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Death of a party city: Can Nairobi's CBD nightlife ever recover?

 Young people partying in a club. (Courtesy/iStock)

Nobody parties like Kenyans. For decades this phrase has been used to characterise the fun-loving nation we are. Since the first discotheques burst out, the party and nightlife have never been the same. For Generation X, the likes of Visions, Lips, The Barn, Beauty and the Beast, Zig Zag, Bubbles, and Ainsworth Club Boomerang are reminiscent of their youth.

Later Nairobi City would host hoards of night clubs which gave the youngin a time of their lives. From Vision, Betty’s, F1 or Maddie as it was popularly known, to Tribeca and Mojos, Giggles - where members of the fourth estate would religiously convene to imbibe on frothy drinks as well as exchange notes on the daily occurrences happening in the country, which they had covered for their respective media houses.

The nightlife was at its peak during these times and would start at dusk especially with the Mututho rules coming into effect to reign in the inebriated masses. The introduction of alcoblow on Kenyan roads had a dent in the frolicking, but then, as usual, twilight merrymakers were more than happy to contrive ways to evade the law-enforcing agencies. This included WhatsApp groups which would alert them on which routes to avoid.

All through the years, nothing changed and the party did not stop except for the changing of names of the watering holes for the fun seekers occasionally. It was pulsating and relentless while at it. Rezorous changed to Tribeca and had a weekly event dubbed Wakilisha Night which saw legions of artistes troop to the venue to release their music where entertainment heavyweights would gather to sip and chill as artisans showcased their talents.

The nightlife was clamorous not only in the capital but also countrywide as the party spirit manifested and thrived as the big towns (with some later upgrading into cities) flecked with the nightlife and so did the parties.  The

Enter Corona

As the adage goes, nothing lasts forever and when Covid-19 struck the globe changed the swanky lifestyle enmeshed with the party and nightlife. Most clubs in Nairobi’s Central Business District were forced to shut down following a government directive, which was sternly issued by the then-head of the nation, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Social places were closed from 9 pm and the nightlife was nonexistent. By 7 pm, entertainment spots start to close down and all is dead by 8.30 pm. Social distancing measures and the prolonged night curfew have brought nightlife in the country to its knees as the creative industry remains the most affected economy, with no sign as to whether the sector will ever be the same again.

Since the pandemic struck, nightlife in Nairobi, especially in the CBD completely died as the city became a ghost town thanks to the night curfews. Some iconic entertainment establishments among them the popular Florida 2000, Mojos, B-Club and Kiza as well as top restaurants folded up. And even those that have remained afloat are having business hanging by a thread.

“Since the onset of Covid-19, more than 30 per cent of the bars and restaurants that were in operation before the pandemic have shut down completely. That is about 16,000 businesses that have collapsed. Given that every restaurant employs at least 10 people, that’s about 160,000 people losing their livelihoods,” said the Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurants Association of Kenya (PERAK) director Mike Muthami.

Following the frenzy-like mass trooping to establishments within residential areas, high-end clubs started sprouting with cool if not better vibes than what their surviving CBD counterparts were offering to patrons.

“After covid lots of things changed in the Entertainment industry. Lounges such as Quiver HQ, Habanos, 1824, and Oyster Bay have become favourites because of their outside settings and mature crowd,” says Sameer Bry an event organiser and host with the Amapiano Tour Ke outfit.

“It is not only in Nairobi that nightlife in the CBD has gone. Places like Eldoret, which currently is the second most lit town in terms of partying in Kenya have also been affected. In 2020 Uasin Gishu County shut down some top entertainment spots such as Signature, Spree and 411, which were operating on basement floors in Eldoret City. This affected the North Rift nightlife resulting in club owners seeking alternatives in estates.

Mombasa-based events promoter and DJ VDJ Edden says the situation in the coastal city is no better than in other places.

“Nightlife has significantly gone down as compared to other years. People's spending power especially when it comes to leisure has gone down since they have to decide what is important to them - going out clubbing or handling bills,” he says.

Partying in Mombasa’s CBD is also waning, with establishments like 001 and Yatch taking the baton from the likes of Volume VIP and Anuba, which ruled the roost in the last couple of years.

“More club owners need to consider their clients; it is no longer bout playing some nice music and selling drinks, but about giving the clients a sense of belonging, offering them more value. They also need to adapt to what the crowd needs or rather wants and not what they think they want,” says Edden.

Creative director and brand influencer for Guinness beer Bevern Oguk says that while the nightlife in cities has changed, there is an actual subculture of the nightlife especially in more affluent neighbourhoods.

“A couple of factors contributed. The pre-pandemic scene was favouring larger establishments, as people tended to move from one club to another. The post-pandemic culture is more niche, smaller and more open spaces in the affluent neighbourhood. This is because the target market is premium and they spend more on bottles for example,” he says.

The cross-collaboration between brands has also influenced how people party through increased brand support. More clubs are getting brand partnerships, with activities like activations, and supported branding, hence more revellers. This works best in other cities like Mombasa, Eldoret and Kisumu.

“What is happening currently more often is having more of day time parties where curated events like The Jazz and Fashion Experience, Pantone Sundays fused Old School RnB which I help organise, adds a fashion element to the social place. This in turn attracts a more mature crowd, gives visibility to the fashion brands involved, and in turn gives value to both the brand sponsoring, the venue, and the attendees,” he says.

Oguk further adds that there is also a new party trend, happening in high-end apartments; with niche and targeted attendees, which he says has a fashion element to this as there is always a dress code.

Songstress and event organiser Qty says that nightlife is replaced by road trips, watch parties and parties at Air BnB etc as they seek privacy away from prying eyes and less surveillance.

“Most bars and clubs are always crowded whenever there is a football match being played. After that they will empty save for the few patrons who might be frequenting the place as their local,” she says.

“We can introduce nightlife again in CBD's by organising events like Street Bash. Outdoor clubs can be a great idea, assuring revellers of their security by getting more cops in the CBD. Having marshals during the night should also be introduced,” she adds.

Reggae DJ MC Teargas says that Gen Z are not as interested in clubbing as millennials and Gen X have been over the years.

“We used to have Jam sessions and such parties where the partying and nightlife were vibrant. Their thing is road trips, where they hire matatus for a day or two to go have fun outside the city,” he says.

Aluta Culture

“Lately, we are also seeing the famous Aluta culture gaining prominence, especially for miraa lovers. Most clubs have themed weekends or weekdays, where their patrons can binge for a two-day or more affair having some good time while listening mostly to Reggae music. On Sunday morning you will hear terms like Sunday School and at some joints, we have seen patrons being provided with sleeping pods and a place to shower without leaving the premises,” says Teargas.

While plans were underway to revive the industry which was hugely affected by the pandemic, the government's efforts in curbing illicit liquor and contraband across the country have caught bar owners in the crossfire.

NACADA (National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse) has launched a crackdown on bars and nightclubs in residential areas. Figures released in an earlier statement by Interior PS Raymond Omollo showed that 6,931 bars and clubs near residential estates and schools have been closed countrywide.

Kitengela-based club proprietor Timothy Kasaine says that fun lovers are also moving away from the cities to the suburbs, creating what he calls the “doughnut effect”.

“Over the last few years and due to underlying issues such as the state of the economy and the natural calamities that have been happening, people have stopped clubbing in city centres and opt to race closer home and again for proprietors, there are bigger spaces to build such premises unlike in the CBD where it is constrained. Again other factors such as the cost of cabbing from the city to your place is higher compared to your local which might be better in terms of services and security,” says Kasaine.

“We support the government’s efforts in fighting this menace. At the same time, the move is hurting us as our members have nothing to do with this. Licenced bar owners are easy prey when such operations are undertaken. We need better governance structure to ensure that businesses are protected from such occurrences,” says Muthami.

He adds, “The rains have rendered most establishments inaccessible for both our workers and customers as they are forced to stay at home. Seventy per cent of our workers in places affected by the rains are at home. This is more than 60,000 workers. We have a call to action for our members and members of the public rallying to collect foodstuff and clothing for our workers who are caught up in this adversity.” 

Teargas confirms the same with some shows following victims of the ravaging rains, adding that however much they might want people to party and have a good time, they must also consider the safety of their clients.

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