Nairobi & Kuala Lumpur: Similar, yet so different

Nairobi & Kuala Lumpur: Similar, yet so different
By Joe Ombuor

Like Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur, the vibrant capital of Malaysia fondly referred to as ‘KL’, derives its name from water and riverine ecology. The city started in the 1850s as a tin mining outpost at the confluence of Gombak and Klang rivers, where the two form a muddy estuary. Kuala is Malay for ‘estuary’ and Lumpur means ‘mud’, hence, Kuala Lumpur.

What originated as a muddy shanty town is today an exciting and eclectic blend of cultures, temples, mosques, churches and shopping malls, and home to one of the most artistic and tallest structures in the world, the twin Petronas Towers.

Roughly 7,200 kilometres to the west, Nairobi started in the 1890s as a railway depot where a river formed verdant marshy swamps, known by the pastoralist Maasai folks who grazed their stocks there as enkare nyrobi  (the place of cool waters). The British who colonised what was then British East Africa discarded enkare and settled for ‘Nairobi’, which suited their tongue better. The city was destined to be not only the capital of Kenya, but the commercial hub of East Africa.

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It is not only in the origin of names that Nairobi and Kuala Lumpur strike a similarity. Both cities are located within the tropics and, more importantly, close to the equator. Their climatic conditions rhyme, only that Nairobi is cooler due to the higher altitude at 5,500 feet above sea level.  KL is only 200 feet above sea level.

Also notable among the similarities is that vehicles are steered on the right and drivers keep left. But where Nairobi drivers are slapdash and constantly in a hurry, their KL counterparts are more patient on the road.

Nairobi is known for its skyscrapers, which have prompted the dreaded Al Shabaab to threaten bringing them down. But the skyscrapers in KL reach dizzying heights, with the iconic Petronas Towers (Menara Petronas in Malay) boasting a whopping 88 storeys.

Nairobi’s Times Tower, the tallest building in East Africa, is 33 storeys high, and the iconic Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) only has 28 storeys. Where Nairobi boasts the multi-lane ultra-modern Thika Super Highway, in KL such engineering marvels are repeated all over the sprawling city where wetlands and forest cover are carefully preserved. We are not badly off in this latter aspect, thanks to concerted efforts by the late Wangari Maathai and others to save Karura Forest, Ngong Forest, Uhuru Park, City Park and other places that still legitimise the title ‘Green City in the Sun’.

KL night scenes are replete with pubs and nightclubs abuzz with merry makers, akin to the atmosphere in Nairobi. Young, skimpily dressed women, some of them black, are a common sight in KL’s numerous versions of Nairobi’s Koinange Street, except that  the modus operandi of the oldest profession has gone a notch higher, with brothel owners, some of them pretty elderly, aggressively approaching customers.

It goes something like this: “Would you like a massage at my place across the road? Girls there are young and entertaining, and you’ll be spoilt for choice. I have Malays, Chinese, Indians, Africans… The price is negotiable!”

There are also taxi drivers who brazenly approach you with ‘cheap rides’ to ‘lady joints’ for just a few ringgit (Malaysian currency that is three units to the dollar).

But it is in infrastructure that KL leaves Nairobi in the dust, with its smooth, pothole-free and fabulously well-lit thoroughfares. Yes, street lighting in KL is an attraction to behold, with an aesthetic finish rarely seen elsewhere. It is not uncommon to see street lamp holders shaped like sunflower petals or giant mangos. Add to that overhead tramways that run parallel to the streets and a modern railway system that embraces speed and comfort.

Matatus and the confusion they create in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities are absent in KL. Crowds are minimal because public transport is easily available and efficient. Hawkers, a significant trademark of Nairobi’s, are virtually non-existent on Kuala Lumpur’s streets, as are overzealous plainclothes city askaris causing abrupt stampedes as they swoop on their hapless quarry.

Fast trains

Buses, run by the KL city authority in conjunction with the government, and not by individuals obsessed with profit, are an improved prototype of the defunct Kenya Bus, whose decades of existence was a bright streak in Nairobi’s public transport sector.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport is a futuristic affair where fast trains and high class buses complete the show. It is prudent to note that improvements at JKIA are pointed in that direction, if endemic corruption does not prevail and all goes according to plan.

What is entirely dissimilar, in my view, between Nairobi and KL is the garbage syndrome that seems to have assumed chronic proportions in the ‘Green City in the Sun’.  KL is spotlessly clean.

The Gombak and Klang rivers still carry mud and effluent to the estuary as their waters flow into the tidal waves downstream, but pollution has been minimised. Although our own Nairobi River still carries turbid water from senseless pollution, the rehabilitative effort between Riverside and Museum Hill roundabout has created a leafy picnic walk that gives KL a run for its money.

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