Real Life in Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, also known as the ‘city in the sun’, is a place of contrasts.The name comes from a Maasai phrase, enkare Nairobi, meaning a place of cool waters.  It is located nearly at the midpoint of Kenya; this makes it an ideal location for a capital city. The city covers an area of approximately 684 square kilometers, and has a population estimated to be at four million. Consequently, it is East Africa’s most populous city. Being one of the biggest cities in the continent, it is set to meet the 10 million person ‘mega-city’ definition in a few decades. So how is the real life here?

One side of the city is burdened with deep socio-economic challenges, overburdened infrastructure, unemployment, insufficient waste management, and growing informal settlements.

The other side is the literal ‘city in the sun’. It boasts of being the only city in the world to have a national park within its boundaries. In some suburbs, it is very common to find signposts alerting residents that the usual lions are out for a stroll, so one should do their best to avoid bumping into them. It is also home to various international agencies/corporations, which results in it having a robust expat community.

Nairobi is a city of opportunities and immigrants, as the stories below prove. Most people come to Nairobi from different parts of Kenya and East Africa in hopes of bettering their lives. For the most part, the real life here  does not disappoint.

The Walking Nation

Young, naïve, and straight out of high school, Mary came to Nairobi approximately 20 years ago. Coming from the eastern part of Kenya, which depends predominantly on ever dwindling agricultural fortunes, she was buoyed by the promise of opportunities in the big city. She settled with an aunt at the expansive Mathare slums in the eastern part of the city. Mathare is the second biggest slum in Nairobi, following Africa’s biggest slum, Kibera (Care International 2009; UN-Habitat 2010). Mathare was “built” on top of a garbage dump over many years as more and more people settled there. Constructed on both sides of a stream, it is a long strip of tin and wooden shacks with earthen walls. The number of inhabitants in Mathare is estimated at between 600,000 and 800,000. It is closely located to the city centre – about five kilometres from the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD). Mathare is very densely populated, and most people live in shacks made of corrugated iron (mabati). Since it is located in small streets, all houses also border each other very closely.

Mathare is extremely busy as well. There is the constant buzz of activities such as a cacophony of human voices, children playing and crying, music blaring, and the loud sound of popular Nairobi public service vehicles, matatus, passing on the busy main road above. In addition, vendors of vegetables, fruits, meat, or fish try to sell their wares wherever a small space is available. The smell of food is also prevalent – women cook outside on wood and charcoal fires. In contrast, babies and small children are bathed in the street and alley ways. Children do not use toilet facilities, but relieve themselves outside in the gutter or at the side of the road instead.

The river that is mentioned below is a flurry of activities, most of them either illegal or morally repressive. As Mary’s city honeymoon waned, she was welcomed by her aunt into her core business. Brewing the popular and illegal spirit, chang’aa as it is known here, by using old drums in the sewerage slogged river. This brew has been solely responsible for a number of catastrophes over the years in Mathare, as well as in other slums all over the country. It’s cheap and borderline poisonous, that is why sometimes people go blind or even lose their lives after taking it. Mary was tasked with being the pretty face on the frontline: a waiter. Her aunt and whole family functioned on different chains in the practice. There were the brewers down by the river that deal with the drums and dirty water, the transporters who always must be wary of the police, and the waiters at the chang’aa den, which also doubled as their home. She says it was a dog’s life; however, because she was lacking any other opportunities, it meant she was stuck there.

After all, this job provided Mary with accommodations. On good days when the cops had not raided the shacks, she could even pocket Kshs4000 ($40), which is not bad for somebody with very limited bills. Unfortunately, those days were rare. Most days, the chain of supply and beneficiaries had to contend with nearly nothing, apart from the ever apt and hawk-eyed policemen who made sure to collect.

This life would stretch on for five years before Mary broke out and set up her own operation. She says in retrospect that this made life easier and created an illusion of success. Mary had nearly half a million in her account at the time, and it was the height of the business. However, it all came tumbling down when police raids and stringent laws against illegal brews increased. Because of these reinforcements, Mary was ensured to spend many nights in police cells; that is when she stopped.

I asked her how she looks at that part of her life. She stated that it was nostalgic and filled with possibilities of quick riches that never materialized. She then shifted to shame, saying she is not proud. Now older and more experienced, Mary understands that the brew broke families and people, and even killed some. Because of this, she is not proud and is glad that part of her life is over.

Mary is still a current Mathare resident. She has a small family of three daughters who look up to her, and she is also a part of the Nairobi walking workforce. The walking workforce loosely translates to the part of population who, for various reasons, choose to walk to work every day. The chief reason for making this decision is to be financial. Some either cannot afford to pay the little required by the matatus, or don’t own private means.

A morning for Mary starts at 4.00 AM. She prepares the children for school, which is not far from the shack, then gets her breakfast- usually leftover Ugali from the previous night and strong tea. After that, the journey begins. It is an eight-kilometer trek to the industrial area, punctuated by biting cold and light drizzle. During wet months, these weather conditions are substituted by rains and mud. On her commute, Mary joins thousands from her slum, as well as others from around the city  that earn a living the same way. They are in Nairobi roads every morning and evening, with blank looks on their faces and an inherent sense of urgency. Some even have to walk for 15 kilometers or more. These individuals include watchmen, cleaners, and casual labourers, most of them earning only the minimum wage or a little bit more.

Mary is a casual laborer at an industrial area. She takes whatever comes her way so that she may make it home in the evening with some few shillings. What she earns can barely meet the basic needs for her and her family, so transport becomes expendable. Sometimes she may get lucky and get a recurring position. Currently, Mary works in the packaging department of a French beans exporting firm; it’s a position that she has held for the past three months. She is hopeful that it will transform into a permanent one in the near future, so she will not have to continually worry about the next day. This way, her children will be assured of a meal, and she won’t have to play cat and mouse games with her landlord.

The City in the Sun

Mumo did not come to Nairobi; he was born here. That’s what he proudly says when I enquired about his origins in this great city. At 30 years old, he says he has seen it all. The city has been kind to him, but it has also been cruel and filled with sadness from time to time. Nonetheless, he loves his city and could not wish to be anywhere else.

Mumo is a juakali artisan. The term is Swahili for ‘fierce sun’, referencing the hard and usually hot conditions they work in. Originally, it referred to the travelling pedlars and artisans who worked in the midday heat. It has since evolved to be a name for workers in Kenya’s informal sector. The specialties range from fixing cars to cobbling together electrical goods and clothing using discarded items. The people who do this are gifted repairmen, junkyard inventors, and DIY entrepreneurs.

Kenya has one of the largest numbers of informal workers in Africa. Employment in the sector stands at 77.9 percent of the total, which is ahead of Rwanda’s 73.4 percent, Uganda’s 59.2 percent, and Tanzania’s 8.5 percent. In Egypt, Liberia, Madagascar, Mauritius, and South Africa, the sector offers jobs to 51.2, 49.5, 51.8, 9.3, and 17.8 per cent of workers.

It was midday on a sunny, September day when I was walking along Landhies road, hopping over puddles of water on my way to Mumo’s workplace.  I walked past many shops of the same trade. All of them were made of old corrugated iron, mabati, and some were overly ambitious in construction. The buildings all looked flimsy, so it seemed a bit of a stretch to make some of them balance on top of others. In fact, it looked like a strong gust of wind could blow them over. The shops line their wares on the small space in front, as well as the pavement. Most of the articles included metallic items, boxes, wheelbarrows, and cooking pots. That is also the reason for the noisy clang of iron-against-iron which makes having conversations a strain. I even had to jump over long metal pipes and beams at times; however, the artisans didn’t seem to care, they moved swiftly and with a sense of purpose. Some were hollering for customers, others carrying pails or buckets, as well as the ones building stuff.

The shops located at Landhies road are part of the larger area of Kamukunji juakali. The area is famous for being the first one to be discovered and recognized by the government of Kenya. In the decades following independence, the juakali artisans in the area were harassed by the city authorities using existing and non-existent health acts to control their expansion and curtail their profits. Shops were demolished regularly, and it wasn’t rare for fires to occur. Change came in 1985 when the then President, Daniel Arap Moi, visited the area and made a revolutionary promise to provide sheds to the artisans if they formed associations. This resulted in the first ever Juakali associations.

The area currently boasts of about 5,000 artisans in more than 2,000 enterprises over 10 hectares (for a population density of about 130,000 per square mile). The artisans work in a variety of trades that focus mostly on metal work, and produce products such as wheelbarrows and energy saving charcoal stoves. A subsector of the businesses makes capital goods to sell to other businesses, such as presses and folding machines. Business support services also coexist with producers. These include scrap metal dealers, metal cutters and folders, gas and electrical welders, welding rod suppliers, and polish and paint traders.

Like many others in the area, Mumo started as an apprentice. Although he failed to get a university admission after completing his secondary school studies, it did not dim his hopes. He still remembers the day he showed up at his cousin’s shop: he threw a hammer at Mumo and told him to get busy. Over the years, he learned how to make a variety of items and negotiate good prices for them. He is now an expert at wheelbarrows and is the king of a production line. Production lines start from sourcing for scrap metal, to molding and constructing it, to selling the finished product by the roadside.

Mumo says the city has been kind on him. With the income he generates, he has been able to take his child to a decent private school, and he is able to sort his family obligations comfortably. He has even employed two other apprentices on his shop and if the trend keeps up, he will expand into another shop very soon.

The Vibrant City

For Regina, a lawyer, Nairobi is incredibly versatile and becomes whatever you make of it. This is what she has found out in the last 10 years as she has been a resident of the city. She came to Nairobi straight after high school in order to join the University Of Nairobi. Her whole family had to relocate here from Machakos, a town a hundred or so kilometers from Nairobi, where they had lived since she was young. It helped that her older siblings were also attending University in Nairobi.

Nairobi has long borne the moniker of Nairoberry. It is a nickname the city earned back in the 90’s due to the rising rates of crime. To be specific, there was an influx in carjackings, kidnappings, and armed robberies. Although these still exist, the rate has gone down, and the current nickname is not exactly fitting. However, the name was still relevant when Regina was a new, naïve student. She was constantly afraid and kept getting lost in the city, and the knowledge that she might get robbed at any moment made her really uncomfortable.

The experience of growing up in a different city and constant travel gives her a multi-faceted approach to the life here. Back when she was still a student, she got to spent one semester in Kisumu campus. Kisumu is a city in the western part of Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria. While staying in Kisumu, Regina says she experienced a stark difference. Despite Kisumu being a city, the school and public libraries were poorly stocked compared to Nairobi. She also found it harder to find a part time job there.

On the flip side, she still finds the Nairobi commute to be quite hectic. On a good day, it takes her one and a half hours to get from her house to the office. To put into perspective, she lives seven kilometers away from her office. Regina thinks that Dar Es Salaam and Addis Ababa are doing much better transport wise, and she wishes Nairobi could adopt such a system.

Regina works as a lawyer in a government agency; a position which gives her an opportunity to serve the country. It fills her with honour and a sense of patriotism, and the perks of frequent travelling both inside and outside the country are a plus. In conclusion, she looks to continue growing in the field.

Things to Know

Kenya is often perceived or referred to as Eastern and Central Africa’s Financial, Communication and Transportation hub. The city of Nairobi is the largest metropolis in East Africa, and is home to the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE), one of Africa’s largest stock exchanges. With its growing communication industry, and the realization of the Silicon Savannah dream, Kenya’s economic future looks promising. See’s travel guide for tips on doing business in Nairobi.

Nairobi’s real estate scene has grown steadily over the past few years. This has resulted in development of rather majestic houses which don’t hold back in opulence. These new entrants, plus the old gems from the colonial era, are the driving forces on the Nairobi luxury housing scene.

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