Battle between Nairobi city authorities and hawkers dates back to the 40s


Competition between established tax and licence-paying shopkeepers and hawkers has been a major cause of the conflict. [Courtesy]

Walking in downtown Nairobi requires some special skills. Nearly all the pavements have been taken over by hawkers.

The city council has been in perpetual war with hawkers. And there has never been a clear winner. It has been like this since 1940s, with these wars being fought in different streets using different weapons. The various administrations have taken advantage of their position to legitimise violence, and have at times deployed lethal force. 

Hawkers have used their numbers, wit and resilience to outwit their rivals. A researcher, Clare C Robertson in the report, “Whose Crime? Arson, class warfare and traders in Nairobi, 1940-2000,” traces the genesis of these hostilities and the methods adopted to contain the petty traders.

Competition between established tax and licence-paying shopkeepers and hawkers has been a major cause of the conflict. Way back in April 1942, East Africa Traders Association which represented shopkeepers, wrote to the Nairobi Town Clerk demanding tighter restrictions on hawkers, claiming some hawkers were involved in criminal activities.

Nairobi Municipal Native Affairs Officer Thomas Colchester in his 1941 Annual Report indicated that “the native hawker was usually a Kikuyu from 60-70 miles away who made between Sh25 and Sh20 a day for working for a maximum of four hours”. This hawker according to the Native officer “was male, lived in crowded parts of Pumwani and rarely had a wife or family.”

The government was at the time concerned because Nairobi’s African population had shot from 41,000 in 1939 to 70,000 in 1941, and wanted to pass laws to control further urban migration.

It is against this backdrop that the colonial government decided in 1941, “With a view to limiting the native population and particularly the prostitutes, passes are now being issued for permanent residents. At the same time the number of hawkers’ licenses is to be reduced from 500 to a maximum of 300.”

At the time, there were 470 itinerant hawkers, 225 traders, 145 shopkeepers, 150 proprietors of eating houses, 280 skilled artisanal workers, and 235 service workers in Nairobi.

To control the rising numbers, the government banned women from hawking and even denied uji sellers licences, but had to rescind the decision due to public outcry at the prospect of African labourers working on empty stomachs.

This war is still going on as hawkers are often times ejected out of the CBD with whips and batons.

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