We had a surprise waiting for Mutuku, Mulwa, Keli, and Baraka. Unknown to them we’d made arrangements for them to have special visitors. Ruth had hired a large matatu and 65 of the orphans in our program were going to join us in Nairobi. Most of these children had never been more than a few dozen kilometers away from Kikima. A few had been to Machakos and none had been as far as Nairobi–the capital of their country.
For most, just being on the matatu was exciting. The children, all in their formal dress uniforms, piled off the matatu and surrounded Mutuku, Mulwa, Keli, and Baraka. Wonderful greetings, smiles and a hundreds of questions tossed at them. Instead of a few days it was as if they hadn’t seen them for months.
We’d brought them down to meet with us but also to expose them to some new experiences. We arranged for them to go the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, the giraffe feeding station and the ‘monkey’ park. Basically this was a field trip similar to one that North American students would experience if they went to the zoo.
You’d assume that children living in Kenya would have seen wild animals but most often that is not the case. Those living in large cities, such as Nairobi, have limited contact with anything that is natural, including grass and trees.
This was the first time any of the children had seen a lion or hyena or giraffe. A few had seen a fleeting glimpse of a monkey. None had fed or held a monkey before.
For me, the Giraffe feeding station is always a highlight. Here, wandering out of the National Park, giraffes come to be fed. Standing on the tower, eye to eye, you can pet, feed, or ‘kiss’ a giraffe if you put a food pellet between your lips.
Nairobi is the hustling and bustling capital of Kenya. The Kenya Bureau of Statistics reports that as of 2011 the population of Nairobi is 3,138,369 with 985,016 households.
Nairobi has a long and complex history which dates back to British colonization. In 1899, Nairobi was founded as a railway depot to link Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa to Uganda. This railway is a key marker of British colonization in Kenya and its influence on shaping population distribution and urban growth is undeniable.
By 1905 Nairobi was declared the capital of Kenya and as of today it is not only the capital of Kenya but it serves as an important centre of commerce, business, and trade for all of Eastern Africa. Due to its relative safety and security when compared to its East African neighbours, Nairobi is also where the United Nations is located, as well as many other NGOs and foreign embassies.
Although Nairobi enjoys relative stability, it still faces major problems associated with urban planning, extreme poverty, crime, overpopulation, homelessness, and unemployment. To understand the roots of these problems, it is important to look at the history of Nairobi as it transformed from train depot to urban centre.
Prior to the 20th century, Kenya was almost exclusively made up of rural communities based on ethnic similarities. For instance, the footprint of modern day Nairobi sits on land that was inhabited by the Kikuyu peoples and the Maasai peoples.
British business ventures and colonial interest transformed Nairobi–which was previously rural and relatively untouched land–into the centre of colonial tourism, trade, and business. When Kenya achieved independence in 1963, Nairobi remained the capital even after the British relinquished control of the city. Following independence, urbanization continued to flourish and very quickly Kenyans of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds were living in Nairobi. Just seven years after independence, Nairobi’s population doubled from 266,794 to 509,206 by 1969. The continued growth of Nairobi’s population has created significant problems, both past and present, as the government struggles to provide services for all of its residents. Simply put, Nairobi does not have the capacity to sustain its ever increasing population.
Today, Nairobi’s residents and their living conditions are a perfect symbol of the inequalities that plague Kenya as a whole. The population is divided between the rich and the extremely poor, with a very small middle class. In neighborhoods such as Runda, Kitisuru, or Riverside Drive, houses are listed for millions of dollars. In a striking contrast, millions of Kenyans living in Nairobi take shelter in overcrowded slums made of tin. This urban inequality is undeniable and as Nairobi continues to grow so will the divide between rich and poor.
Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard sums this inequality up best when stating, “Kibera, about seven kilometres from the city centre, thrives quite literally in the shadow of Nairobi’s wealth. Children splash in the raw sewage that runs between the shacks or sort through the garbage, which is everywhere, for things to sell. Yet fewer than 200 metres past the two giant billboards — for liquid detergent and strawberry-flavored condoms — that unofficially mark one of Kibera’s entrances sits former president Daniel Arap Moi’s home in a walled compound, next to pricey apartment complexes and the residences of the French and Sudanese ambassadors.”
Charton-Bigot, Helene and Rodriguez-Torres, Deyssi. Nairobi Today: the paradox of a fragmented city. Nairobi: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2006.
Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics. “Population and Housing Census.” Published 2011. url: www.knbs.or.ke/censuspopulation.php
Shephard, Michelle. “Kenya’s Largest Slum Fears Repeat of 2007 Election Violence.” Toronto Star. March 3, 2013.
For another night they were safe, cared for, and Muchoki had somebody else looking out for his sister and him. Once again I had to move them forward and leave behind a character they had learned to trust and a situation where they were momentarily safe.
I found this a very emotionally difficult chapter to write. I knew where the story had to go, that it was impractical, almost impossible for them to stay with Omolo, but still . . . they were safe. That act of giving them money for two mandazi felt like something he would have done for them. The final scene, having them walk away and not look back was important. I knew they would never meet again.
I wanted my characters to stay behind the walls of the building for a number of reasons. I wanted them to have to trust this Luo and other Luo they didn’t know. I wanted them–particularly Muchoki–to be protected by the people he sees as his enemy.
I also just wanted them to be safe. I know this isn’t real. I know I made up these characters. That doesn’t mean I don’t care for them. To be alone in Nairobi, unprotected and exposed, was just too painful to me as a writer. I needed them to be safe. This is a rather personal indulgence and one of the things I always have to guard against in my writing. I have an urge to solve problems, protect my characters, and get them to a happy resolution quickly. There could be no happy ending yet. They had to remain in jeopardy because more bad things still have to happen.