letters from nairobi


a visit to eastleigh
November 21, 2011, 14:03
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

On Saturday morning, I went with N. and a few of his colleagues to the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh, where a project they collaborated on, aimed at engaging youth in activities offered by the Kenyan government, culminated in a street parade.

Drive down the winding highway that is called by many names and the landscape changes. Leave behind the mirrored facades of skyscraping shopping malls, the crisp uniforms of armed guards, and the towering billboards advertising cell phones and energy drinks. Go east, feel the concrete crumble into dirt beneath your tires, watch the air grow thick with black smoke curling up from piles of burning garbage.

When you descend into mud, you are in Eastleigh.

Known locally as “Little Somalia,” the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents are almost exclusively Somali. Here, women are draped head to toe in billowing monochromatic robes, eyes darting through a small sliver in fabric. The roadside is lined with shacks with rusted, corrugated iron roofs; inside, solemn children peek out from shadows. Over loudspeakers, the tinny voice of Islamic prayer drifts from a nearby mosque. The stench of rotting garbage festering in brown puddles is inescapable. And mud, everywhere mud, caked onto fruit stands and crackling beneath fingernails.

One of my companions tells me that Eastleigh is responsible for generating the most revenue of any single community in East Africa – and this only by government accounts, which don’t take into consideration the informal economy that spills out of every crevice in sight.

This “country within a country with its own economy” is indeed bustling – according to some, “buying a gun in Eastleigh is as easy as buying a loaf of bread.” Money changes hands everywhere – but roads remain unpaved, forcing aging cars to wade through several feet of putrefying muddy water; by the roadside, boys no older than six sprawl on the ground with bloodshot eyes, clutching bottles of glue; electricity is sparse; running water, even more so.

There are no signs of efforts to improve road conditions, infrastructure, or public health. Eastleigh may be the most revenue-generating community in the city, but the Kenyan government doesn’t seem to be concerned with repaying the blighted neighborhood for its contribution.

And this is one reason that NGOs and aid groups are here today – to reach out to the young people of Eastleigh in hopes of engaging them in activities that will have a positive impact on the community.

Today, the streets are filled with people wearing matching t-shirts, following a massive semi-trailer that blares information in Swahili at a deafening volume. Every so often, the trailer will stop, a collection of drums will be produced out of nowhere, and Kenyans wearing long, brightly patterned skirts will dance in traditional drum circles.

The musty air will fill with shrill ululations, and the parade continues, gathering street children in a rhythmic dance like the pied piper, moving ever forward.

Below, a few photos I managed to capture during the event. Apologies for the quality – surreptitious photography isn’t my strong suit.

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