases of theft in these compounds. Sometimes the guards and police are in cahoots. You can not trust anyone,” says Dorcus, a mother and housewife who lives in the same compound where Eric works.

There are many factors tied to crime in Nairobi: low wages, high unemployment among urban youths, and social segregation between the low and middle- to upper-class. The corruption that is prevalent among Nairobi’s police doesn’t help either.

Despite terrorist attacks widely publicized as major threats to safety, everyday crime is extensive. And it’s like Nairobi is two cities in one. Electrified fences, patrol cars, and armed guards are a reality for those able to afford private properties, ehile the dangers of living in “Nairobbery” remain very real for the majority of the city’s residents.


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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