Easily the largest city in East Africa, Nairobi is also the youngest, the most modern, the fastest growing and, at nearly 1700m altitude, the highest. The superlatives could go on forever. “Green City in the Sun”, runs one tour-brochure sobriquet, “City of Flowers” another. Less enchanted visitors growl “Nairobbery”. The city catches your attention, at least: this is no tropical backwater. Most roads in Kenya, particularly paved ones, lead to Nairobi and, like it or not, you’re almost bound to spend some time here. Strolling around the malls in Westlands or negotiating Kenyatta Avenue at rush hour, it’s also perhaps easy to forget how quickly you can leave the city and be in the bush.
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.
Nairobi County, an area of some 690 square kilometres, ranging from agricultural and ranching land to savanna and mountain forest, used to stretch way beyond the city suburbs, but the city is increasingly filling the whole county. For visitors, most of the interest around Nairobi lies to the south and southwest, in the predominantly Maasai land that begins with Nairobi National Park, literally on the city’s doorstep – a wild attraction where you’d expect to find suburbs, it makes an excellent day-trip – and includes the watershed ridge of the Ngong Hills just outside the city in neighbouring Kajiado County. It’s a striking landscape, vividly described in Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Southeast, beyond the shanty suburb of Dandora, are the wide Athi plains, which are traditionally mostly ranching country but nowadays increasingly invaded by the spread of Nairobi’s industrial and residential satellites. In the southwest, meanwhile, a much overlooked trip 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.