The Mind of a City

Michael Onsando
23 February ,2016

“A city adopts a certain shape, an arrangement that can be seen even in its absence.”

I’d like to think with the city as a photograph. In the essay (read it here) Ndinda Kioko talks about Nairobi and the history of Nairobi as a symbol of power, as cities invariably are. I’d like to expand on this and see cities, and Nairobi in particular, as fortresses of memory. In the same way “I was here” etched on a desk carries memory beyond the four years of high school, Nairobi holds memory and erasure. The chambers have been closed but Nyayo house stands to remind us.

This is not to imagine that it is in any respect a special city because of this quality. In Open City, Teju Cole writes:

This was not the first erasure on the site. Before the towers had gone up there had been a bustling network of little streets travelling this part of town. Robinson street, Lauren street, College place: all of them had been obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the World trade Center buildings, all were forgotten now.

Nairobi continues to be a place of constant memory building/memory erasing. Especially now when crazed with ideas of development we find juxtapositions of the old alongside the new. As the city continues to adopt a shape and form of its own it continues to abandon the shape that it was once designed to have.

Still. This is not about how cities abandon their masters.

Perhaps then the question is, what does Nairobi remind us?

Billy Kahora writes about Buru buru:

Buru Buru was a pre-cursor to Kenya’s ambitious push for urban housing for the emerging new African  middle-class. With Buru Buru’s success followed Langata, Southlands, Ngei, Ngumo and South B’s Golden Gates and Plainsview – new middling and modernist extensions of the Kenyan State, straddling once colonial and formerly ‘white’ suburbs like Muthaiga and Karen and African servant-quarters spaces such as Jericho and Jerusalem. The estates were all funded by Housing Finance Corporation of Kenya, HFCK. Every pipe and water marker in Buru Buru was stamped with the acronym. We did not know what it meant and when bored we made up monikers for it.

I must have been around 9 years old when I got lost at the Nairobi show. I was holding the hand of a family friend who my parents had allowed to take me to the show, when I stopped to buy a toy car. Or maybe not a toy car but something as trivial. One of those childish trinkets that last up to 24 hours before you take them apart to see how the tires move in coordination (spoiler: they are connected by a small axel). When I looked up I was alone.

This was the first time I experienced Nairobi as intimidating.

I was terrified.

Eventually a kind red cross worker found me and took me to their tent where I sat and watched cartoons with other lost children as a fantasized about whether or not my parents would ever find me. About 6 hours later they did.

I became obsessed with wandering the city though. After that, it became almost impossible to keep an eye on me. I suspect it was always difficult but my mind insists on connecting this memory to wonder about the city. And I see no reason to divorce it.

The memory came flooding back to me as a friend and I were helping out with volunteers at Uhuru Park after the Westgate tragedy. We were talking when I got distracted and, when I turned, he was no longer there. Even as an adult, knowing that I could take care of myself, I still stood in fear for a few seconds as the city took the shape of intimidation once more.

I go back to Ndinda:

“These symbols of power, this landscape, then become the city.

The symbols invaded us, they made themselves present in our private moments of memory making of the city, in photographs of families at Uhuru Park, corresponding to the repressive rule of those times.”


“We are also a political class with a unifying ideology”

 – Basil

And, just as cities are shaped by intent and carry memory I’d like to wonder about how cities also shape us. How do the memories we continue to run into and modify shape our perception of the world. I find this particularly important to ask when seen in the lens we use to view those who we have decided are outsiders. Ndinda touches on the idea of ushamba in her piece.

““Ushamba” here loosely translates to ignorance, often used to refer to people who are experiencing the city for the first time. The absence of the city is the presence of ignorance. And so if this image exists somewhere in personal archives, it must be deleted. And if it is to stay, the only way to survive it is to laugh at it. It belongs to the past.”

To be not of the city, in the eyes of the city, is to belong to the past. To still dare to marvel, fear, or hold in awe is a marker of being of the past. This inside outside dynamic creates a yearning to be inside. To belong, to intergrate oneself into the ways of the city, or to reject them all together. The struggle, of course is one that everyone must have on their own. There is no one way to handle the influence around you.

But there is something in beginning to look at the ways the city has shaped you. To begin to think about what it means to be in a space that was designed to show power and how this space is navigated. How many of the city’s memories have shaped how you view the world? And how much of this is thinking that you’d really like to hold on to?

“Last night I had a bad dream

That I was trapped in the city

Then I asked myself

Is that really such a bad thing?”

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