Police on the prowl, thugs on the hunt, and Kibra asleep

A deserted street in Nairobi's Kibra on May 8, 2020. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Gone are the Friday night crowds, the mutura and sausage roadside jikos, the heavy partying crowds, the jam-packed matatus.
  • The warm streets where roast stuff was sold till the wee hours is cold, wet and dirty. The Nairobi West bar district is not just dead, it appears extinct.

There is something menacing about Kibra, that sprawling, muddy, iron-sheet blemish on the nation’s conscience, the testament of 60 years of failed development.

Even at 2am and in the grip of an aggressive curfew, the settlement is like a hornet’s nest. One can tip-toe around it, observe it closely, but if you poke it with a stick, something will sting you.

It smells familiar: the unmistakable foulness of dirty water running undisturbed in open trenches mixed with something unique to the Nairobi slum, a blend of kerosene stove fumes and African sweats with a cloying whiff of broken, or non-existent, sewerage.

It is the same collective community wind that hangs over Mukuru, Mathare, Huruma, parts of Kawangware and other informal settlements.

But the sound of Kibra on Saturday at 2am was totally alien: this mini-city of 185,777 people, bigger than entire towns, probably with more guns than those of the armed forces of some small countries, home to good families and battle-hardened criminals, was totally silent.

The little homes with only a few inches of steel separating somebody’s head from the road are dark.

Not a snore, not a cough — thank God — not laughter or word piercing the unearthly stillness of the night. No lamplight, no life, just the familiar smell.

RESTLESS METROPOLIS

It’s likely that the folks had taken flight at the sight of the Nation news wagons.

Certainly one little roadside shop with “barber” emblazoned on the wall had its door open, with the crochet-made curtain flapping in the wind.

Who would be getting a haircut in the middle of the night? The only life was a buck-naked madman warming himself by burning rubbish on the roadside.

The virus from the East has achieved what no other force on earth could; it has silenced Kibra.

And therein lies a glimmer of hope of survival and good news from a neighbourhood associated with all the wrong reasons: the curfew is largely holding in parts of Kibra visited.

Nairobi, a restless metropolis of 4.4 million and a GDP of $88 billion, is a bizarre landscape under curfew.

Traversing its neighbourhoods on a route plotted by Weekends Managing Editor Bernard Mwinzi — from Zimmerman, Kahawa West, Marurui, Thome, Roysambu, Kasarani, Mwiki, Njiru, Umoja, Doonholm, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Mlolongo, Nairobi West, Lang’ata, Kibera and Kilimani to the City Centre — tells the story of a city gasping for breath, trying to survive both a global pandemic and economic devastation with a colourful backcloth of sociology.

Street families at Nairobi's central business district on May 8, 2020. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

If you are a Nairobian returning from holiday in Mars, one of the things that would alert you all is not well is a roadblock across Thika Road at Mountain Mall.

EMPTY ROAD

It is a complete blockage of the carriageway with spikes, managed apparently by the crew of a breakdown truck, across the road.

There are more breakdown trucks, parked on the roadside like bald vultures, than police officers at the security check. The officers are aggressive but not terribly alert, coming too close for comfort.

Beyond the checkpoint, with the exception of a solitary ambulance flying on the inbound lane (there are quite a number of ambulances in the night), the road is absolutely empty; Captain Machacha of Kenya Airways can safely land his Embraer 190, taxi to the service lane and let off passengers without any risk to his wings.

Thika Road Mall reminds one of those desert towns in American movies with curtains flapping in the wind but not a soul in sight: deserted, mostly dark, with a post-Apocalyptic loneliness.

Nairobi, at the best of times, is a dangerous city at night. Now it is even more so. At the Mirema Drive junction, a Probox with dark windows is parked on the opposite, its hazards blazing.

At 10pm, the bulk of Zimmerman is already asleep. There are lights on a few windows, but there is a sense that something could be happening behind closed doors.

The watchmen are many and still awake (watchmen are the sleepiest folk around, they will fall asleep if there is no one around), and too many vehicles.

At Uncle Sam in Githurai 44, another Probox is parked off the outbound lane, engine running.

In this neighbourhood, though there is darkness as far as the eye can see, there is more than meets the casual eye.

Nairobi has become like Prohibition-era America; if there is partying, it takes place behind closed curtains.

A blue vehicle with its lights dimmed drives very slowly on the opposite lane. We are being hunted.

CLUB LIFE

Kahawa West is a dead zone; dark and silent. One half-expects zombies to break out of the darkness and stagger on to the road.

Gone are the Friday night crowds, the mutura and sausage roadside jikos, the heavy partying crowds, the jam-packed matatus.

Police mount a roadblock on Thika Road on May 8, 2020 as they enforce the nationwide curfew. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Between Kahawa West and Marurui, all alone in the pitch darkness, two loaders are guarding a broken-down truck on the roadside. One hopes they made it to the morning.

Thome, like a bat hanging from the underside of the middle class, is genteel, silent, dark and asleep. There are a few lights in the apartment blocks near Mountain Mall.

In Kasarani, things are a lot more troubling. Inside the estate, the roads are lined with vehicles, leaving a narrow path enough for just one car.

It is an ambush waiting to happen. Deep inside, a drunk couple weave away hurriedly, clinging to each other for balance.

From the same “closed” building they have just left emerges a police officer in uniform, his heavy eyelids flapping over eyes like burning coals. Here is an estate of curfew busters.

Unlike the road to hell, Mwiki Road is not paved with good intentions. For large sections, the surface is nasty.

And there are too many vehicles which seem to have no business on the road more than three hours into the curfew.

At Sandton, two Subarus pull alongside in the opposite lane and the occupants lower their windows. From the reflections off their face masks, and muzzles, they are packed.

You could cut the air of menace with a knife. A confrontation is postponed and they drive further on and park on the roadside.

MEET THE MANAGER

Mwiki has a history of being popular with long-hair, sect people. There were stories in the years before John Michuki became the Interior minister and carried out an infamous purge that if you wanted to develop your plot in Mwiki a man with snuff-encrusted nostrils would arrive with his mates and a line of beat-up Isuzu Direct trucks, their small load bays carrying thin layers of construction materials.

He would introduce himself as the neighbourhood construction “manager” and the assembled company as your fundis.

“Mimi ndiyo naletanga material,” he would inform you. From the depths of the many pockets of his jacket, he would also fish out a building plan for your project. “Hapa natanga zijengwe namna hiyo,” he would decide.

On a red leather scabbard hanging off his belt would be a sharp knife and in his hands, carried with calculated carelessness, a large plastic bag.

The implied threat would be that if you don’t comply with your “manager’s” “decisions”, your head would up in the bag. The intimidation, of course, reportedly worked.

This estate, quite apart from being insecure, is straight out of a nightmare. It is the parking lot for Nairobi’s Long Nose matatus.

For those who have been brutalised in the traffic by these killer contraptions, it is like walking into a cavernous lair packed with 10,000 alien eggs, about to explode into creatures which cling to your face and dissolve into your body.

There are hundreds of them, a few being washed, curfew notwithstanding, or being otherwise attended.

LAW-ABIDING LOCALS

There is drinking here, no doubt, or worse in the many tin shebeens and joints lining the road.

A man (or was it a woman) in what appears to be a jumpsuit in shiny material walks unsteadily on the road. A drunk woman engages a man washing a 14-seater.

This is obviously a community with curfew problems, though the big majority of the residents are law-abiding.

The area between Mwiki and Njiru and that general Kangundo Road area and through to Umoja is not for the faint-hearted.

Two officers checking traffic on Kangundo Road are perhaps the most professional and tough encountered.

Watchmen in Mlolongo, Machakos County, warm themselves on the night of May 8, 2020. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

They question motorists from a distance and demonstrate what can be thought of as weapon awareness; the time difference between saying or doing the wrong thing and serious consequences is not much.

A short distance away is an accident scene. A man in casual clothes stands in the middle of the road, handling his AK-47 assault rifle by its short stock, barrel down in fashion that appears popular with police officers.

Off Kangudo Road, a police Land Cruiser barrels out of the darkness and wedges itself between the Nation team. Further on is one of those small, boxy Nissans used for taxi.

The small vehicle slows down dramatically, cutting the second vehicle from the lead Nation team. The lead driver notices, stops on the roadside, the gap is closed and shortly thereafter leads in a different direction.

Umoja is largely quiet, but in the deserted darkness the kiosks where people buy food stands out in stark detail, the black goo flowing in front of them, the tattered nylon that covers the trays on which the food is placed and rats the size of bunnies crossing the road, their eyes reflecting red in the headlights.

In Doonholm, a party of vehicles is led by a car with red and blue flashing lights. One of the vehicles is an old Mercedes.

On Old Airport Road, a grey BMW is parked on the roadside with the windows down, the driver is smoking, his passenger has lowered his mask and is having a drink. Here, there are signs of indiscipline.

11.45PM, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport: The security zone which would ordinarily be chocked with international travellers at this time of night with long queues of vehicles being inspected, the passengers getting off to go through scanners, is not only deserted but also beginning to show signs of disuse.

The passenger inspection booth is in darkness, unmanned. The sign reads JOMO KENY INTERNATIONL AIR.

A small clutch of police officers in uniform go through the motions of asking the usual security questions. A solitary cargo plane takes to the air.

Another one, sounding uncharacteristically loud, its exhaust filthy in the unusually clean air, is taxing.

JKIA is empty. Terminal 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E are totally deserted. The lights are on but the only soul is a solitary police officer in a blue uniform, carrying his AK-47 by its short stock, barrel down.

A single taxi is parked at the pick up area, either broken down or the driver asleep.

There is no sound of baggage carousels, no boom of jet engines, no lines of passengers, no crowd of taxi drivers noisily touting for business, no air hostesses in uniform, no pilots in braids, no brusque Kenya Airports Authority staff scanning baggage. As a matter of fact, JKIA would be an ideal place for a quiet, private picnic.

The long lines of check-in staff are out of jobs, the drivers of various tractors and vehicles serving aircraft are unemployed, the massage girls in blue uniform at International Departures, the service teams at Duty Free shops, the cleaners and other staff, are all on the breadline.

JKIA handled 13,000 passengers a day and employed 4,300 staff. One airline, Kenya Airways, made Sh114 billion from passenger, cargo and other services.

Nearly all that has gone down the toilet. JKIA is a metaphor of the economic damage caused by the novel coronavirus.

The parking pay points are fully automated. If you forget to pay inside the airport, it’s not a problem, you turn round and drive on the wrong side of the road back into the airport. Yours is likely to be the only car in anyway.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is empty on May 8, 2020. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

In Mlolongo, a man with a shovel is massaging a pile of wet sand in the darkness. There are six trucks nearby.

Usually, there would be small mountains of sand and tens of trucks, some laden, some empty, some being loaded, some being offloaded at odd times of the night.

The construction industry is not dead; it is not even entubed, but it is gasping for breath.

On Mombasa Road, there is a sickly trickle of trucks. The mighty land trains which make a music of their own — those who know and love trucks, merely by listening to the sound of the massive engines and the smoothness of the running gear in the BPW German axles used by Bhachu Engineering and the ROR axle long ago popularised by Kehar Singh, can tell you who owns it — and have pounded that road to a pulp every couple of years, are silent.

There is no life and energy in the arteries, the economy of the region is very sick.

1am, Nairobi West: No true Nairobian has gone through life without ending an interesting day with a last drink in this mecca of the imbibing intelligentsia, the veritable Senior Common Room Annex, where great professors and dictators of yellowing notes have argued the finer points of academic minutiae amid baritone laughter and an endless flow of Tusker.

On this night, one drunk man in dirty clothes and a green surgical mask was relieving himself in the middle of the street.

The warm streets where roast stuff was sold till the wee hours is cold, wet and dirty. The Nairobi West bar district is not just dead, it appears extinct.

If South B was the estate of young people en route to some other place, Lang’ata was one of the destinations.

Today it is more popular as a party zone for the young and young at heart, where “plugs” peddle “blunts” to aficionados of Irish whisky and roast meat.

It has a reputation as a happy, fond place, a good warm home. It is also entering popular culture as a cliché refuge for lonely middle-aged men fleeing the clutches of advancing mortality and regret, reliving youth in fleeting episodes of passion and sunset love.

On this night, the only sign of life in this neighbourhood was the embarrassing spectacle of coupled, emaciated mongrels.

Amid this depopulation, there is something reassuring about a stocked, locked soda cooler in the street, a reminder that the world is indoors and will emerge with the light, it has not been ruptured.

In front of Southlands estate, lit up in the headlights, the massed ranks of iron sheet kiosks with their dirt foyers, most in Safaricom liverie and probably selling the same things, a sign that the genteel prosperity of this neighbourhood has probably put one foot on the slippery slope to poverty.

Like Kibra across the valley, this neighbourhood is sleeping away its cares and fears.

In Kilimani, the high-end apartments are in darkness, the expensive clubs are shuttered and the tawdry massage parlours are still.

Those men who spend the night at intersections, most of them asleep on their feet, large signs advertising massage on their chests, are possibly out of jobs.

If there is any partying in Kilimani, there is little evidence of it this night. On the hill at Uhuru Park where the big flag flies, the city centre is beautifully spread out, the lights still bravely shining.

Behind, is Afya House and its car park where the virus statistics are given every day.

The curfew is largely holding; if it were the magic bullet, Kenya would have little to worry about.

Vera Okeyo contributed research to this story.

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