“Somewhere in the maze of back lanes between River Road and Grogan Road, someone screamed for the police. No one was likely to respond. It was… a time for robbers and muggers to earn their living…”. This Nairobi that is dangerous, slippery, standoffish and overwhelming — with a sense of menace hanging over it — is described in Meja Mwangi’s gritty novel, Going Down River Road. The novel is like an atmospheric noir that captures the besieged and decrepit parts of Nairobi in chilling, uncomfortable ways.
These words come to life now as media reports have indicated for weeks that knife-wielding gangs have been terrorising people in Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) — mugging, stabbing and stealing. Echoing Mwangi’s novel, crime is being committed in broad daylight. Coincidentally, the National Police Service (NPS), on Monday, November 14, listed River Road as one of the hotspots of crime in Nairobi’s CBD.
It is interesting that the novel Going Down River Road was published in 1976, but the writer precisely captured a character screaming for the police with no one likely to respond. Unfortunately, this is still true in 2022. How accurately literature mirrors real life! This demonstrates that literature reflects society, echoing its good values and its ills. Literature spotlights the ills with a view of making society to come to terms with them to correct them. The good values are highlighted for people to emulate.
Equal parts radiance and shadow, Nairobi, in its sprawling grandeur, can be deceptive. It is like the typical celebrity lover: perfectly alluring from a cinematic distance, yet annoyingly human up close. At night, the streets take on a mysterious, charming air when streetlights sizzle to life, casting a sheen on the cobbled streets — a place where solids seemingly dissolve and light and dark get muddled in an enchanting mix. Moi Avenue is sometimes almost empty, the asphalt glazed with rain, the air smelling of mildew, the scene evoking the swirl of an unnamed, exotic city.
However, beneath the veneer of a chic city with designer boutiques, top-end restaurants and bistros, there is a darker side. Away from the houses in affluent suburbs that have silver-splashed columns, arches, verandas surrounded by tree-lined fences, and open spaces augmented by rolling green lawns, gardens in bloom and lush flowers that perfume the air, there is another side of Nairobi where people are gasping for breath — with poverty so jagged that they often have nothing to eat—people not getting even the crumbs at the bottom of the global and national capitalist market economies.
The urban poor lives in an elegy to unmet needs where everything is within reach and nothing is within reach — haunted by a feeling of perpetually falling short in the endless shuffle of dreary days, all the while feeling the loss of youth, of middle age, of time itself.
It’s the latter part of Nairobi, with its struggles for survival, that Meja Mwangi highlights in Going Down River Road. The title is a metaphor for going down the rough road of life. The people “going down” River Road are hardened types teetering between bombast and self-pity — seemingly unburdened, unruffled and adamant. However, despite this pose of machismo, swaggering and strutting in defiant gestures and tough talk, they are trying to drown their troubles in alcohol, seeking refuge from the constant forlorn struggle for survival.
Through the characters Ben (with heartaches and the restless, itinerant wanderings of a man with a thousand sorrows, hopping from bar to bar), Wini (a single mother trying to make it in the big city) and Ocholla (Ben’s bar-hopping accomplice), Mwangi delves into the heart-breaking landscape of Nairobi’s urban poverty. According to a report by Oxfam GB, the urban poor consist of slightly over 2 million Nairobians living “in slums with limited or non-existent access to water, sanitation, housing, education and healthcare services”.
It is good that the new CS for Interior, Prof Kithure Kindiki, has vowed to go for the criminals. The first step is focusing on crime hotspots like the police are doing. However, researchers also advise that this should be accompanied by other measures such as urban upgrading (which President Ruto has talked passionately about in his desire to upgrade city slums) and better urban planning.
The long-term solution is to focus on the root cause of crime. We should, therefore, heed the advice of an expert, Luigi De Martino, senior researcher, Small Arms Survey (Geneva) who warns that “Many countries have approached the problem of violence from a crime and security angle, focusing their action on law-enforcement only… While justice and police have an important role to play, repression only is counter-productive if not combined with development interventions that look at the drivers of violence, and tackle things like skills and education of youth, socio-economic inequalities, and access to communal services”. Youth engagement in communal services involves what President Ruto has promised — to involve the youth in the Affordable Housing Programme.
We can all learn a lot about the processes of urbanisation, urban development and the associated challenges not only from today’s headlines but also from the narratives in literature like Going Down River Road.