The making of a Somali capital base at the heart of Nairobi

A section of Eastleigh. The war on Al-Shabaab is said to have affected both businesses and the way people relate in the sprawling estate. Photos | Stephen Mudiari

What you need to know:

  • Eastleigh residents, many of whom are Somalis, are trying to organise the area they have called home for years

The actual number of people of Somali origin in Kenya – both Kenyan Somalis and those from Somalia – has become a bone of contention since the release of the 2009 census results last month.

The results finally released on August 31 that put the number of ethnic Somali Kenyans at 2.4 million have been discredited as being too large because of enumeration errors in parts of North Eastern Province, and a new count has been ordered.

The disputed numbers rank Somalis sixth by size, of the country’s 42 tribes.

Some analysts see a relation between the violence and instability in neighbouring Somalia and the growing number of Somalis in Kenya.

Earlier this year, some analysts suggested that Sh164 billion in unclaimed foreign exchange discovered at the Central Bank of Kenya was ransom received by Somali pirates.

The Somali issue, especially regarding non-Kenyan Somalis, just won’t go away.

Nairobi’s Eastleigh and environs with 348,778 inhabitants has become an extension of what was the Republic of Somalia before it crumbled into anarchy in 1991. The population figure covers Eastleigh North, Air Base, Eastleigh South, California and Kiambiu.

Undetermined number

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are about 400,000 Somali refugees registered in Kenya, most of them in camps in the northeastern part of the country. But an undetermined number have not registered, and many of them are believed to be in Eastleigh.

Daily prayers from numerous mosques pierce the air in Eastleigh, a neighbourhood that never sleeps on the eastern side of Nairobi’s central business district.

In the past decade, there has been serious construction of settlements, booming retail businesses and telecommunications operations in the area.

Eastleigh is well networked to the rest of the world via satellite, and informal services called hawala facilitate the rapid dispatch of cash to the Somali diaspora throughout the world.

Eastleigh originally was open savannah where wild animals roamed before Somalis and other Africans were pushed east by the European settlers. The gradual entry of Somalia into Nairobi happened earlier on under the patronage of the British.

The first batch of Somalis came to Nairobi as escorts and guards for British Empire builders like Lord Delamere and Lord Lugard. A few others came to work on the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Those with Lord Delamere ensured that the hunter was well guarded, and when he faced danger, the Somalis saved his life. This cemented their relationship, and years later in Nairobi, Delamere and other settlers fought to secure the interest of Somalis in Nairobi whenever they were threatened.

Somalis went about their businesses in Nairobi with their heads held high. Because of their service to the British, many considered themselves in a higher class than other Africans.

Somalis lived in Kileleshwa very close to the Europeans, near what today is Museum Hill. But when trouble broke out in Nairobi when the city was still forming, many of the Somalis were pushed to Eastleigh.

Plague broke out in the Indian Bazaar, following which the famous 1914 Simpson report recommended drastic measures that would segregate the races that had congregated in Nairobi on different missions.

Asians were held in higher racial regard than Africans. In their quest for status in Nairobi, Somalis wanted to remain with the Asians, arguing that they were aliens in Kenya and had lived in Asia before moving to Kenya.

The Somali villages within the projected European leasehold area consisted of 126 houses – 64 owned by 57 people.

In 1916, Governor Belfield sent a telegram that initiated the Somalis’ journey to Eastleigh.

“Not long ago, the medical authorities discovered nearly 12 cases of smallpox concealed in this village,” said the telegraph in part.

Unlike other settlers, Governor Belfield considered Somalis to be squatters who “had no claim whatsoever to compensation or assistance in removing their effect”.

It was the governor’s wish that the Somalis be moved to Mbagathi on the upper side of Nairobi, a decision they seriously resisted at a meeting held on the Ngara plains on September 15 to 17, 1916.

Own money

They cited lack of firewood, long distance to the town centre for their businesses and the fact that they had spent their own money to supply water and electricity to the place they were living.

When the Secretary of State finally gave his verdict, the Somalis had to move. But it was this verdict that has kept Somalis united in their struggle to remain in Nairobi, something that is evident even today.

Feeling betrayed by the people they had protected, the community gradually moved towards what is today’s Kirinyaga Road, initially occupied by Africans, before they were pushed to Eastleigh.

When Somalis moved there around 1920, it was called Kampi ya Somali (Somali camp) and was basically bushy. It was not until the 1930s when the name changed to Eastleigh after the arrival of the Royal Air Force.

Most of the military stationed there came from a town called Eastleigh in Hampshire in England.

Today’s residents, many of whom are Somalis, are trying to organise the place they have called home for years.

Mohammed Haji, a busy trader and community leader, said what goes on in Eastleigh is “serious business, no time for joking around”.

Inside the malls, hundreds of shoppers compete for fresh merchandise as transporters wait to ferry the goods to all corners of the country.

Those who know Eastleigh well say hundreds of behind-the-scenes businesses go on every day.

Mr Haji, a fifth generation Somali, has been living in Eastleigh since 1950 when he was 10. Then, he said, it was an orderly settlement where fresh air circulated, as did water.

But that has changed dramatically, and Mr Haji has been leading the push for a return to orderliness.

In the 1970s, Somali truck drivers preferred to load their trucks in Eastleigh on their way to Rwanda, Congo and other countries.

In this part of Nairobi, there were relatives, hotels and fresh miraa. But roads in the area were not designed with heavy trucks in mind, and they began to buckle and crumble.

As political liberalisation and corruption opened spaces for chiefs in the 1980s and 1990s, slums began to emerge in the estate.

Muyuyu, an informal settlement around Third Street and Kinyago, took shape right under the noses of local officials.

Without sewerage or running water, Muyuyu downgraded an estate once known for its decency. Rapid population growth, especially after refugees began pouring out of Somalia in the late 1980s, put pressure on the facilities.

There have been attempts over the years to revamp Eastleigh. First there was the Business Association formed in 1997 whose membership stands at 800 today.

Borrowing a leaf from the Karengata District Association, the Eastleigh Business District Association went to court seeking a better way to manage municipal service provision to the estate by putting the two partners to work together.

Since June 23, this year, a court order barred the City Council of Nairobi from collecting rates from the businesses in Eastleigh. The case will be determined before year-end.

City council

In the 1999 Karengata judgment, the city council was stopped from collecting rates from residents of Karen and Lang’ata.

A decade later there is an accumulated Sh80 million that neither the council nor the rate payers can access until the council presents audited results indicating compliance with the court ruling.

Most of the revenue from this area comes from land rates, unlike in Eastleigh which has become one of the busiest commercial areas in Nairobi.


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