Eastleigh goes global

Sunday August 17 2008
Mago index

Illustration by Joseph Ngari

You can get anything you need here—even human body parts!” So I was told during my first visit to Eastleigh.

The year was 1979, and even then, Eastleigh was somehow different from other Nairobi mitaa (neighbourhoods). The streets were cluttered but non-threatening. Unpretentious kiosks served up excellent food to the sound of exotic music.

The usual complement of hustlers looked for an opening, but did not hassle. Like Louisiana, a haven for pirates and smugglers — indeed, the laissez faire but jazzy social ambiance reminded me of New Orleans.

Eastleigh is served by public transport plying routes 6 and 9. Vehicles departing from opposite sides of Tom Mboya Street inscribe a loop transiting Nairobi’s original Asian and Afro-Arab neighbourhoods, comparable to London’s Circle Line, and criss-cross in Eastleigh. Although Pumwani, Ngara, or Pangani could have emerged as loci for similar transformations, this relatively small cityscape provided the stage for changes setting it apart from the rest of Nairobi.

The purpose of my initial visit was a meeting with the Yahoos — a product of one of those unpremeditated moments of inspiration when a clutch of friends dedicate themselves to doing good acts. The Yahoos were a mixed bag of self-described “Kenyans” that included several members of that era’s cultural elite.

I ended up spending many a pleasant afternoon on the balcony of the musician and arranger, Slim Ali, discussing a range of contemporary topics with representatives of Eastleigh’s ethnic, religious, cultural, and occupational diversity.


Twenty-five years later, Slim’s second-story veranda on the corner of Wood Street overlooks a scene both familiar and radically changed. The new has grafted onto the old. First Avenue is now a permanent traffic jam lined with walls of stalls.

Around the corner, Garissa Lodge, which launched a new business model by converting rooms into small shops, has undergone its third makeover, setting the standard for Eastleigh’s glitzy shopping complexes.

Enticing aromas and sounds still waft from the nondescript kiosks — that also house high-tech communication facilities connecting the locals to the expanding cultural universes of ethnic Diaspora.

Commerce, capital, and international linkages have transformed the intersection of routes 6 and 9 into the epicentre of Nairobi’s indigenous economy. Ethnic capital is challenging entrenched formal-sector interests (neo-colonialism, as it used to be described once upon a time).

In a 1997 interview on the KTN news, Kenya’s then finance minister George Saitoti remarked that the Central Bank fixes its currency exchange rates after checking with the money-dealers in Garissa Lodge.

The wealthy man is, to paraphrase the Nigerian adage, a fountain where all the birds of the world come to drink: First Street is an Afro-oriental bazaar where they come to shop, cut deals, chew khat. Westlands is posh, the Village Market is chic, but Eastleigh is the Horn of Africa’s most important crossroads.

Fancy structures several years old fade as a succession of larger and shinier buildings sprout up along decayed streets. Flagstones and awnings are reclaiming the reserves on their margins, which turn into a fetid slurry of mud and trash during the rains.

Rivers of pedestrians weave their way through litter generated by the diverse commodities on display. In Eastleigh, urban decay provides fertile ground for the growth of commerce and capital.

If socioeconomic transition is a messy process, Eastleigh’s funk is evidence of transition going full-tilt; competing theories highlight diverse factors that set the process in motion.

Adam Smith singled out economic geography — concentrations of key resources, coastlines, and other trade-enabling factors; for Marx, it was the social relations of production. Ideologists of the Asian Tigers credit superior cultural values.

In Africa, a succession of policies from commercial agriculture to privatisation to governance reform to poverty alleviation have yet to significantly reverse the continent’s economic malaise.

Over the same period, Eastleigh has gone from modest residential neighbourhood to vibrant multiethnic marketplace. Some unlikely factors gave rise to this improbable exemplar of adaptation to infrastructural neglect, state collapse, and social marginalisation. But before examining how this came about, we need to locate the phenomenon in space and time.

The Eastleigh of the colonial planners comprised seven roughly contiguous sections. Eastleigh sections One and Two fall along First and Second Avenues, and are separated from Section Three by a large tract of aerodrome land and California and Biafra estates.

Section Seven occupies the pocket adjacent to Pumwani and General Waruinge Road. Sections Four, Five, and Six exist in name only; it is not clear where in this landscape they would fit if they did.

Though confusing, the configuration is somehow consistent with Nairobi’s inchoate road grid, haphazard zoning, and counter-intuitive pattern of formal and informal settlement. It only follows that a rundown neighbourhood associated with several of Kenya’s more conservative communities figures in the emergence of the region’s most dynamic economic hub.

In the beginning, Eastleigh was residential. The Sikhs and Goans who originally occupied Eastleigh Phase One were socially less clannish than other Asian communities, and perhaps this influenced the area’s post-Uhuru shift from ethnic enclave to Nairobi’s first transitional neighbourhood.

The transition to this Phase Two dates back to the quiet acquisition of houses by Somali women before post-independence Africanisation gathered steam.

Like the well-documented phenom-enon in Mombasa, many of the women landlords were divorcees who became courtesans. Property was a low-profile but profitable investment for such women. Their holdings in turn provided the magnet for Somalis and other pastoralists migrating from the rangelands of the north.

While their numbers gave Eastleigh its strong Somali imprint, they are perhaps the largest in a mix of minorities — ethnic entrepreneurs explaining its rise as a commercial habitat whose multicultural synergies distinguished it from the city’s other business districts.

Swahili and other urbanised Africans began to buy property as the Asians moved to new haunts in South C and Nairobi West; some remained behind to run businesses. The Gikuyu presence in Eastleigh increased apace with their expanding financial clout during the Kenyatta era.

Eastleigh became a place where Somali transporters parked their double trailers along side streets, coastal Swahili ran lodgings, Gikuyu women sold produce and their men ran bars, and Meru miraa traders hung up their banana leaf flags outside shops. The Kamba sold tires, Ethiopians turned their living rooms into cafes, and the flashes of Luo welders lit up the night.

The integrative dynamic at work in Eastleigh was essentially the same as the Swahilisation preceding it in the multi-ethnic majengo settlements of Kenya’s cities and towns. But class, mobility, and government intervention insured that Pumwani, the mother of all these majengos, remained an unreformed ghetto. Nairobi’s first African neighbourhood, once home to Jomo Kenyatta and Milton Obote, Pumwani became synonymous with poverty and crime after Uhuru.

Three separate urban renewal projects have failed to alleviate Pumwani’s overcrowded conditions. The construction of California Estate saw its original Swahili inhabitants shift next door, only for a new wave of relatives and strangers to move in before their old dwellings could be razed.

Biafra was created with the same objective in mind, but the result was the same. And the blocks of high-rise flats built in 1989 only increased the numbers residing amid Majengo’s open sewers and filth.

Although Eastleigh started at a higher level in respect to housing and roads, the area experienced a similar degree of infrastructural deterioration during the 1980s. Roads were potholed, garbage piled up, and houses and shops disappeared behind lines of illegal kiosks. But several critical factors insured it did not follow the downward pathway of Pumwani and other areas of Nairobi’s Eastlands.

While upward mobility dispersed many of Pumwani’s and Eastleigh’s former inhabitants to upscale neighbourhoods and beyond, those connected to the old ‘hood often return to socialise.

The typical pattern for members of the Yahoos and other such community-based think tanks begins with a hearty meal at a popular eatery like Lamu Dishes (now deceased), followed by a stopover at the local miraa kiosk before settling into their favourite maskan for an extended soiree.

After nightfall, these palavers shift to cars clustering around Eastleigh’s tea and coffee vendors. The night owls feed coins into Eastleigh’s parking meters — persistent beggars who exploit the aversion chewers in murghan mode have to interruption to extract some loose change.

Where ubiquitous activity made Eastleigh the city’s major 24-7 node, conflicts across the greater Horn region powered its evolution from densely packed slice of multicultural Nairobi of Phase Two into the multinational melange of the current developmental Phase Three.

The militarisation of Ethiopia under Mengistu, his heavy-handed occupation of Eritrea, Siad Barre’s abortive invasion of the Ogaden, large-scale famines, the Tigrayan Liberation Front’s entry into Addis Ababa, and the liberator’s repressive policies in the Oromo-inhabited south have fed a steady flow of refugees into Kenya.

The influx spiked during the period following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. Many of the displaced passed through Eastleigh en route to migration abroad; some are still there.

The segmentary lineage, a form of clan organisation that evolved in an environment that forced communities to periodically divide into scattered units and disperse over large expanses, has thrived under conditions that make other forms of indigenous social organisation wither away.

Siad Barre promoted scientific socialism in order to weaken the gravitational pull of clan lineage only to reactivate it in order to promote his political survival. It became the reef on which the Somalia ship of state sank as polarities embedded in the lineage system sparked and sustained the post-collapse civil war.

The lineage system provides an efficient mechanism for mobilisation and social solidarity during times of stress and conflict — and now serves together with tribe and nation as the capillaries, veins, and arteries of a planetary mode of production extending the economic geography of Phase III Eastleigh to war zones, refugee camps, stateless regions, and reconstituted communities from San Diego to East London to Australia.

To their credit, most Somali refugees only accepted victimhood as a temporary condition that could be parlayed into a long-term advantage. The exodus that saw an estimated one million refugees enter Kenya was one stream in a movement scattering Somalis across the globe (a Granta travel writer reported meeting one of these neo-nomads above the Artic Circle).

The Somali Diaspora now channels remittances to their kin at an annual rate equivalent to $100 for every Somali household in Africa. Relatives abroad financed many of the enterprises in Eastleigh; only the Iranians export a larger volume of goods from Dubai.

I go looking for textiles from the revived looms of Barawa, and find two-piece sets of these original kikoi wraps in a stall in the Amco shopping complex. It is a typical family enterprise — the husband, a former high court judge in Somalia, mans the stall; his wife is the main buyer; their son does the accounts and deals with licences and bills, and the daughters spend shifts relieving the father.

Eastleigh’s shopping complexes are beehives housing thousands of small cells that stock clothing, shoes, textiles, perfumes, watches, spices, electronics, carpets, foodstuffs, cellphones, abaya veils and head coverings, and religious articles.

The gold-sellers in Garissa Lodge present another twist on the standard business model — young Ninja-clad women bedecked in gold rings, necklaces, earrings, and bangles perch on low cowhide stools in an inner courtyard. Together with the moneychangers located nearby, they are dramatic evidence of the wealth concentrated in some of Nairobi’s poorest neighbourhoods — there is no lack of thieves.

Pickpockets and shoplifters work the crowds. Brazen youth prey on the slow-moving vehicles, snatching bags, watches, and jewellery. Yet these merchants conduct their trade casually in the absence of any formal security arrangements. Unlike the goldsmiths of River Road and shops in malls like Sarit and Yaya, there are few rent-a-guards, and no electronic locks, mirrors and security cameras.

Violent robbers are more selective — but in general they don’t mess with the Somalis, who also provide a barrier against the opportunistic lumpen who emerge out of Majengo and Mathare Valley during strikes and political protests to loot.

Refugees entering Kenya with capital and savings helped shore up an economy sagging under the cut-off of donor funds. If Eastleigh’s indigenous business class were the first beneficiaries, everyone benefits from the subsequent rise of Garissa Lodge.

The shopping malls broke the Asian stranglehold on retail commerce by offering a wider range of goods at lower prices. The malls also attract hordes of shoppers who support the many box and rack businesses and hawkers operating in their shadow. Other sundry services, deals, and less visible transactions feed into the multidirectional flow of cash.

But all of this unregulated economic activity has its downside, like the trade funnelling guns to urban criminals. Beng, beng, beng — the echo of gunshots often disturb the late-night quiet. Daring daytime raids are an occasional reality.

The theoretical implications of the Eastleigh model of transition underscore the unpredictable accumulation of influences catalysing transition more than debunking Ricardo, Marx, and Adam Smith.

The transformation of courtesans and nomadic clans into capitalists and corporate enterprises operating within a multi-ethnic environment where market dynamics trump tribal identities did not come about by design. Some elements were already in place; instead of waiting for policy to catch up with the economy, smuggling and cash incentives served politically correct goals.

Islam, and its provisions for regulating trade and private-sector ethics, plays an important role. Its dynamic qualities offset capital’s cruel destruction of culture and traditional livelihoods.
Reinvestment of African and Asian capital displaced by the new economy in Eastleigh in new and more productive enterprises contributes to a ripple effect.

This is already happening.

In 1997, I met with several Eastleigh businesspeople who were having problems getting business visas for the US — the consulate told them they could not process their applications because the law required that they apply in their home country (i.e. Mogadishu) — a classic Catch 22 fix.

“Most of us have children living in America,” they said, “but the things we want to purchase require our personal presence.”

“What kind of equipment are you looking for and why buy it in the US?” I asked.
“Well, in addition to small and medium-sized aircraft, sophisticated telephone switchboards and Internet routers, Mack trucks, and large-scale power-generation plants,” they replied, “we are also interested in other industrial items that we may not be familiar with but that can serve our needs.”

“The Somalis,” I.M. Lewis once observed, “are the world’s thickest-skinned entrepreneurs.”

Habituated to endemic uncertainty and endowed with lineage-based insurance against risk, they are converting political disaster into a unique global presence.

One Somali friend of mine, for example, is a former academic who is now an Australian citizen and operates a business in Kenya; chosen by the clan to serve in the transitional government, he was then called to serve as Minister for the Diaspora.

This is how globalisation works African-style, and while blood may influence the flow and distribution of income, Eastleigh businessmen categorically state that clan affinities do not really operate beyond retail trade. Rather, “formal sector competition is cutthroat.”

The shopping malls, according to forward-looking sources, “are not the real deal.” Indeed, the material “needs” anticipated above are not limited to the greater Horn region, and as these capitalists spearhead a transition to Phase Four, the Somali presence in the malls will give way to others.

Pursuing this trend further yields the view that Eastleigh is not as important as Dubai and other nodes. Rather, it is the main crossroads, a place where Somalis (and other ethnic entrepreneurs) of the Diaspora congregate to socialise, to discuss everything under the sun, and to strike deals. Its more significant possibility, in short, is as an emerging financial centre for the Indian Ocean region.

The Eastleigh exemplar highlights a quality of dynamic systems that the scholar of complexity and chaos, Robert Kauffmann, refers to as “spontaneous internal organisation.”

Though confusing and not reducible to textbook formulae, the matrix of factors underpinning the Eastleigh economy is somehow consistent with Africa’s inchoate ethnic grid, haphazard behaviours, and counter-intuitive dynamics.”

Eastleigh’s flourishing mercantilism and capitalism proper, is only the most apparent aspect of the transition. Somalis in Kenya suffered years of backlash encouraged by their own racial pride, but the collapse of the Somali state and other factors have softened perceptions on both sides of the divide. All of this helps explain why, despite the massive influx of ethnic Somalis, the integrative Yahoo mentality still holds sway in Eastleigh. Consciousness precedes class.

Several years ago, upon the conclusion of a workshop bringing together peace advocates from southern and northern Sudan, I treated two of the Arab participants to lunch in Eastleigh. After feasting on dailoo (young goat cooked in its own skin), we waded into the shopping district’s throng of light and dark bodies, where Muslim and non-Muslim talked, hawked, and mingled without distinction.

Upon returning to the car, my Sudanese companions stated, with considerably more conviction than I had heard in the workshop, “Now we go home and put an end to our senseless war!”