Nairobi wasn’t built for walking. Outer Ring Road in the morning is a nightmare, all the construction—good luck not falling into a ditch at six in the morning. Jogoo Road is a rhapsody of vehicles, and people—people walking and running and shouting and crying and yelling and driving and steering and hooting and vehicling and nuisancing and listening to Maina Kageni—Maina Kageni who plays the music of the 60s and the 70s and the 80s, and talks about women in the ways a certain type of man talks about women, and sells his listeners land in Syokimau and in Macha and in Naks and in Nyeri, land that he guarantees is a great deal, and all you have to do is call, and the payments are very flexible, and the land is the best deal you’ll ever get—on car radios and pocket radios and phone radio apps, and people moving, always moving, except when they’re not, but sitting and staring and complaining and cursing and grinding teeth and being still because Jogoo Road was not built for all these different peoples, fat and thin and tall and short and moribund and oblique and round and obtuse and oval and black, always black, black ants scurrying forward, or not scurrying forward, seated in their vehicles, vehicling.
There exist Nairobi walkers. Homo Nairobi Mobilae. At six, seven, eight, nine in the morning, walking up Jogoo Road, always up, never down, and this because we suppose the CBD to be up, not down. We think Nairobi spreads outwards from its center. We’ve been told to think Nairobi spreads outwards from its center, its headquarters and government offices and important roads, where the trees of colonialism still exist, jacarandas blooming in beautiful violence every October, where the money is, where people venture to hustle, where if you ask what they are doing in the CBD, they say that, you know, it’s just hustle. And so Homo Nairobi Mobilae walks up Jogoo Road, but then up is also class. Walking up to the CBD means walking up to Museum Hill and to Upper Hill and to Lavington and to Kilimani, where the hustle pays one in dollars and in euros and other higher currencies.
Homo Nairobi Mobilae getting onto Landhies Road and moving, walking up, sweat dripping down their pits, down, and going up into the city into their shops and kiosks and duka za viatu and vibandas and structures and occupations on Tom Mboya Street or Moi Avenue or River Road, but not on Galana Road or State House Road or Dennis Pritt Road, those roads where matatus are not allowed, those echelons of upper mobility, but maybe Haile Selassie, where they will wait at the intersection with Racecourse Road and watch and wait for vehicling people; people fat and thin, and tall and short, and black, and some of them take, impolitely, watches and phones and side mirrors, and live and breathe and eat, repeat, until they have to walk back home, walk down Jogoo Road to Dandora and Kayole and Huruma. Nairobi isn’t built for Homo Nairobi Mobilae.
Lakini the walkers, Homo Nairobi Mobilae, how do they survive?? Around electioneering period, the danger of walking in/around/near/towards/w/r/t Muthurwa increases. You hear things, like about that Jaka kid pulled from his stall, killed, and his body used to smear Landhies Road with blood. Or about the other guys killed, and fake guns planted next to their bodies. Mungiki they say, lakini, ‘Huyo sio mwizi. Anauza nyama pale Ngara.’ Bonoko says this, and off he is, catapulted into the glitz of radio.
Then it happens, the splintering of Homo Nairobi Mobilae into distinct camps. What’s your last name? Umekatwa? Who did you vote for? Did you vote?
In their cars, the former walkers can sense it. There are no jams on Jogoo Road anymore, the people who listen to Kageni selling parcels of land in Syokimau and Makutano and Sijui Wapi Huko are afraid that their cars will be burnt, and the insurance won’t cover it. See that Forward Travellers bus torched during Raila’s homecoming. Eeeh. Zile mat za Kayole. Na vile Gaza ati wako na stakess. Lakini bado. Anyways.
A city walks. From Dandora, and ‘yole, and Kibra, and Soweto, and kwa Ruben. To the CBD, to Industrial Area, to Muthurwa, to Ngara, to zile places za ma-accent. Naijographia ya kina bm. On the other side of the city, the side infused with jacaranda, that tree of British colonialism, walking is an evening activity. Cardiotheraphy and Radiotherapy and Physiotherapy and Walking as therapy and health and calories and exercise and it clears the mind and I’m off to walk the dog, honey. There, Homo Nairobi Mobilae uses Google Fit and mile trackers and walks in circles on the public track in cool evenings at Jaffery’s and then drives home. Walking is pleasure.
Holy men have walked before, Jesus for 40 days in the desert, and John for years during his ministry. Gandhi walked, and Grogan walked, and a couple of Australian kids walked, and Teju walked and Teju’s Julius walked and certain parts of the city sit to ooh and aah Mr. Cole and tell themselves how they loved the character and hated themselves for loving him. Across the city, next to the intersection of Outer Ring Road and Manyanja Road, men sit in a kiosk, shouting and jousting and asking Rosie awaeke ile marrow nono—hapa, the MO is to take the bone and suck it, suck all the bone marrow out of it. When they do, these men walk because they need to walk, not because Mr. Cole walked. And these are the lucky ones; they can afford kwa Rosie.
On March 14th 1922, Harry Thuku, the chairman of the East African Association, and a women’s rights activist, was arrested and jailed at Kingsway Police Station (now Central Police Station). The police station was located in the heart of what was described as Nairobi’s posh centre, on Kingsway Road (now Harry Thuku Road), next to Norfolk Hotel, where Lord Delemare and Colonel Grogan among others rested between hunting safaris and attempts to turn tough African bush into farmable land. Across the river, in areas nowadays known as Ngara, Parklands, Eastleigh and Pangani, were the quarters for Indian railway workers and the Asians who came after them, the first two mutating into the centers from where cricket would spring years later, and the latter into the centers of Somali capital. Further afield, in the areas nowadays known as Shauri Moyo, Bahati, Jericho, Dandora and Kaloleni, Meja Mwangi’s Nairobi, the Nairobi of the working poor—the African zone.
When news of Thuku’s arrest reached the African zone, in the shanties of the city, a crowd set off towards the police station. This crowd, whose size history estimates at between 7,000 and 8,000 people, surrounded the police station. They must have made for a frightening sight, but the police commander on the ground knew that the crowd was too terrified of the firearms the police held to make any serious trouble. The coppers stood their ground outside the station, and the crowd, hungry, tired, and thirsty, all sweated out, waited with them. At a certain point, the women in the crowd started goading the men, hinting at a certain vagrancy between their legs. These ones, they were not real men, they said. Why else weren’t they rushing the station, trying to free Thuku, Munene wa Nyacing’a, the chief of the women? Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, from Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District, was the leader of this gang of taunters, and the more they goaded, the more the men retreated into their cowardly cocoons.
By the morning of March 16th, the women had gotten tired of subterfuge. Muthoni initiated guturamira ng’ania, ran to the front in her nakedness, and shouted, ‘You take my dress and give me your trousers. You men are cowards. What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there. Let’s get him.’ The women charged, running at the police station door to free their hero. They made an eclectic mix, this rampage of angry women, small-scale traders and mothers, farmers and sisters, women who had escaped the confines of female circumcision for a heady sexual experience, married women, women of the clan of Aicakamuyu, buttock-scratchers, women who had come to the city to escape male authority, and at their head Muthoni, Muthoni wa Nyanjiru, from Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District. Trigger-happy police officers mowed them down like flies.
Almost a hundred years later, I find myself seated on a bench off University Way at midnight. The University of Nairobi, the entrance to its main campus directly opposite my bench, wasn’t in existence that day Muthoni and her women were massacred, but I can picture them, some running up what is now Harry Thuku Road towards the Norfolk where guests took aim at the stampeding Africans with their Lee-Enfield .303s and Springfield 1903 .30-06s and Webley Mk IV revolvers and Colt 0.45-inch automatics, some running down what is now Tom Mboya Street with the police officers killing them in and around what is now Jevanjee Gardens, yet others running down University Way, collapsing with bullet wounds, bleeding to death in what is now Central Park.
On this night, a century after Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru’s death, on the bench to my right, three women sit, smoking. The women are dressed in the ways our censors think of as skimpy and bare and all the other adjectives of morality, and I can almost see the goosebumps on their thighs and arms. The frilly Nairobi wind blows cold, and I wrap my jacket tighter around me. These women wear no jackets. Every few minutes, they stand up from their bench and try to flag down a car on the road.
The City County of Nairobi voted to remove prostitutes from the streets of the town. The men of God at City Hall, the Holy-Spirit-filled Sunday-preachers of the Kanjo Republic. Si you know heaven is waiting for them? Soon these women will be forcibly removed from their places of occupation on Koinange Street, on River Road, on Muindu Mbingu, on Pewa Street in Umoja, in Mbuthia in Huruma. Or more accurately, these women will have to part with their hard-earned money so that police officers can allow them to make a living. A hundred years ago, amidst a blight of venereal diseases that claimed among others, Karen Blixen’s husband, Baron Blixen, the colonial government banned prostitutes from the city. Always a happy occasion, our retention of these vestiges of colonial heritage.
Tony M walked the streets of Nairobi to write his nightrunner’s guide to the city. Meja Mwangi’s Dusman Gozanga resided in the night, and hitched up with a prostitute in the rain. I walk the city at midnight. The restaurants near the National Archives remain open. The clubs blast music. Men, sometimes women, but mostly men, file in and out of Sabina Joy, where a few City Shuttles wait for passengers. A tall drunk man shouts for watu wa Utawala. Utawala eighty, Utawala eighty. Outside Ambassadeur Hotel, cab drivers exchange cigarettes, beat stories about how Nairobi will kill them, and wait. Across Moi Avenue, a live band plays Awilo Mike, and men and women gyrate their hips and move their necks to I’m not sober because I’m drinking Guinness.
On the other side of town, all is quiet apart from the tiny club opposite Kingsway Tires near what used to be Kingsway Police Station on what used to be Kingsway Road. The ghosts of Muthoni and her women stalk the highway, but her successors struggle to get a customer. They are still here an hour later, smoking and freezing and contracting pneumonia and wondering where they are going to get the money for their fees. In Kuala Lumpur, there is a section of the city de jure reserved for boygirls, transvestite prostitutes, but in Nairobi, cops and makanjo and male politicians harass women trying to get money for their food and their children and their lives, because we are a God-fearing nation and these women are bringing us curses.
Nairobi wasn’t built for walking. In the 80s, while walking on Kenyatta Avenue, pedestrians would stop talking to each other and walk with their eyes on the ground because if you were spotted looking at or around Nyayo House, you would be arrested by Special Branch officers and taken into the building for questioning. These urban myths reveal our psyches, our guilts, our fears. Rural myths too. Nairobians who have never been past Nakuru, two hours west of the city, imagine Sachang’wan and Salgaa as dark desolate spaces where buses go to die. In 2009, a tanker explosion at Sachang’wan led to 120 people being burnt alive. Juzi juzi too, forty people died at the same spot, and more die every week along the Sachang’wan-Salgaa stretch of the Kisumu-Nairobi highway. In 1905, Koitalel arap Samoei was betrayed to the British colonial administration. Two local chiefs, Elijah and Melal, ate the blood money that the British paid as compensation to Koitalel’s family. The two chiefs were cursed, and they died at the exact spot where the oil tanker exploded in 2009. Since then, they roam the Sachang’wan-Salgaa stretch collecting more souls to eat. Halafu when you see the Vice President’s wife leading a delegation to pray on the road, you scoff and ask why our leaders follow these blind beliefs.
Over Christmas, Embassava matatus abandon their Eastlands routes for the money-spinner that is the Nairobi-Kisumu route. And, as a rule of sorts, one or two of these matatus feed Chiefs Melal and Elijah. During the rest of the year, these matatus roam Jogoo Road and Manyanja Road and Outer Ring Road and Moi Drive. From six to around ten in the evening, fare is eighty bob. You get into one, and the screens at the front playing hip-hop music videos assail your eyes and ears. T-Pain’s autotune. Lil Wayne. 50 Cent, ripped in a gym, rapping at the camera. Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg going to church. Bow Wow Wow Yippy Yoh Yippy Yeh. Rick Ross’s face and beard and studs are plastered all over the interior of the matatu. Every few minutes, a disembodied voice in the speaker informs you that this mix was prepared by Demakufu, Nairobi’s premier DJ. And next to the screen at the front, but not next to the screens behind the headrest of every seat, is plastered a printed notice: Shades Matatu/ Wifi Password: Wagwan76. And next to it, an even smaller sign: In Case of Any Problems, Call 0716585682.
First there was English. But before English there were other firsts: Agikuyu and Ekegusii and Dholuo and Akamba and Maragoli and others whose existences have been written out of the book of firsts. So, first there was English. Then there was Kiswahili, which was actually before English but in our book of firsts, comes after English. Then the two came together and to them was begat Sheng’. Then Sheng’ assimilated words from Dholuo and Kikuyu and Kikamba and Somali and Kitaita and all the other firsts that came before English.
Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was from Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District. In the parlance of Sheng’ speakers, her ocha was Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District. Ocha, viz., a Sheng’ word meaning where you are from, your father’s home, from the Luo word ocha, viz., where you are from, your father’s home. Before ocha, we had ushago. Imagine Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru asking her white employer (or slave-owner) for permission to go visit her family in Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District. And the employer, a good Christian man, basking in the glow of all he does for his boys and girls, a good heart, tells her, ‘You shall go.’ And after being repeated many times across the city, youshallgo mutates into ushago, which is faster to say, and easier on the tongue, and sounds better than the awkward youshallgo. And youshallgo begat ushago which begat ocha which was begotten and is begetting and will beget.
Nairobi wasn’t built for walking. Except on Sunday nights. Sunday nights in the CBD are special. Everywhere is closed apart from the chips places on Kimathi Street and the fish and chicken joint near the UoN bridge. The bench off University Way has not lost its charm. The streets are cold, except for the askaris seated on doorways, battling sleep and guarding properties. Street families sleep at particular spots: for example, below the billboard near Nation Centre, on pieces of cardboard, huddled close for warmth. Maybe there’s a mentally-disturbed man on Muindu Mbingu, walking up the street, complaining about the thieves and malayas who permeate the streets. The advertising screens on the intersection of Kimathi Street and Mama Ngina Street are screening Oppo ads, or a song, or old Game of Thrones episodes. Homo Nairobi Mobilae is absent from the streets. Dedan Kimathi stands at the corner with his gun and his flag, keeping a watch on the city, the city in the country whose independence he, and Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru from Weithaga in Location 10, Fort Hall District, and Thuku Munene wa Nyacing’a, and the Odingas, and the Kenyattas, and the Ronald Ngalas, and the Tom Mboyas, and the others, the ones in the history books, and the ones who didn’t make it in, the nameless faceless ones, the ones who died in 1922 and 1932 and 1942 and 1952 and 1962 and all the other years, and the ones who lived, fought for.
Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi. Baraka, together with Gathoni, edited DRR’s issue 2: Ritual. Order your copy here.