“Hii Nairobi kujenga haiishangi,” remarked Meshack, my nduthi guy, as we passed yet another formerly empty plot. Three lorries filled with sand and stones were parked by the side of the narrow road, leaving only enough space for one vehicle to pass at a time. A fourth lorry was trying to join the rest, and while it maneuvered into place, it stretched across the road, blocking both sides. We stood for a few minutes watching it try to reverse into place, and when Mesh found an opportunity to ride through, he took it.
“Wameanza kujenga?” I had asked, as we both pondered what this would mean for our morning commute.
I started using nduthis—motorbike taxis—after Ramadhan in 2017. During that Ramadhan, my dad dropped and picked my mum and I to and from work. We worked close to each other and it made the commute shorter, allowing me to get home early enough for iftar in the evening. After Ramadhan, I had gotten used to the convenience of not having to sit in Nairobi’s buses and matatus, stuck in massive traffic jams. Using nduthis reduced my commute time from two hours each way to half an hour.
I met Mesh the first day I walked to the nduthi corner, at the junction leading into the main road from our house. He was first in line for the next passenger, and he led me to his bike, and handed me a helmet and reflector jacket. After he dropped me at work, he gave me his phone number and asked me to call him the next time I needed a ride, so he could collect me from the house. I would join his roster of regulars.
Since then, we’ve developed a comfortable routine: Every morning, he picks me from the house and takes me to the other side of the city to work. After the first few weeks of testing several routes, we settled on one and we rarely deviate from it. But our routes are subject to Nairobi’s seemingly unending construction. For example, when the side road in Upper Hill that connects with Ngong Road above Railways Club was closed, we lost our preferred short cut, and had to find another one.
During our trips, Mesh and I discuss Nairobi’s changing landscape. We shout our conversations into the wind, hoping that some of their integrity will survive. Unlike traveling by matatu and bus, moving through Nairobi by nduthi provides a different sense of the city, of how it grows and falls, moves and stands still. Even with a helmet on, the sound of construction is more vivid, the grit and sand more present. And there’s a sense that if you dare to reach out with your hand, you will touch something that is the essence of Nairobi: risk and vulnerability, chance and pleasure. We move with the city, as it, also, moves with and beside us.
On my way to work, I use Jogoo Road, which cuts through the two sides of Eastlands: Nairobi’s expansive Industrial area on one side, the base of Kenyan manufacturing, and residential estates on the other. Eastlands houses the biggest population of Nairobi’s working class, who live in row after row of a network of houses crammed into neat boxes within estates. Hidden behind these houses are more estates, where flats are becoming more common than houses, and space is a luxury. Like the manufacturing plants across the road, residential estates have adopted a practice of packing people into whatever space is available, and then packing in even more people.
The names of the estates roll as you pass by: Doni, Buruburu, Hamza, Makadara, Jeri, Makongeni, Shauri, Kaloleni. Despite their proximity to each other, each place has its own character, its own story of how it occupies Nairobi, and how it relates to neighboring estates. Fragments of these stories fill the air, though the nduthi rider and passenger can only catch the odd syllable. Children of different ages and wearing different uniforms, walk to school between identically shaped and coloured structures in each estate. In a few places, some estates are receiving facelifts, courtesy of companies who advertise on estate walls. Not even the residential areas are safe from the manufacturing practices across the road.
Along the road, matatus move from one packed bus stop to another, one side slightly more populated than the other in the morning, as the residents make their way to work at the CBD or to make other connections to other sides of the city. The collection of houses are sometimes flanked by the schools the children walk to often close to a small field and public health center.
Mesh and I cross to the other side at City Stadium, taking the left turn at the roundabout towards Uhuru Highway, the road that borders this side of Nairobi, dividing east from west, Eastlands from Westlands, the traditional working classes from the traditional managers and owners. Eastlands is public schools and public transport, manufacturing and crowded housing. Westlands is expensive private cars and private schools, international NGOs and leafy suburbs.
When we get to the other side of Uhuru Highway, the completed buildings rise up to meet the sky. Office buildings are fenced in, their gates manned by different security firms. The offices become fewer as you move further in, with sleek apartments placed under the care of the guards. Outside incomplete buildings, billboards promise wild dreams at unaffordable prices. Artist renderings show luxurious interiors, and each building boasts to be taller and more modern than the rest.
When riding at the back of a nduthi, Nairobi moves a lot faster as you move from one road to another using city clocks to keep time. At the building sites, the names and photos on the boards become a blur of one tall building after the other, with the buildings themselves in different stages of construction. “For Sale” signs get more aggressive the closer to completion they are. Because I ride past them quickly, I barely get to see their details as they emerge and sometimes I’m surprised to realize that a building has been completed.
“Kwani hizi building zote, nani anajenga?” a cab driver asked me once. The questions and answers exchanged inside taxis are mostly speculation and tidbits the drivers have garnered from conversations they’ve overheard. Like most modern cities, Nairobi cab drivers carry its pulse in their cars, ferrying it around while collecting its secrets from their passengers.
In the background of Nairobi, massive tractors growl at different plots of earth and the noise is as normal as the hooting of matatus and music from exhibition stalls in the city center. Social media is dominated by photos of machines digging the earth, with captions like “Nairobi is a big construction site.” The buildings coexist with the different road works spread around the city, giving the feeling that Nairobi is getting ready to go somewhere important. Some of these road works, like the flyover connecting Enterprise Road to Likoni Road, move at a much slower pace as the rest of the city grows around them.
Construction interrupts daily life, forcing commuters to change their habits and residents to rethink their lives.
A friend complains about the noise from construction and worries that these tall buildings will tower over her old, single-level house, boxing her in. Not even her backyard, canopied by tall trees, protects her privacy. She complains about not being able to sit in her garden with people’s balconies looming above her.
The buildings cause unease: they remind us that while many of us are struggling to survive Nairobi, not everybody is struggling. When the buildings are complete, the tractors rolled away, and the dust wiped off, the boards with the artists’ impressions will change to triumphant photos of the completed shiny buildings, price listings, and urgent messages:
“Units are selling fast. Hurry before you lose out.”
On the final part of my morning trip, we approach the road that leads to the narrow stretch where we encountered the lorries. Before turning the corner, there is a row of houses, with a stone skirt, about two feet tall, at the bottom and smooth cream walls at the top. Two of them stand slightly in front of the others, on each side, and four units are connected in a single line at the back. The structures are two levels, squatting heavily on stones that make them look sturdy and thick. Some of them still have glassless green window frames but the rest are long gone and replaced with blackened holes. Surprisingly, except on one that is half missing, they still have their roofs.
Despite their extensive state of disrepair, the houses look impressive. I imagine they once housed the wealthy, maybe top government officials. The little I can see inside reveals spacious rooms and sometimes, I fantasize about restoring one and living in it. They stand there, day in and day out, as new buildings emerge around them, and the neglect feels intensified, as if they no longer have anyone to claim them. Perhaps the bulldozers will also come for them, and high rises will take their place.
Yet, for every new building that’s unveiled, several others lie unfinished for months and even years. “Na hii nyumba, ni pesa imeisha ama inapiganiwa court?” If other cities have ancient ruins, now-deserted remains of old cities, Nairobi boasts of ruins of incomplete projects, either stranded by lack of funds, or transformed into battlefields of sibling rivalries. Some of them remain forgotten for years.
“I think this one ni ya dispute. Such prime land can’t sit for long, there’s always someone who wants to build another tall building,” Mesh remarks.
As we pass the struggling lorry, I turn. Behind us, a long, glass skyscraper glitters in the morning sun reflecting the new ground breaking. Inside the mabati fence that’s draped with images of the new building, I see other trucks pouring sand inside a big hole. For Mesh and I, this new construction means that traffic on that slip road might become a problem and the route might need to change again because in this Nairobi, the building never stops.
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Aisha Ali Haji