Nairobi: A city torn between heritage and modernity

Nairobi's skyline at night from Upper Hill. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The 2010 constitution borrowed heavily from the American constitution of 1789 and its 27 amendments. So much so that we even used terms that have fallen out of use such as Secretary.

Why is that word so common at high levels of government? Cabinet Secretary, Principal Secretary and Chief Administrative Secretary (proposed), among others?

It's curious that in the past, the term secretary denoted working at the lower ranks of an organisation. It's the other way now - but mostly in the public sector.

In the private sector, the title personal assistant is a more common term. Enough on jobs. The framers of our 12-year-old constitution gave us counties but forgot that in the US, they are lower than States. There are three levels of government in the US.

That gap has been closed by having regional coordinators in the provincial administration and other government agencies like the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).

They also forgot to notice that there are no nominated Members of the County Assembly (MCAs), MPs or senators in the US. And there are no women representatives (reps). Which other country has women reps?

They forgot to give Nairobi a national status like capital cities such as Washington DC in the US, Abuja in Nigeria, Brasilia in Brazil or Canberra in Australia.

Nairobi is both a county and a seat of the national government. Why else is its governor Johnson Sakaja and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua having a conversation over matatus entering the central business district (CBD) or bars in residential places?

Does this conversation leave no doubt that the city of Nairobi is torn between the past and the present?

And Why? Nairobi has a triple heritage. It has tried to be an international city hosting the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and Habitat offices. Lots of international institutions and businesses have their headquarters there.

Aerial view of a section of Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

A proliferation of malls was part of that 'internationalisation.' Lots of global brands are found in these malls. Add the setting up of the Nairobi International Financial Centre.

The arrival of elite hotel brands such as Raddison, Hilton, Crowne Plaza, and Sheraton, among others is part of that 'internationalisation.'

Hilton has left me perplexed: They closed the CBD hotel but have opened 'Hiltonlets' on the outskirts of the city.

Does that show how the CBD has lost its lustre? It seems that the CBD will soon be left to the government.

Second heritage

Why not turn all these empty hotels and offices into apartments? Who said you must commute to work?

The second heritage is national, being the capital city, government officials from politicians to civil servants live there. That aggregation of leaders gives the city a special status.

Every five years, a new crop of leaders makes the city their home.

Most never leave after that. Students graduating from universities make it their home too. The city is always sucking in new people. Few leave either through natural attrition or giving up. Paradoxically, devolution made the city more attractive.

How do you stand out among the many counties? Make Nairobi your home! Lots of money made in the counties - legally or illegally - eventually makes its way back to the city.

That creates demand for goods and services and hence the high prices, from rent to a cup of tea. Noted, the county cars plying Nairobi streets every day? Did I hear some governors excluding Sakaja operate or used to operate from Nairobi? The third heritage is local, Nairobi despite its national and international status has ordinary Kenyans as the majority, making up over 60 per cent of the population.

That is the group that Mr Gachagua is vouching for. They were either born there or have immigrated. Mr Sakaja sees the other 40 per cent, the expatriates, the civil servants, the sophisticated entrepreneurs, or retirees.

A section of Nairobi city. [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

They want peace in their homes and no noise from bars. They could probably afford wine in the house. Do you recall one city official saying the city is for whiskey and not chang'aa takers?

The rest, 60 per cent, the hustlers who live in the slums or pseudo slums or high-rise apartments do not notice the noise. They make a living out of it. They have kiosks or vibandas. And taking alcohol is part of their entertainment. There are no playgrounds or open spaces.

The triple heritage of the city is further illustrated by road networks. Some use the expressway, away from the public, with no bumps, roundabouts or police.

The rest are caught in the traffic jam commuting in matatus.

Others walk home or take bodabodas. Some never leave the city and are homeless. The local heritage is further complicated by immigrants who come to the city but keep their traditions, from language to food and religion.

Schools also reflect triple heritage. We have international schools, public schools and private schools.

That's replicated in medical services with waganga (witchdoctors) at the lowest level. Even churches have heritages ending with street preachers.

Economic classes

All these heritages have been cross-pollinated by colonial set up which still echoes to this day with estates reserved for certain social economic classes.

Seen signboards like "no matatus allowed on this road?"

Our leaders often represent one of these heritages or are hostages to them. Money or lack of it defines the heritages which rarely merge and are hardened over time.

We come to accept them and at times admire them. We work hard to shift from one heritage to the other, with pride. Some observers like former Murang'a Senator Kembi Gitura have suggested one way to disentangle this heritage is to make Nairobi a national territory.

That could demand a constitutional amendment. Was that in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)?

If we copied or adopted the US constitution, we could adopt its amendments. The constitution is not the holy Bible or the Koran, it can be changed to suit the changing circumstances. The three heritages will always contest, often using politics to advance their economic agenda. That is the reality our leaders must accept.

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