ART CHECK

Streets as locations of culture and the future

The likes of River Road are museums of sorts for those who care about history

In Summary

• Writers both colonial and postcolonial have talked about Kenyan streets

Congested Tom Mboya street with illegal matatus stages increasing in the Central Business District, Nairobi, on July 22
Congested Tom Mboya street with illegal matatus stages increasing in the Central Business District, Nairobi, on July 22
Image: WILFRED NYANGERESI

Town streets of Kenya are telling conduits for goods, people and vehicles. They narrate our culture to anyone who is keen or attentive. Our streets are the arenas for the performance of cultural identities of inhabitants of a place.

Tourists who arrive in Kenya do many things to appreciate their visit. Some take photos on our streets. Some walk hand in hand, sipping in as many sights and sounds as possible. Some get robbed or duped and become initiates of our street cultures, especially in Nairobi.

Writers both colonial and postcolonial have talked about Kenyan streets. The streets of Nairobi are painted with words that remind us in life, survival is for the fittest. It is only in Kenya, across East Africa, where you find the term “street families.” We all know them. However, many visitors to the city discover these families never ever to forget.

The discovery usually leads to deep lessons on the economic disparities of this popular tourist destination famed as the 'green city under the sun'. A toddler barely out of crawling age can chase you up a major Nairobi street for our tiniest coin. Another a bit older can crawl into your line of thought and sell you sweets.

The one you may worry about the most is the one who is peaceful in his zigzag world of intoxication as evident in his eyes of glass. As you zigzag through the maze that is downtown Nairobi, you become sober. Your sobriety resembles that of any of the city statues standing in pride, side by side, with a crippled begging woman breastfeeding a bouncing baby boy.

These streets can serve as museums of sorts for those who care about history. Most bear names of major figures in the life and times of our busy motherland. I take my children to the city centre often to instruct them on the name of each hero after whom a street is named.

Today, they know that in Nairobi, the street named after the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, is the longest. They know it starts near a famous vegetable market, where a Gikuyu singer observed local taxis are the backs of people. They know this majestic street ends near the biggest public library in Kenya.

They know that the length of this street symbolises the long history of Ethiopia. It signifies the long history of literacy and written literature of this northern neighbour of Kenya. Ethiopians did not know how to read and write because of missionaries from western Europe or slavers from southern Arabia.

They have been writing in their Geez and later Amharic long before the English adopted literacy and became Christians! Haile Selassie Avenue is Nairobi’s salute to old Ethiopia.

Kenyans of today look at Ethiopia of today as a hub of regional commerce. Safaricom, our finest commercial giant, is investing there. The government has built a majestic asphalt road northwards, linking Nairobi to Ethiopia.

Not all our streets are named after people. There is one named after the Nairobi River, the key feature captured in the Maasai meaning of the name of the capital city: a place of cool waters.

River Road is the commercial artery of the city. If you have not read any book by any Kenyan in your life, start with the explosive novel by Meja Mwangi called Going Down River Road. Welcome. You will discover Kenya properly in it, I tell you.

Personally, the street I love the most is the one called Commercial Street in Thika. The town used to be called the Birmingham of Kenya. Like that industrial hub of the United Kingdom, Thika is the home of more than 50 factories.

Today, this is one of our fastest-growing towns and houses Mount Kenya University, one of the fastest-growing private universities in Kenya. Together with tens of other colleges and schools, it has helped turn the image of Thika to one of a town of education besides industry and commerce.

Thousands of young Kenyans study and live in Thika today. They form the energy of this former agricultural town, once dominated by British colonial farmers. Flame Trees of Thika is a famous memoir of the colonial writer Elspeth Huxley. You still see some of these aged trees near Commercial Street, the heart of this town.

In daytime, Thika’s Commercial Street is the place to catch a fast shuttle to Nairobi. Three different shuttle lines park here. They are led by one named after another British town, Manchester. This one takes 30 minutes or less to get you to Nairobi at dawn.

As the sun sets, Commercial Street transforms into a river of clothes and shoes commerce, both new and recycled. Most of the hundreds of daily buyers and sellers range between 18 years and 40 years of age.

Their faces remind us that our future is both in commerce and the culture of the streets controlled by our ballooning youthful population.