Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of MURDO. The names of those interviewed have been changed.
Since the early 1980s, Somalis (of Kenyan and Somali origin) began to settle en masse in Eastleigh, a low income area in Nairobi. Today, it is seen as an area dominated by Somalis and their myriad of business enterprises. However, this was not always the case. During the colonial period, Eastleigh was mainly populated by well-to-do Asian immigrants. After Kenya achieved independence in 1964, they began to move out of Eastleigh and into wealthier areas. By the 1970s, Eastleigh had become predominantly Kenyan-controlled. The demographic composition of Eastleigh changed again in the early 1990s with the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia; the resulting civil conflict and famine led to a mass influx of Somali refugees into Kenya, with many making their way to Nairobi and in particular, Eastleigh.
While many would assume that an area dominated by refugees would become an island of despair, Eastleigh is a bustling hub of commercial activity. Despite many problems, most notably with public infrastructure and waste management, refugees have prevailed and transformed the district into a prominent business center. Shoppers from all over Kenya flock to Eastleigh, trudging through the bumpy and muddy roads to buy quality goods at low prices. Business in Easteligh has also attracted customers, middlemen and shop owners from Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania who purchase items in bulk and resell them in their home countries.
Eastleigh’s transformation into a commercial center is largely credited to investment by wealthy Somali businessmen as well as the ingenuity and indelible perseverence of urban refugees from Eriteria, Ethiopia, and Somalia (the largest population of refugees in Kenya). This has not always been seen in a positive light by local Kenyans, with many claiming booming business is due to piracy money or Al-Shabaab, but most of this, as is often the case, is due to xenophonia rather than hard facts.
Upon initial introduction to “Little Mogadishu,” as Eastleigh is known, the cacaphony of sounds, smell and fast-moving bodies is overwhelming. The stench of garbage mingles with adar, a rose oil worn by Somali women. Shoppers and sellers swarm the streets, using rocks to jump over and escape the sewage water flooding the streets. Large trucks and buses force their way through the narrow roads creating huge traffic jams. Hawkers effortlessly weave through the madness, selling tank tops, hangers and large shopping bags with the Statute of Liberty printed on them.
Tall discount malls (right) and street-side businesses populate First Avenue Eastleigh. Much of what used to be residential blocks has now been converted into modern outlet malls and hotels. These hotels and malls are just the tip of a much larger economy fueled by urban refugees and migrants working in the informal sector. This includes jobs as shoe shiners, shop attendants, mechanics, waiters, car washers and herdsmen in peri-urban areas.
The streets are lined with roadside stands where Somalis sell fabrics, undergarments, scarves, shoes, toiletries, henna, crockery and vegetables. Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees operate catering and beauty businesses as well as matatus. A number of women also make injera, a spongy Ethiopian bread, and sell it to restaurants or households.
I was introduced to Eastleigh two years ago. Longing for home, I had heard that Tenth Street is teeming with Ethiopian shops selling buna (ethiopian coffee), berbere (chili powder), injera, shiro (bean powder), and other ingredients I needed to recreate my mother’s Ethiopian dishes. Sitting in the small cafe, drinking an Ethiopian macchiato comprised of textured milk and a “mark” of espresso, made me feel at home. I was thousands of miles away from my family in Seattle but had a found my community in Nairobi.
Initially, my visits caused some anxiety. The bus ride was arduous, full of bumps, shakes and fast-speed turns that left me uttering prayers in Tigrinya. Upon arrival, the environment seemed too desolate to inspire anything except pity and discomfort.
It was not until I began working with urban refugees in Eastleigh that I began to fully appreciate that Eastleigh was more than just a bargain hunter’s dream—the transformation of Eastleigh into a commercial center despite the harsh living conditions is a testament to the resilence and creativity of urban refugees. Their ability to thrive in urban settings demonstrates that, contrary to some beliefs, refugees are not a burden but an economic asset.
However, they face many hurdles. Due to their inability to obtain work permits, urban refugees live in the fringes of society, fearful of arrest and and violation. The Immigration Act of Kenya allows Class M work permits to be issued to refugees recognized by the Kenyan goverment but it stopped issuing them in 2004. Without work permits, refugees are only able to work in an informal sector that offers very little protection from abuse. Some employers refuse to pay wages because they know that refugees have very little legal recourse. Corrupt police officials also harass and extort, regardless of whether refugees have proper documentation or not.
Interviewes with urban refugees revealed that life in Eastleigh is not easy. However, through determination, community support and remittance from relatives living abroad, they are able to make ends meet and in some cases, thrive.
Asha, a Somali woman with four children, is an asylum-seeker awaiting a decision on her refugee status from UNHCR. She earns a living near 1st Street, making bags and kitchen mats from vibrant African cloths. She is able to sell her bags for 400-600 shillings (about $5-$7), which earns her enough money to buy food for her family and save a little for rent. Though there is insecurity in Eastleigh, she manages to navigate the harsh landscape, aided by her ability to speak Swahili and supported by her husband.
On 8th Steet is Day to Day, a huge electronic store owned by Somalis. Day to Day sells every electronic and household item imaginable at much lower prices than one would find in Nairobi’s city center. Due to links with Somalis in the diaspora, they are able to ship goods at low cost. Business is booming and there are even plans to expand business to other parts of East Africa, including South Sudan.
Though he has a business license, Simon, an Eriterean who owns a food and DVD store on 10th Street, explained that he often gets harrased by the city council because he is unable to provide an expiration date for some items, such as shiro and berbere, which are dry food items that have a very long shelf life. In 2004, Simon escaped forced military recruitment and religious persection in Asmara when he came to Nairobi. He managed to open a shop in 2006 with two other Eritrean men. Simon revealed that they are rarely harrased by police because “the police here know us.” When asked about his life in Nairobi , he said “It is hard to be in a country that is not your own. Starting again is difficult.”
Alem, a 26 year-old Ethiopian refugee who sells coffee and tea outside a small kiosk, left Ethiopia in 2005. Since she does not have a city council license to operate a business, she is a prime target for police and city councial officials looking to make money on the side. “I pay this woman 100 shillings [about $1.25] everyday to sell coffee and tea in front of her store. When City Council or police come, I pay them 30 shillings [ $.36] so they don’t arrest me. I get 200-300 shillings a day, which is not enough but sometimes my church helps me.”
During the journey back home, I reflected on the numerous conversations I had in Eastleigh that day. I thought about the difficulty of starting over in a new country and how for refugees, that situation is compounded by legal issues that restict freedom of movement and limit economic integration.
Urban refugees hustle in Nairobi and though their life is full of uncertainty and insecurity, they find a way to prevail. It’s this hustle to survive, every minute of everyday that helps them navigate the challenges they face in Eastleigh—that and their community. This reminded me of what Muna, a 63-year-old Ethiopian refugee woman, had said to me last summer: “In this world, what we need is people.” Due to community networks in Eastleigh and the diaspora, refugees have created an environment where they, against a harsh legal landscape, are able to thrive.