One of Nairobi’s more well-known — and arguably well-meaning — monikers is “the green city in the sun.” It alludes to the city’s national park and leafy west side. But more and more I tend to think it’s a misnomer. Nairobi is not a green city in the sun. It is a brown city under the sun. There is brown dust everywhere. Even the trees that are supposed to make it green are chocking under layers upon layers of brown dust.
A photo of the city’s skyline is the ultimate deception. It depicts a modern capital, with gleaming buildings and nice roads. On the ground, however, the situation changes. From the downtown area to the suburbs, only the large roads are in mint condition and that only in so far as they are roads, not human artifacts. Sidewalks — often shared with pedestrians by matatus — are earthen or non-existent. And streets and alleyways perform the double function of being both passageways and extensive dumping sites.
The city is a rot. With the dry season, dust hangs in the air everywhere one turns. And in the wet season, which is just around the corner, the city becomes a viable watersport arena, only no watersport is played except that of splashing one another with muddy water laced with sewage. Geophysics tells us there was once a lake where Nairobi is, and it was buried under layers of lava flows. But we do not need geophysics to know that another lake took its place.
For all its potential, which has become the calling card of anyone keen on hailing the African economic boom, Nairobi as a city is a handy case study in the failings, rather than the successes, of Africa. It is the quintessential exemplar of African mediocrity, where development is perfectly compatible with dirt, trash, lateness and clear contempt for such norms of coexistence and civility.
Larry Madowo’s recent article in the Daily Nation perfectly summarises what’s wrong with the city. Its residents have been made so pompous by the praises and attention of foreigners, they have forgotten to look at themselves and see their city for what it is; a wasteland. They have swallowed the chorus of gobbledegook claiming their city is one of the most livable in Africa and forgotten the smoke and dust they gulp in everyday on their way to work and their close shaves with matatu drivers whose definition of the road extends to and beyond the sidewalk.
I know, I keep berating the matatus and sidewalk issue, but that’s because, after writing this post, I am meant to go jogging (and having more than my daily share of smoke and dust) around the city and chances are I will come face to face with one of those creaking jalopies along the sidewalk, or it will creep up behind me, and its impudent excuse for driver will expect me to give him way and somehow run on the air above the mediocre drainage ditch whose confines are easily overwhelmed with rainwater equivalent to a bull’s average piss.
The problem is that Nairobi is a total mess. And no amount of good press, fawning visitors and flashy buildings will change that. Only the residents can make things better when they realise that, in the end, it is their own dignity that is at stake. And dignity can be had even in poverty. The human standards have to go up if the city is ever to live up to its frankly overzealous moniker.
Update at 9.16 PM EAT on 18.08.2016: The writer did not just encounter one matatu on his smoky run. The whole sidewalk was a fourth lane of Chiromo Road, and it was chock full of matatus. Yours truly is now officially a prophet.
Feature image: ign.com.
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