NAIROBI is one of Africa’s major cities: the UN’s fourth “World Centre”, East Africa’s commercial, media and NGO hub, and a significant capital in its own right, with a population of between three and four million, depending on how big an area you include. As a traveller, your first impressions are likely to depend on how – and where – you arrive. If you’ve come here overland, some time resting up in comfort can seem an appealing proposition. Newly arrived by air from Europe, though, you may wonder – amid the rash of roadside ads persuading you to upgrade your mobile-phone package or catch the latest TV offering – just how far you’ve travelled. Nairobi, little more than a century old, has real claims to Western-style sophistication but, as you’ll soon find, it lacks a convincing heart. Apart from some lively musical attractions – some of East Africa’s busiest clubs and best bands – there’s little here of magnetic appeal, and most travellers stay long enough only to take stock, make some travel arrangements and maybe visit the National Museum, before moving on.
If you’re interested in getting to know the real Kenya, though, Nairobi is as compelling a place as any and displays enormous vitality and buzz. The controlling ethos is commerce rather than community, and there’s an almost wilful superficiality in the free-for-all of commuters, shoppers, police, hustlers, security guards, hawkers and tourists. It’s hard to imagine a city with a more fascinating variety of people, mostly immigrants from the rural areas, drawn to the presence of wealth. On the surface the city accepts everyone with tolerance, and, in any downtown street, you can see a complete cross section of Kenyans, every variety of tourist, and migrants and refugees from many African countries.
Nairobi’s rapid growth, however, inevitably has a downside. Watch the local TV news, read any paper or talk to a resident and you’ll hear jaw-dropping stories of crime and police shootings. Although the city has become safer in recent years, you should certainly be aware of its reputation for bag-snatching and robbery, frequently directed at new tourist arrivals. If you plan to stay in Nairobi for any length of time, you’ll soon get the hang of balancing reasonable caution with a fairly relaxed attitude: thousands of visitors do it every year. If you’re only here for a few days, you’re likely to find it a stimulating city.
Apart from being the safari capital of the world, Nairobi is an excellent base for Kenyan travel in general. To the coast, it’s as little as six hours by road, an overnight train journey, or an hour if you fly. It takes about the same time to get to the far west and barely two hours to get to the great trough of the Rift Valley or the slopes of Mount Kenya.
An excellent day-trip, literally on the city’s doorstep, is Nairobi National Park, a wild attraction where you’d expect to find suburbs. And a much overlooked trip due south, to Lake Magadi, takes you into a ravishingly beautiful and austere part of the Rift Valley.
Nairobi came into being in May 1899, an artificial settlement created by Europeans at Mile 327 of the Uganda Railway, then being systematically forged from Mombasa on the coast to Port Florence – now Kisumu – on Lake Victoria. Although called the “Uganda Railway” there was no connection to Kampala until 1931; before that, Lake Victoria ships provided the link.
Nairobi was initially a supply depot, switching yard and camp ground for the thousands of Indian labourers employed by the British. The bleak, partly swampy site was simply the spot where operations came to a halt while the engineers figured out their next move – getting the line up the steep slopes that lay ahead. The name came from the local Maasai word for the area, enkare nyarobi, “the place of cold water”, though the spot itself was originally called Nakusontelon, “Beginning of all Beauty”.
Surprisingly, the unplanned settlement took root. A few years later it was totally rebuilt after the burning of the original town compound following an outbreak of plague. By 1907, it was so firmly established that the colonists took it as the capital of the newly formed “British East Africa” (BEA). Europeans, encouraged by the authorities, started settling in some numbers, while Africans were forced into employment by tax demands (without representation) or onto specially created reserves – the Maasai to the Southern Reserve and the Kikuyu to their own reserve in the highlands.
Nairobi’s districts and suburbs
The capital, lacking development from any established community, was somewhat characterless in its early years – and remains so. The original centre retains an Asian influence in its older buildings, but today it’s shot through with glassy, high-rise blocks. Surrounding the core of the old Central Business District is a vast area of suburbs: wealthiest in the west and north, increasingly poor to the south and east.
The names of these suburbs – Karen, Parklands, Eastleigh, Spring Valley, Kibera, among many others – reflect the jumble of African, Asian and European elements in Nairobi’s original inhabitants, none of whom were local. The term “Nairobian” is a relatively new one that still applies mostly to the younger generation. Although it has a predominance of Kikuyu, the city is not the preserve of a single ethnic group, standing as it does at the meeting point of Maasai, Kikuyu and Kamba territories. Its choice as capital, accidental though it may have been (the Kikuyu town of Limuru and the Kamba capital, Machakos, were also considered), was a fortunate one for the future of the country.
Since the 1990s, the Central Business District has seen the steady flight of businesses into the suburbs, particularly to Upper Hill and the surrounding districts to the west of the CBD; to the booming satellite city of Westlands, just a couple of kilometres to the northwest; and for kilometre after kilometre out along the Mombasa road to the south. Just in the last few years, however, regeneration efforts in the CBD have begun to pay off. It’s not quite like the rebirth of central Johannesburg, but businesses and nightlife are returning to a district that feels safer and more habitable than at any time in the last two decades.