The Many Faces of Insecurity in Nairobi

Guest Writer
23 June ,2015

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free.DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Constance Smith

At around 10am on Thursday 28th August 2014, gunfire burst out across Kaloleni, one of Nairobi’s decaying public housing estates in Eastlands. With bullets raining down, residents fled into their homes – both permanent and mabati houses – as for several hours police exchanged gunfire with thugs fleeing from a robbery in the Industrial Area. Eventually, riddled with bullets, five young gunmen were laid out on the ground: two dead, and three injured and immobilised.

Insecurity in Kenya has been the stuff of global headlines in recent months, with coverage of terrorist attacks, governments withdrawing embassy staff and tourism plummeting. Yet despite the violence, the blood and the deaths, the Kaloleni incident was apparently routine enough not to be reported anywhere in the Kenyan media. Violent crime in poorer corners of the city is not news, apparently.

“We were held hostage for several hours,” said Nico, describing how he and many others had taken shelter in their homes, even hiding under the bed as gunfire licked the walls and windows. This was not the first incident of shooting in Kaloleni, in fact, it is only the most recent of several over the past few months. For many Kenyans, the threat of terrorism, such as the attack on the Westgate Mall, remains a somewhat vague and distant threat, overshadowed by more mundane anxieties that rear their heads with ominous regularity. Gun crime is just one of the much more real and urgent forms of insecurity that must be negotiated everyday.

Even when faced with what might be classed as a terror attack, other concerns may take priority. After the bomb went off in Gikomba market, my friend Georgio was sprinting through Kaloleni. What’s wrong? I asked him. “I’m going to Gikosh – I need to protect my shop,” he called as he hurried past. Following a confused and chaotic ‘terror incident’ such as a bomb exploding in one of the city’s most crowded markets, most of us would choose to flee. But Georgio, along with all the other stallholders, knew that the confusion following the explosion was a perfect opportunity for looters to take advantage. Desperate to safeguard his stock, he headed into the fray and into potential danger. The imminent loss of livelihood weighed up in his mind as a much greater insecurity than a second explosion.

For Kaloleni residents, this climate of uncertainty is deepened by the looming threat of demolition of the estate itself. On 14 May 2014, an article appeared in the Nairobi News paper with the headline “In Comes Chinese Money, Out Go Eastlands Estates”. The article describes a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Nairobi County Government and two private Chinese companies to build 55,000 apartments in place of the county council housing in Eastlands, as part of the city’s so-called ‘urban renewal’ programme. This is only the most recent in a range of overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, announcements of redevelopment projects.

Over the past few years, large scale urban planning projects have achieved new momentum in Kenya, and Nairobi in particular. The government’s Vision 2030 initiative envisages “transforming Kenya into a middle income country by the year 2030” and the reinvention of Nairobi as a “world-class metropolis”. One key platform of this policy is the Eastlands Urban Renewal Strategy. These are all noble schemes if it means increasing employment, raising living standards and reducing poverty, but many residents fear that it is gentrification under another name: the displacement of thousands of poorer households in favour of high net-worth renters and buyers.

The Eastlands estates, including Kaloleni, are several neighbourhoods of colonial-era housing in the east of Nairobi, built by the British colonial government between 1920s and 1960s to provide affordable housing for Africans in Kenya’s rapidly growing capital city. Although today they are rundown and in disrepair, tens of thousands of low-income Nairobians still call them home. According to the article, the new apartments are to be designed, constructed and then sold by the Chinese companies, despite the fact that very few current residents have the capital needed to purchase property. As described, the scheme implies the end of publicly owned rental housing in this area of Nairobi. What this might mean for the residents is far from clear, but displacement seems likely.

With even the roofs over their heads in doubt, residents are facing a whole range of insecurities, both urgent and chronic.

While the government dreams of Vision 2030, ordinary wananchi try to get by, dodging bullets from both police and criminals, evading the county council’s bulldozers and praying their matatu gets them to work in one piece. Planning for the future is fraught when the sands of the present are shifting underneath you. It is as much a game of hope and luck as of intentions and ambition.


Miraculously, it felt like, the police managed to avoid hurting anyone else in the Kaloleni shootout. By lunchtime, children started to peer around corners, playing with the empty cartridges now littering the estate. Residents came outside to survey the damage, patching up shattered windows and walls peppered with bullet holes. Excited chatter began to swell: Who were the young gunmen? Whose homes had they hidden in?

With the immediate danger over, comments and photos were quickly uploaded to social media, provoking much discussion, especially among the Kaloleni diaspora, now living in many corners of the world. But there was sadness too, and resignation.

I asked one man if he would replace the battered wall of his one-room mabati home. He looked me in the eye and said, “Is there any point? Maybe they will demolish all this soon anyway. I can’t keep rebuilding and rebuilding.”

Constance Smith is a researcher in anthropology and history, based at the BIEA in Kileleshwa, Nairobi. Her research focuses on housing, architecture, and community in Nairobi, primarily in Eastlands.

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free.DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

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