• Capital city no longer boasts of open spaces, clean streets and organised housing
• Devolution and infrastructure development make upcountry affordably attractive
“Green city in the sun.”
That’s how Nairobi — ‘Kanairo’ in slang — is described in marketing brochures. But to many of its residents, the phrase is a cruel mockery of actual conditions on the ground.
The youth, who are the majority of city residents, never saw the Nairobi of open spaces, clean streets and organised housing that gave rise to “Green City in the Sun.” Some 60 per cent of the estimated 5 million Nairobians live in informal settlements. Many others live in flats where the sun never shines. The once leafy suburbs are not so leafy anymore.
The cost of living in Nairobi is at least five times higher than other regions in Kenya, says the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in its latest inequality report. Though Nairobi residents earn more than their counterparts elsewhere in Kenya, they spend much more on housing, food, utility bills and transport.
Young Kenyans in rural areas aspire to move to Nairobi, attracted by the bright city lights and stories of vast opportunities. "I was very excited coming to the city after completing high school," says Muthoni Mutuku, from Central Kenya. "Imagine my disappointment when I visited my former schoolmates and found they were living in homes much worse than what I left in the village," she recalls.
Muthoni has spent much of her adult life in the city but is not afraid of retreating to her rural home in between job contracts. With much of the city's shine slowly fading away, Kenyans are increasingly considering living outside Nairobi, where the costs of living are low and a greater sense of community exists among neighbours.
Devolution, combined with infrastructure development, means that one can enjoy "Nairobi standards" anywhere at a fraction of the cost of living in Nairobi. Electricity, piped water, good schools, tarmacked roads, universities and the Internet are no longer a monopoly of the big city.
Nairobi residents visiting other towns often get amazed by the lack of traffic jams, the spacious homes available at amazing rents, and the low levels of crime. Many would want to relocate right away but jobs are hard to get outside the city. Small towns favour individuals with technical skills, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, welders and mechanics. Lawyers and accountants also thrive in small towns.
Outside Nairobi, very few opportunities exist for professionals qualified in art subjects, but the growth of work-from-home jobs could change all that. One can get a job in Nairobi but live in a small town.
The challenges Nairobi residents are experiencing have been brewing for a long time. Andrew Mwanyasi, now a retiree in his seventies, recalls getting mugged right behind the Kenya National Archives one evening in 1974.
“The thieves beat me so hard I collapsed unconscious on the pavement," he recalls. He regained his senses several hours later in the middle of the night. Other than his pockets frisked clean, Mwanyasi was physically fine. Goes to show there's nothing new in the City under the Sun.
This story first appeared on the digital magazine Star Sasa, accessible on Sundays for Sh10 by dialling *550*3#
Edited by T Jalio