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Alas! The age of vertical ghettos is truly upon Kenya

By XN Iraki | July 28th 2020
National Housing Corporation (NHC) houses along Southern By pass between Lang'ata estate and Kibera slums [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

Following the fire incident at Grenfell Tower in London that killed 72 people in 2017, several things caught my attention.

But the one thing that stood out for me besides the unfortunate loss of lives was the sheer size of the building at 23 stories.

Following the incident, the racial mix and the income of the occupants popularised the term vertical ghetto. 

The term ghetto is more American; we are used to the term slum, which is synonymous with a horizontal row of cramped up houses usually built with temporary materials. 

The word ghetto has Italian origin. It’s a term I can relate to having lived in one in America’s Deep South in Mississippi years back.

But the American ghettos are unlike our slums as they have basic necessities, including parks. The activities and residents more than the buildings make the place a ghetto. Most of the buildings in my ghettos were single units though I lived in a duplex. 

We copied the American constitution with their governors and senators. Are we about to copy their ghettos? 

Last week we argued almost to the point of conviction that Kenya’s land bank around Nairobi is almost overdrawn.

The alternative is to cross the borders into neighbouring counties like Kajiado, Murang’a, Kiambu and Machakos and use the market power to acquire formerly ancestral land like that owned by mbari ya Kihara (Kihara’s clan). 

That is already happening in earnest; even the deepest traditions can’t resist the mighty dollar. The land my dad could not get from “mbari ya Igi“ in 1927 is now on sale under the Tatu City development project.

Is it true “Mbari ya Igi” were gifted the land because of their beautiful daughter, who the chief liked? 

There is an alternative to crossing the borders and acquiring land far away from the central business district - high rise buildings limited only by advances in technology and available resources. 

If you are keen, you must have noted high rise buildings in Pangani, Kibera, Githurai and in Lavington and Westlands of all places. The clothes hanging on the balconies are a clear indicator they are occupied and the resident are not that affluent; otherwise, they would use washing machines. 

We could contest if these high rise buildings are vertical ghettos.  But their location and lack of basic amenities suggest they are. What if they are located in upmarket estates like Westlands or Lavington? 

The best test of a vertical ghetto is to get inside and find out who lives there. In the upmarket areas, the houses are on sale and price is used to keep off low-income earners. In the “normal estates“,  the residents are tenants, making them vertical ghettos. 

Without being comical, we could also listen to the residents talking to test their “ghettoness.” What’s their mother tongue? Do they speak English with an accent? Is it American, British or local?  

The scarcity of land has necessitated the rise of vertical ghettos. It’s an efficient use of available land, with those who live near the city walking to their places of work. Has there been a change in the building code to let buildings go that high? 

The occupants of those buildings do a simple trade-off. They pay a higher rent because of convenience but save on transport costs. 

The popularity of vertical ghettos is driven by another fact, class consciousness.

A vertical ghetto in Lavington would be snapped up at a premium compared with the same in Pangani or Githurai. We are still fascinated by the estate names. “I live in Lavington” sounds different compared with “I live in Githurai 44/45,” even in the way it rolls off your tongue. 

Kenya is becoming like the US not just politically but in settlements. As affluent suburbs like Lavington, Kilimani and Westlands become home to vertical ghettos, where do the “original” residents go? In the US they go and live farther away from the city where land is cheaper and there’s more space.  

We need to be more European or Indian; why can’t we turn all the empty office spaces in the CBD into apartments, more like Chester House on Koinange Street? Who said you must drive or take a matatu to work?  

Will the improved infrastructure like bypasses  “ghettolise” the affluent suburbs near the city? Shall we see more affluent Kenyans shifting fo outlying areas like Naivasha, Nanyuki or Limuru? And there is another possibility. After making good money in the vertical ghettos, the sellers could immigrate to other countries. 

Should we weep over the “ghettolisation” of the once leafy suburbs? The economic reality driven by population increase will make our buildings taller and blur affluent and poor suburbs. After all, they are all becoming leafless. 

Shall we provide adequate services from water to sewerage and open spaces, schools, hospitals, emergencies and even cemeteries? In fact, the lack of these services defines the ghettos in addition to the evolution of subcultures. 

And more importantly, how shall “ghettolisation” change our behaviour as adults? The buildings cropping up everywhere near the city do not just change our landscape, they change our behaviour too. Are our institutions ready for the?

Finally, how will covid-19 affect the growth of vertical ghettos? Do you live in a vertical ghetto? Share your experience. 


-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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