There is something both alluring and terrifying about Pipeline and Kware neighbourhoods in Embakasi South, Nairobi.
The two areas are defined by rows upon rows of towering residential blocks, heaps of uncollected garbage and flowing sewage.
Visitors to this part of Nairobi are welcomed by the miasma that is the Nairobi River.
Kware and Pipeline are simply what one would call concrete slums.
There is always chaotic activity along the narrow streets that are further encroached on by vendors, leaving pedestrians and motorists jostling for the little remaining space.
Pedestrians need to know the art of walking briskly on one side of the road, careful not to step on the plates and cups displayed by vendors while keeping a safe distance from vehicles.
Residents dread the rainy season because of how impassable the area gets due to the mud and pools of water that collect on any free space.
The two neighbourhoods are the paradise of unscrupulous landlords, who seem to have been exempted from the Nairobi City County’s housing and urban planning rule book.
Most of the housing units are bedsitters and single rooms with a few one-bedroom units.
Some of the houses are daycare centres from dawn and at nightfall, they become homes for families. A few others are back door clinics where abortion and unlicensed treatment goes on unabated.
Grace to grass
Mr Simon Mukeka, a resident of Pipeline for more than 10 years, has witnessed the fall of the area from grace to grass.
“Nakumbuka hapa mahali palikuwa pamejaa maji na nyasi kitambo. Kwanza wakati huo hizi security firms zilikuwa zinapenda kuja kufanya mazoezi huku, kwa sababu kulikuwa na free land mingi (This area used to be bushy. Security firms used to bring their recruits here for training and exercises because there was a lot of idle land),” recalls Mr Mukeka.
He started living in Kware as the caretaker of a building before moving to Pipeline.
“Rafiki yangu mmoja alikuja akaniambia anataka niende nisimamie nyumba yake huko Kware kwa sababu yule mtu amemweka hapo anakula pesa zake. Nikajiuliza kama nitaweza kutoboa maisha ya Kware tena na vile kuna matope. Nakwambia huko hauwezi kukaa bila gumboots mpaka sahii (A friend who is a landlord asked if I could be his caretaker in Kware because the person he had employed was stealing from him. I wondered if I could live in Kware again because it is always muddy. You must wear gumboots in that area, to date),” remarks Mr Mukeka.
Kware area, he says, was not as developed as Pipeline. Most of the houses were shanties made of iron sheets.
Those living in Kware, he adds, are people of a lower class than Pipeline residents.
But with time, high-rise flats started being built. Today, it is almost impossible to tell the two apart.
“Sahii maisha imechange sana, watu ni wengi; nyumba zimejengwa za floor zaidi ya saba (A lot has changed now; there are many flats, some with more than seven storeys," says Mr Mukeka.
Despite the chaotic construction of houses with some being death traps, one is unlikely to find a vacant house.
“Pipeline kuna pesa. Ukiweka biashara Pipeline na ishike utapata pesa vizuri. Secondly, vile unaskia places zengine zinakuwanga na drama hata wakati wa election, huku sijawahi sikia. Hata sas hii niko na biashara zangu hapa na siwezi sema ati kama nishawahi ibiwa. Hii Pipeline mimi siwezi toka (Pipeline is good for business. If you set up a business and it does well, you can make a lot of money. Secondly, there is no insecurity during electioneering. I operate businesses here in Pipeline and I have never had my shop vandalised or things stolen. I can’t leave Pipeline,” says Mr Mukeka.
Mr Alex Kioko also has fond memories of the ‘old’ Pipeline. He says most people used to go there to learn how to drive.
“Watu walikuwa wanapenda kuja kujifundisha kupeleka gari sana sana kama ilikuwa huwezi pata doh ya kwenda driving school (People used to come here to learn how to drive cars especially when they could not raise money to go to driving school,” recalls Mr Kioko.
However, with time, there was an influx of people due to its proximity to Industrial Area.
“Hata ukikosa fare unaweza tembea ufike job (Even if you do not have bus fare you can walk to work),” said Mr Kioko.
But when did the rain start beating Pipeline and Kware?
Nairobi County deputy director in charge of urban planning and development Dominic Mutegi explains: “The problem started with what I call professional squatters. They settled in these areas and then started selling the land at cheap prices to people with enough resources. They then developed structures without seeking approval from the county.”
He added: “The county has not given them approval because they failed to produce ownership documents.”
The overzealous landlords went ahead to construct structures without following rules and regulations attached to constructing residential buildings.
Most of the buildings, he says, are illegally erected and unsafe for human occupancy.
This is why cases of buildings collapsing are synonymous with this area.
“We have many cases of buildings collapsing because some of these areas were quarries and what some of these building developers did was just to fill the quarries with soil and levelled the ground. They then constructed these big buildings that end up sinking because of the weight and poorly done foundations,” he explained.
But even with this knowledge, the county appears to be dragging its feet in bringing down some of the buildings.
The farthest the county has gone after finding the building not safe for human occupancy is to mark it with an ‘X’ for demolition.
“Apart from illegal construction of houses, there are also illegal power and water connections so it is a whole process that has to be undertaken. But the county is taking some action to make the place habitable,” adds Mr Mutegi.
There are also other factors to be considered, he says.
If you bring down a building that houses people, you first have to provide them with an alternative. This is in line with a new government policy that aims to achieve one of the Big 4 Agendas on affordable housing.
Meanwhile, the residents of Pipeline and Kware will keep living on the edge and scaling up as high as seven storeys, on foot. Photos of the houses with clothes hanging from the balconies of the towering flats have become a common feature on social media, making Pipeline the laughing stock of Nairobi.
“You can have as many floors as possible on a house but if it goes beyond the fifth floor, then you have to provide a lift. And you also have to follow the development control guidelines. If you are building a residential house then you are required to provide one parking slot per unit,” says Mr Mutegi.
“A lot of people do not know that a person needs to get an occupation certificate to ensure that the building they are moving into is safe for occupation,” he adds.