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The age of gentrification is truly upon our country

By XN Iraki | May 18th 2021
Residents of the Pangani Guinea Bissau City County estate ponder their next move after Nairobi City county officers demolished their houses. [File, Standard]

It’s one of the most popular questions among Kenyans: unakaa wapi? (Where do you live?)

It’s a strange question because your answer will rarely lead to an invitation for lunch or dinner. It’s disguised to find out your social-economic class. 

Some go farther and ask about your county, forgetting that most urbanites have two homes - ancestral and adopted.

The ancestral county is usually in the background; it gains prominence during ceremonies such as marriages and burials and occasionally during polls when affiliation to them could earn you a political seat. 

The adopted county (read city) is usually considered more prestigious. And it’s not just any city. Kisumu and Mombasa are cities, but introducing yourself as a “Kisumu or Mombasa businessman” is not as prestigious as a “Nairobi businessman.”

Never mind the businessmen outside Nairobi could be richer. Rural folks aspire to one day moved to a new county (city).

When visiting rural areas from the adopted county, usually Nairobi, everyone notices. The diet for such visitors changes even during burials.   

The duality of counties is an urban phenomenon; rural folks have only one county. This duality has shifted to the national level, with dual nationality becoming a status symbol. 

The dual nationalities are few but influential, that is how the issue got into the Constitution. 

In the rural areas, your home and family members are well known.  Except for a few pseudo elites, rural folks are less concerned about social-economic classes. 

One of the unintended consequences of devolution is the evolution of pseudo élites in rural areas.  It’s pseudo because its eminence is not necessary from hard work or entrepreneurship but the inflow of money from the national government, unconditionally. 

In urban areas, knowing too much about your neighbour is considered rude and associated with rural folks.

But close relationships are common in slums and serve as social and economic security.  

One hidden reason why slum dwellers tolerate their disadvantaged status is the prestige that goes with being associated with an urban centre (read Nairobi) - the “good feeling” that more than compensates for their suffering.

It’s more like Kenyans who suffer and struggle in the US but can’t come home and deflate the prestige that goes with living majuu (abroad). 

Urban centres are characterised by more diversity and social-economic classes from the leafy suburbs like Muthaiga and Karen to slums like Kibra and Kangemi. Lately, there is a new phenomenon - vertical ghettos - in Zimmerman, Githurai, Kahawa, Ruaka and Kinoo, among others. 

Another phenomenon entails high-end, high-rise residences. It’s on General Mathenge Drive.

Never mind that no one really knows where General Mathenge, a Mau Mau general, disappeared to.

All Mau Mau veterans I have talked to do not know his whereabouts. It is speculated that he went to Ethiopia. But the distance from Mt Kenya to Ethiopia is too far and the terrain too taxing.

The apartments on General Mathenge Drive are beautifully designed and pricey, going for as much as Sh30 million for a three-bedroom.

Some uniformity

Naturally, this attracts high-end buyers. It’s one of the few places with apartments but still remains prestigious; you feel good describing where you live. Is this going to be our Upper East Side like New York’s?  

If the amenities such as roads and parks are well maintained, the area could rival New York’s Upper East Side.

Good hotels, malls and the ease of accessing the city centre make the place attractive and prestigious.

We hope the developers will talk to each other for some uniformity, unlike Lavington whose haphazard construction has muted its prestige.  The success of Chester House in the Central Business District (CBD) can be replicated at General Mathenge.

But I fear that as old estates are brought down and replaced by high-rise buildings, the city will lose its character, with Githurai and Lavington converging. Some will say it is capitalism at work. I would add without a human face. 

In the long run, we can predict that Nairobi will be like many American cities where the poor live near the CBD, while the rich live far away from the city where there is more space, allowing for palatial homes.

The new roads, including bypasses, will accelerate the flight from the CBD and its environs. Once the dual carriage road reaches Naivasha, many Nairobians will operate from the lakeside town. Noted how the once barren land overlooking Mt Longonot is now teeming with new developments? 

Will some enclaves like General Mathenge survive this degradation like New York’s Upper East Side? Time will tell.  


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