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Part 1

Kenya: Eastleigh Goes Global

Paul Goldsmith17 August 2008

Nairobi — You can get anything you need here--even human body parts!" So I was told during my first visit to Eastleigh.

The year was 1979, and even then, Eastleigh was somehow different from other Nairobi mitaa (neighbourhoods). The streets were cluttered but non-threatening. Unpretentious kiosks served up excellent food to the sound of exotic music.

The usual complement of hustlers looked for an opening, but did not hassle. Like Louisiana, a haven for pirates and smugglers -- indeed, the laissez faire but jazzy social ambiance reminded me of New Orleans.

Eastleigh is served by public transport plying routes 6 and 9. Vehicles departing from opposite sides of Tom Mboya Street inscribe a loop transiting Nairobi's original Asian and Afro-Arab neighbourhoods, comparable to London's Circle Line, and criss-cross in Eastleigh. Although Pumwani, Ngara, or Pangani could have emerged as loci for similar transformations, this relatively small cityscape provided the stage for changes setting it apart from the rest of Nairobi.

The purpose of my initial visit was a meeting with the Yahoos -- a product of one of those unpremeditated moments of inspiration when a clutch of friends dedicate themselves to doing good acts. The Yahoos were a mixed bag of self-described "Kenyans" that included several members of that era's cultural elite.

I ended up spending many a pleasant afternoon on the balcony of the musician and arranger, Slim Ali, discussing a range of contemporary topics with representatives of Eastleigh's ethnic, religious, cultural, and occupational diversity.

Twenty-five years later, Slim's second-story veranda on the corner of Wood Street overlooks a scene both familiar and radically changed. The new has grafted onto the old. First Avenue is now a permanent traffic jam lined with walls of stalls.

Around the corner, Garissa Lodge, which launched a new business model by converting rooms into small shops, has undergone its third makeover, setting the standard for Eastleigh's glitzy shopping complexes.

Enticing aromas and sounds still waft from the nondescript kiosks -- that also house high-tech communication facilities connecting the locals to the expanding cultural universes of ethnic Diaspora.

Commerce, capital, and international linkages have transformed the intersection of routes 6 and 9 into the epicentre of Nairobi's indigenous economy. Ethnic capital is challenging entrenched formal-sector interests (neo-colonialism, as it used to be described once upon a time).

In a 1997 interview on the KTN news, Kenya's then finance minister George Saitoti remarked that the Central Bank fixes its currency exchange rates after checking with the money-dealers in Garissa Lodge.

The wealthy man is, to paraphrase the Nigerian adage, a fountain where all the birds of the world come to drink: First Street is an Afro-oriental bazaar where they come to shop, cut deals, chew khat. Westlands is posh, the Village Market is chic, but Eastleigh is the Horn of Africa's most important crossroads.

Fancy structures several years old fade as a succession of larger and shinier buildings sprout up along decayed streets. Flagstones and awnings are reclaiming the reserves on their margins, which turn into a fetid slurry of mud and trash during the rains.

Rivers of pedestrians weave their way through litter generated by the diverse commodities on display. In Eastleigh, urban decay provides fertile ground for the growth of commerce and capital.

If socioeconomic transition is a messy process, Eastleigh's funk is evidence of transition going full-tilt; competing theories highlight diverse factors that set the process in motion.

Adam Smith singled out economic geography -- concentrations of key resources, coastlines, and other trade-enabling factors; for Marx, it was the social relations of production. Ideologists of the Asian Tigers credit superior cultural values.

In Africa, a succession of policies from commercial agriculture to privatisation to governance reform to poverty alleviation have yet to significantly reverse the continent's economic malaise.

Over the same period, Eastleigh has gone from modest residential neighbourhood to vibrant multiethnic marketplace. Some unlikely factors gave rise to this improbable exemplar of adaptation to infrastructural neglect, state collapse, and social marginalisation. But before examining how this came about, we need to locate the phenomenon in space and time.

The Eastleigh of the colonial planners comprised seven roughly contiguous sections. Eastleigh sections One and Two fall along First and Second Avenues, and are separated from Section Three by a large tract of aerodrome land and California and Biafra estates.

Section Seven occupies the pocket adjacent to Pumwani and General Waruinge Road. Sections Four, Five, and Six exist in name only; it is not clear where in this landscape they would fit if they did.

Though confusing, the configuration is somehow consistent with Nairobi's inchoate road grid, haphazard zoning, and counter-intuitive pattern of formal and informal settlement. It only follows that a rundown neighbourhood associated with several of Kenya's more conservative communities figures in the emergence of the region's most dynamic economic hub.

In the beginning, Eastleigh was residential. The Sikhs and Goans who originally occupied Eastleigh Phase One were socially less clannish than other Asian communities, and perhaps this influenced the area's post-Uhuru shift from ethnic enclave to Nairobi's first transitional neighbourhood.

The transition to this Phase Two dates back to the quiet acquisition of houses by Somali women before post-independence Africanisation gathered steam.

Like the well-documented phenom-enon in Mombasa, many of the women landlords were divorcees who became courtesans. Property was a low-profile but profitable investment for such women. Their holdings in turn provided the magnet for Somalis and other pastoralists migrating from the rangelands of the north.

While their numbers gave Eastleigh its strong Somali imprint, they are perhaps the largest in a mix of minorities -- ethnic entrepreneurs explaining its rise as a commercial habitat whose multicultural synergies distinguished it from the city's other business districts.

Swahili and other urbanised Africans began to buy property as the Asians moved to new haunts in South C and Nairobi West; some remained behind to run businesses. The Gikuyu presence in Eastleigh increased apace with their expanding financial clout during the Kenyatta era.

Eastleigh became a place where Somali transporters parked their double trailers along side streets, coastal Swahili ran lodgings, Gikuyu women sold produce and their men ran bars, and Meru miraa traders hung up their banana leaf flags outside shops. The Kamba sold tires, Ethiopians turned their living rooms into cafes, and the flashes of Luo welders lit up the night.

The integrative dynamic at work in Eastleigh was essentially the same as the Swahilisation preceding it in the multi-ethnic majengo settlements of Kenya's cities and towns. But class, mobility, and government intervention insured that Pumwani, the mother of all these majengos, remained an unreformed ghetto. Nairobi's first African neighbourhood, once home to Jomo Kenyatta and Milton Obote, Pumwani became synonymous with poverty and crime after Uhuru.

Sustainable Development
Three separate urban renewal projects have failed to alleviate Pumwani's overcrowded conditions. The construction of California Estate saw its original Swahili inhabitants shift next door, only for a new wave of relatives and strangers to move in before their old dwellings could be razed.

Biafra was created with the same objective in mind, but the result was the same. And the blocks of high-rise flats built in 1989 only increased the numbers residing amid Majengo's open sewers and filth.

Although Eastleigh started at a higher level in respect to housing and roads, the area experienced a similar degree of infrastructural deterioration during the 1980s. Roads were potholed, garbage piled up, and houses and shops disappeared behind lines of illegal kiosks. But several critical factors insured it did not follow the downward pathway of Pumwani and other areas of Nairobi's Eastlands.

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