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Shame of grandiose ideas that can’t solve Nairobi’s problems

By Clay Muganda | July 26th 2020

Lie, deny and defy. If ever there was a chaotic city whose residents and administrators employ Trumpian strategy to gloss over their failings, then Nairobi it is.

To use cricketing terms, Nairobi has been on a sticky wicket and efforts to rescue its innings fail because residents at all levels of the economy and governance love its smorgasbord of acrid stenches, which matches their attitude towards a clean environment and an orderly ecosystem.

To say that Nairobi is stuck in a rut is not hyperbolic. While cities which are as old, or even younger want to become smart cities and are trialing the use of Internet of Things to efficiently provide solutions and services to residents and visitors, Nairobi is still grappling with basic hygiene issues.

Nairobians, the smart alecks that they are, litter faster than they type on their smart mobile devices and block storm drains with all manner of rubbish then blame the authorities for not teaching them how to use garbage bins.

They do this in a city whose sewerage system is archaic, older than independent Kenya, and spews sewage anywhere, on a whim because City Hall officials never see the need to overhaul it even as the population grows. They license more buildings whose waste lines are then connected to storm drains.

For 30 years, every administrator at City Hall promises to improve the city’s physical infrastructure, services and image, but they hardly deliver due to several hurdles some of which they place on their own paths themselves.

They always have half-hearted measures to modernise the city but nothing changes because City Hall officials, business folk, motorists, transport cartels, building contractors and generally residents are averse to efficient systems.

Nairobians always speak about restoring the city’s lost glory, but they thwart efforts to institute sustainable solutions. Several initiatives have been mooted, but Nairobi still lacks proper infrastructure, convenient public transport and efficient waste management systems because residents are defiant and some believe that rules are made to be broken.

The city is currently undergoing another refurbishment under the military officer who heads the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS).

Before NMS was set up, Governor Mike Sonko had spent millions of shillings on planting flowers, installing Christmas lights on junctions and erecting sculptures of animals. All that in the name of modernising the city’s physical infrastructure. Some people argued that the projects, in a city that needs information and communication technologies to mitigate modern urbanisation challenges and improve quality of life, were roundabout ways of misusing public funds.

His predecessor, the city’s first governor, also had grand plans of, yeah, restoring Nairobi’s lost glory, and started by planting grass on highway medians during a very dry season. He also tried collecting garbage from every open space Nairobians felt needed some rubbish and repairing potholes.

Garbage everywhere

Before long, storm drains were blocked, potholes were filled with garbage, walkways were paved with sewage and residential buildings put up using below standard materials were collapsing, and the city’s stench was back.

It is not lost on urban planners that while cities in other countries are talking about smart highways, Nairobi bosses still repair potholes with garbage or whatever material, and think that they are modernising the city.

Years before these two governors came with their grandiose solutions that barely scratched the surface of Nairobi’s problems, two ministers and a town clerk had attempted to beautify the city’s parks and clean its streams of raw sewage — mistakenly called rivers — which were choking under the weight of domestic and industrial waste.

One of the ministers had the slimy streams cleaned, and the cesspits of raw sewage started looking like rivers. The town clerk had his greening projects and went as far as installing safe drinking water points, but Nairobians were not thirsty for change and the contraptions were vandalised and turned into garbage dumping sites.

Nairobians are the biggest enemies of sustainable development. Some residents broker underhand deals, steal and trade in stolen property. It will not be surprising when the multi-coloured paving blocks dotting the city now end up in private homes in and around the city.

Manhole covers are stolen without thinking about the danger the gaping holes pose to road users.

Residential buildings collapse because City Hall officials are bribed to overlook the use of poor quality materials. Transit system is chaotic because cartels collude with their City Hall-based partners in crime to frustrate measures that can smoothen transport services.

Ideally, corruption exists everywhere and unless Nairobians change their attitude, any measures to transform and modernise the city will fail — even when carried out with military precision.

-The writer is an editor with The Standard

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