Consider renaming physical addresses so that locations are easier to trace

The old estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands where the African working class and the walala hoi lived, had clear addresses with proper signage. My uncle lived in Kaloleni house number X11. To get there was easy since the houses were numbered logically and arranged in rectangular blocks with wide boulevards lined with trees in between.

The same was true of the newer estates: Ofafa Maringo, Ofafa Jerusalem and Ofafa Jericho where well-arranged flats were logically numbered so that getting an address was not rocket science.

Going to a place like Lavington was, however, a nightmare. The wazungus lived in houses arranged and numbered in no logical sequence. The roads, in turn, wound and turned into snail shapes that quite often ran into each other at the drop of a hat. It was incumbent upon the visitor to have been fully briefed where a particular bin was placed in front of a particular gate at a particular hour to know how to find a mzungu and his house. Why the difference? I will tell you why.

The mzungu wanted privacy; he did not want any Kamau, Shah or Abdala to know where he lived. His fixed abode was to be known on a “need to know basis.” As far as the delivery of his mail was concerned there was the Post Office: P.O. Box. And he had a car or a horse to take him there—whenever he wanted.

And the colonial government was quite comfortable with this: the white man was no security risk until Lord Erroll was murdered somewhere in Karen in 1942— but then the mystery of who murdered the Earl was never solved partly because giving directions as to where the murderer might have come from became problematic. The Africans, however, were suspected criminals and rebels all the time: the system needed to have access to them at any time. So having well defined residential addresses was good for security. Bills, warrants of arrests, summons to appear before whoever and milk could easily be delivered at their door steps, and they could not deny reception.

Let us wind the clock forward to 2015: how does Nairobi look like? Were I to write to a foreigner and tell him my office is at the Anniversary Towers, how would I describe how to get there? The answer is complicated: you have to know Nairobi first before you follow the description.

This makes it difficult for most people to fill forms for parcels delivery when there are strict instructions to provide a physical address, either at the office or at home. So if one is a sweeper working at Rugnath Gokaldas grocery stores somewhere in Westlands where Muthithi Road enters Westlands shopping centre, giving a physical address in a form requires writing a little essay. God forbid if one’s physical home address is also needed and one lives somewhere near Soko Mjinga. In this regard throwing the form out through the window becomes the only relief!

And that is why a story is told of a young man living in Kisumu who decided to visit his uncle in Gem, Siaya County, and asked for directions on phone from his aunty on how to get there. The aunty said: “You see, it is very simple. Just take a matatu going to Busia. When you reach Yala, don’t get off there; just pass until you reach the KBC place where there is a tall mast to your right. Get off there and take the road going to Nyamninia school on the right. You walk, you walk you walk, passing Nyamninia School and all that until you reach a big tree on your right at a place where several women sell bananas. Pass those women and then turn right on a little path that goes to the river. Our home is right there you can’t miss it.”

Things would be made simpler if roads were named, homes given addresses with numbers and signs put up showing directions even in rural areas. I remember going to a little township in Texas called Lovelady. It is no bigger than Awasi in Kisumu County. We were looking for a home which was in the rural part of the township. When directions were given they were easy to follow because roads were named, signs were there and homes had physical addresses clearly numbered in some logical sequence.

I think county governments have their work clearly cut out for them to provide physical addresses with proper signage in rural and urban areas. This will ease communication and contact. It will also help improve security. In the world of commerce and trade, people will be able to make home deliveries of goods and services almost everywhere. Vagabonds will not be able to use motor bikes to commit crimes easily since ownership will be traced not simply by the ID of the owner but also by the physical home address as well.

This might sound esoteric. But think about it. Not long ago owning a telephone was the preserve of the elite in their homes or in government offices and the private sector. The public could only access the telephone a price. We went to the telephone to use it wherever it was. Now the telephone is with us wherever we go. And that is the point. Development should mean making life simpler to live, with access to means of livelihood available to most if not all.

The trouble with accessibility to physical addresses is that we have somehow decided to deny it to most of our people: rich or poor. The poor suffer most because when they come to town they are completely lost. It takes them a long time before they learn how to get around in the big towns and cities. The rich too shun venturing into poor neighbourhoods due to the disorder and the inhuman conditions in which people live. It is as if urban centres are built to trap people in there: no possibility of even giving a friend who comes from far some easy instructions on how to find you.

There is therefore another aspect of devolution we need to pay attention to: devolving some good manners which exist in other countries directly to our counties without taking into account the unfortunate inheritance from the national government. If the national government has been negligent about giving our people physical addresses at home and at work we need not continue with these bad manners in the counties. Let us enter the modern age and provide proper sinage and addresses in our counties. This is a low lying fruit; it will not cost much but it will provide us with enormous benefits in communication, trade, commerce and security.