NAIROBI is an unusual city. Every wealthy suburb has its own slum that provides cheap labour for gardening, housework, plumbing, and other services for the stately homes.
The diplomatic enclave of Gigiri, home to the UN Complex, US and other embassies; and the Runda and Rosslyn suburbs too have their slum – Githogoro. However, something disruptively beautiful is happening in places like Githogoro.
While I feel empathy for people who have to make slums their home, I don’t feel pity for them because they are actually part of something potentially game-changing. Yes, slums are poor, and sometimes desperate, places, but they are also dynamic, innovative, and an important transition toward being working class (and later middle class) in Africa.
These slums will shape the future of Africa. Not because their poor residents will stage a revolution and burn the city elite at the stakes, but as a result of the social currents happening there.
If you drive around Runda (or along the United Nations Avenue that cuts through the heart of Gigiri) on Sunday mornings, you see interesting things. There is a church on the edge of Runda that, after prayers, distributes food and, sometimes, used clothes to the poor people in the surrounding areas, most of them from Githogoro.
‘COOL’ CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO
With their goodies, the children pour onto the roads in their hundreds as they head back to Githogoro and the surrounding areas. They are barefoot, many of them are unwashed, and their clothes are shabby. During the week, most of them go to Cheleta Primary School in the middle of Runda. They are a bit cleaned up, and look neater and shinier.
If you looked closely, you would see that the children don’t have any particular “typical” Kenyan looks. First, many of the little girls have long wavy hair, though it is unkempt. They are, for lack of a better word, “mixed race” and “mixed tribe” children. The boys tend to be tall and thin.
Clearly, the dating ways of the slums are not tribal. Outside the madness of the election season, the poverty of the slums tends to level out ethnic rivalries that the middle class thrive on, and love across ethnic and international seems to be common. These unions are producing very mixed “unKenyan” children who don’t look your typical Kikuyu from Muranga, Luo from Bondo, and so on (to the extent that there’s such a thing).
Also, several of these children are born from “illicit” liaisons with the large western, Asian, Arab, African expatriate and diplomatic class in the Muthaiga-Gigiri-Runda-Rosslyn area, which explains the disproportionate number of “mixed-race” (or “zebra” to use the politically incorrect word) children one sees in Githogoro. Yet, Githogoro is not unusual.
In Kenya’s slums – Kibera, Mathare – or indeed in places like Kisenyi in Kampala you see the same thing. Kisenyi is the most cosmopolitan part of the Ugandan capital.
A new more cosmopolitan culture is growing in these slums. And if one wants to see why, in Kenya at least, one only needs to watch Judy Kibinge’s incredible film Peace Wanted Alive, a documentary on the post-election violence of 2008 and how it played out in slums like Kibera and Mathare.
A friend who follows these trends tells me that; “nearly all the new music rhythms, dances moves, and the Sheng vocabulary in Nairobi are derived from the slums and working class housing estates”.
The slums rebels against the “reactionary forces” that inhibit the creation of new things that go against tradition, and allow the democratic infusion of new urban experiences into culture. These changes happen best in the slums because the Old Establishment does not exercise power there, he says.
And so the widest and most unlikely mixture of Kenyan, and also additions of “foreign seed”, to the republic’s genetic pool happens there.
As rural-urban migration continues and slums grow; as East African borders open and cross-border travel booms; and prostitution assumes a regional character; the original “native stock” in our countries will be diluted. The ancient ethnic animosities that bedevil African politics and public life will decline – or so it would appear to an optimist.
And new sounds (of groups like the Kenyan group Slum Drummers, who played at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary gig in London), new imaginations, “new” peoples will emerge from that crazy mix and create an Africa that is brazenly outward looking.
Yet, to say that these shifts are happening only in the slums would be terribly misleading. In Kampala when I used to go to pick the kids from their school, the parents would gather at a vantage point where they hoped the children would see them.
Few ventured to go look for the children in the playgrounds or wherever they were in the school because of one difficulty. These children might have been born to parents from different parts of Uganda, and there were quite a few from Kenya and Tanzania; but the problem is that from afar, the children looked pretty much the same, and it was difficult to figure out which ones were yours. So a hunt for them in the playing fields would be very frustrating.
It is many years later. Last Friday I went to pick our daughter from her Nairobi school because they were breaking off for the Christmas holiday. It is an incredibly multinational school, and I tried looking at the kids to figure out which one was Kenyan, which ones Ugandan (there are about 12 Ugandans there), Tanzanian, which ones were West African, and which ones American or from the Caribbean.
Then I would turn to see which car they went to (you can figure out the countries by diplomatic plate numbers), or who their parents were (the rough local flavor thing could still be detected in us the parents, although it is largely absent in the children). I got them all wrong.
For the Middle Class, apart from intermarriage, there are other factors at play. Grooming is erasing those “typical” features. These middle classes all shop from the same supermarkets and thus eat the same food. We are now entering the third full-generation of urban Africans.
We no longer need to eat “wild” sugarcane, and peel them with our teeth, or to eat raw mangoes from the bush, a process that has led jaws and teeth to get smaller – or something like that – according to one account I read in The New Scientist a while back. We no longer have to labour in the fields and handle the ox-plough, and thus our shoulders are getting smaller (if you want broad shoulders these days you join a gym). The women are having fewer children (two or three), so they are evolving smaller busts.
The middle class is becoming the food it eats, the shampoo it uses, the mineral water it drinks, and the clubs its members hang out at.
I have seen the future, and I love it. So let there be more Githogoros. And let there be more Gigiris, Lavingtons, and Westlands too.
•This article was first published eight years ago.
-The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3