• Nairobians are no strangers to having their roads named after the high and mighty.
• And the names have always signified which groups are in power and which are excluded.
Francis Atwoli is a man of means. Fabulously rich, the pugnacious 72-year-old has been at the helm of the Central Organization of Trade Unions for two decades, somewhat ironically representing over 2.5 million of Kenya’s poorly paid workers.
Under his watch, the labour movement has been completely neutered as a political force, and he is more notable for his annual pleas to the government for a rise in the minimum wage every Labour Day than for actually working to improve their lot as he has his own. His Wikipedia page describes him striding the political landscape “like a colossus” and says his “chief achievement was getting a street named after him in May 2021”.
However, that “achievement” has thrust him and his well-heeled neighbours into the heart of a controversy over memory and ownership of Nairobi, that has been raging ever since it was established, well over a century ago.
Nairobians are no strangers to having their roads named after the high and mighty. And the names have always signified which groups are in power and which are excluded. While in its early years, the city’s roads had numerical naming, by the mid-1920s these were increasingly replaced by British and Indian names, the top groups in the racist hierarchy the British had created.
The streets bore the monickers of British settler farmers and colonial officials, as well as prominent Indian business and religious leaders. As Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita and Kosuke Matsubara observe in their paper detailing the history of Nairobi’s street toponymy, by 1936, “the marginalisation of Africans was apparent in the street naming since no street in the central area was given an African name.”
This underscored the fact that Nairobi was not meant for Africans. The colonial government provided little in the way of housing and public services for them. Even though Africans were the largest population group in the segregated city, Wanjiru-Mwita later notes that “the ‘African native’ was [considered] a temporary resident of the city. Africans could only live in the city as registered labourers”.
At independence in 1963, “Africanisation” of the city, and of the inherited colonial apparatus, was the priority. Nairobi streets would again be the stage where dominance would be asserted. Initially done haphazardly, it was not until 1972 when a policy for renaming streets was laid down.
Across the city, the new naming regime not only signified the marginalisation of the whites and Indians, but also reflected the ethnicised politics of the day and the dominance of the Kikuyu ethnic group and celebrated the new African elite across the continent. With the exception of heads of state, death was generally a requirement for one to have a road named after them.
Despite the pretensions at Africanisation, Nairobi is still, at heart, a colonial town that deeply resents the influx of poor Africans into its centre. The city’s DNA continues to be anti-poor and anti-African. It is also anti-women. Within the CBD, only one road is named after a woman, and that’s only because she was the President’s wife. This is a throwback to the days only working African men were allowed in. They were expected to leave their families in the native reserve, and women had to sneak their way into the city as prostitutes or chang’aa brewers.
The furore over Atwoli’s road has coincided with yet another chaotic attempt by city authorities to “decongest” the city by evicting the public transport vehicles, commonly referred to as matatus, that many Nairobians rely on to move around. A few years ago, a similar proposal to ban private vehicles from the central business district, a preserve of a small wealthy elite, was floated, but was given short shrift.
Just as when the British ran the city, the vast majority of Nairobi’s population is still housed in slums which receive few public services. While most people walk to work, the authorities prefer to build roads for the rich rather than walkways.
The fight over the naming of roads can be seen as part of the continuing struggle to truly convert Nairobi into an African city. That is, a city that works for the majority of its residents rather than for just a few of them; one that reflects the aspirations of the many rather than functioning as a laundry for elite reputations.