- Increasingly unmoored from our villages, to these new cosmopolitan creatures I was seeing, Nairobi isn’t a city. It is their village.
The bizarre dress and tattoo styles on display are their traditional costumes and “tribal markings”.
They are an expression of fast-evolving urban individuality and identities.
They are many creatures like me, but we don’t yet have a name.
We are the people who fled the noise and bustle of (Nairobi’s) central business district and took off for the suburbs, rarely returning to the place where we got our baptism of fire.
I guess we are the “CBD exiles”.
After an absence of many months, recently I have been visiting again. Surprisingly, I liked it.
There is something seductive about the frenzy, the crazy matatus and the sheer insanity of Kirinyaga and River roads.
The good thing with staying away from the CBD, and not having to struggle and work in its belly daily, is that it allows you to return to it with fresh eyes.
One of the last times I made this return to the CBD, I had some business to do at Telposta Towers. I had never been inside a Huduma Centre, so out of curiosity I did.
The plan was to look around and leave after five minutes. I left nearly an hour later.
I just sat and observed. The lines at the Huduma Centre were different from most of those you see in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.
Most queues are usually about compliance (to file taxes, pay the children’s fees, pay electricity and water bills, pay a bribe at a state office); or are undertaking a civic duty that will leave you heartbroken (election queues); or because you have been backed into a corner by the capitalist system and its rituals (at the bank); or because doing all the above has nearly driven you crazy and you are looking to keep sane (so you queue for a music concert, or to buy a ticket at the cinema).
The Huduma Centre is a bit of each one of the above but, primarily, you could say it’s the Great Hustler Pipeline.
It’s where the dreams, energy and genius that exist in the off-road economy come to see if they can become reality through the elusive help of “government services” and “enabling business environment”.
For so long, I hadn’t seen so many people scurrying about in the hope of becoming rich in future through honest work.
I said to myself, if there’s something like the “Kenyan dream”, perhaps the Huduma Centre is the place where you can best study what it is.
There are other things I see.
The CBD, I noticed, just keeps getting younger. In the part of town where I live, there used to be a Big Square restaurant. It closed. I thought maybe it had gone bust.
However, I saw many in the CBD, so I stepped in to refuel at one. It looks like all the people who never came to the one in our part of Nairobi were there.
They were even getting better deals, paying about 15 per cent less for a mocha. And they were much younger than the people I used to see in the one in our neighbourhood.
That is when it struck me: The people who hang out in the suburbs are generally older than the crowd in the CBD. Why that is the case is a story for another day.
I walked about quite a bit, doing what some call “people watching”, because I sensed there was something the folks on the street were saying and I wasn’t getting it.
It was striking just how diverse the CBD crowd was — the array of hair and clothes style, their physical appearance.
Most people in our area have pretty much the same well-heeled but monotonous middle-class look.
However, the ones in the CBD formed a kind of vast cosmopolitan and diversity collage. Some walked hurriedly like the world was about to end.
Many of the younger ones carried themselves more leisurely, a few holding hands, and staring in each other’s eyes like they were about to do something their parents wouldn’t approve of.
Then I got it. The CBD was a microcosm of why the future is in the cities.
Increasingly unmoored from our villages, to these new cosmopolitan creatures I was seeing, Nairobi isn’t a city. It is their village.
The bizarre dress and tattoo styles on display are their traditional costumes and “tribal markings”. They are an expression of fast-evolving urban individuality and identities.
If you see it all as a bigger process of production of a new culture, it is impressive.
MORE AND MORE
There will be more and more of these fellows I was seeing. And the city will grow and grow.
They will not speak the language of our forefathers but, with the years, some pidgin will mature as their mother tongue.
If I am alive then, I will be very old, bent and toothless. But I will console myself that, at least, I saw it coming.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com and curator of The Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3