Who is Nairobi? What is Nairobi? Who are it’s owners? What is it all about? What is its personality? Style? What is the colour of its soul? These were the questions on my mind at the launch of the 2016 Nai Ni Who?, which the GoDown Arts Centre hosted at The Stanley yesterday.
See, in this conglomerate of counties called Kenya, Nairobi is like the orphan that no one really wants to claim or speak up for. Sure, we all crowd into it to do the ‘serious business of making a living’, but when it comes to the time to lay back and unwind, we all scamper off and forget its existence.
Witness the manner in which Nairobi becomes a ghost town every December when, seeking to shake off the stresses and strains of the year, we flee to the rural areas, we go ‘home’.
Almost no one calls Nairobi home. It’s like an unwritten rule, Nairobi can be nobody’s home. You can stay there temporarily, but calling it home is forbidden. You’ve probably had those encounters too, where someone asks where you come from and you say, Nairobi, but then they shake their heads and say, no, your real home. And so, little by little, I have been developing a soft spot for Nairobi.
This creature no one wants to claim. This being everyone wants to use, but no one wants to own, to aver to a kinship with. On the outset, the question of who owns Nairobi might look like a frivolous endeavour but it’s much weightier than that. If a nation is akin to a body, it’s capital city is it’s heart, its soul.
For a nation’s people to have no overt identification with their capital points to a disjointedness of sorts. It reminds us of the questions of national unity and cohesion, questions which are brought to the fore every election time when the cracks in Kenyans unity begin to show by way of vitriolic speech, forced evictions and ethnic killings.
This has been happening in Kenya since 1992 with displaced people still out in fields. It was only when the upsets crept to the city in 2007 and 2008 that as a nation, we sat up and paid attention.
Thinking of Nairobi brought to mind Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject where he traces parallels between the modern African nation state and the colonial state. One of the questions that he asks is if one of the causes of the challenges in contemporary Africa is that the ‘modernisation’ project was left midway.
As a result, Africans have taken up the instruments, toys and tools of modernity but have failed to own them as their own. Almost as though we are still wary of the whole question of ‘nationness’, attendant with national institutions and national spaces. We haven’t made peace with the concept of owning something that we have consciously created.
It’s easier to retreat to the ethnic cocoons we were born into and derive meaning, belonging and identity there. Here is how Mamdani puts it in: “As the dawn of independence broke on a horizon of internal conflict, reconsideration of the African colonial experience began.
Could it be that the African problem was not colonialism but an incomplete penetration of traditional society by a weak colonial state or deference to it by prudent but shortsighted colonisers? Could it be that Europe’s mission in Africa was left half finished?
If the rule of law took centuries to root in the land of its original habitation, is it surprising that the two sides of the European mission — market and civil society, the law of value and the rule of law — were neither fully nor successfully transplanted in less than a century of colonialism?
And that this fragile transplant succumbed to caprice and terror on the morrow of independence?” Anyway, back to the questions on Nairobi we started out with. Time has been making me cognisant of the importance of the individual being a creator of their circumstances.
I cannot ask questions about Nairobi without asking questions of where I come into the equation, without referencing my relationship to it, without overtly stating that I am a part of it. So the questions ‘What is Nairobi? What is its present? What is its past? What is its destiny?’… are not queries hanging in the air that some theorist will come and give me answers to, they are enquiries I must engage with and answer for myself.
And not just me, everyone else as well. Nairobi is neighbourliness. Nairobi is clean streets. Nairobi is greenery and flowers. Nairobi is pleasant smiling people. Nairobi is people that inspire and challenge me. Nairobi is creativity, power and love. Nairobi is everything. Nairobi is my home. I claim Nairobi.