Tuesday, July 22, 2008



The main pathway cutting across Eastleigh’s First Avenue is congested. It has not rained for several weeks and the ankle deep potholes are flowing with raw sewerage. The place is packed with human traffic and moving across requires one to jump here, shove there and push. People carrying loads jostle for space as they hop and jump over the muddy pools of sewerage. Along the avenue, hawkers display wares, which include hangers, polythene bags, suits and all manner of apparel.

Outside Bangkok, one of Eastleigh's malls,
an imposing red brick four-storey building, plastic paper bags retail at Sh5 alongside Chinese shoes sold at Sh700 a pair. Nearby, a hawker keen to make a kill sells a new jacket at only Sh600. Ordinary the piece would retail at Sh1,500. Next to him, another trader displays a fake Rado watch.

This is Eastleigh, a city within a city, which has evolved into Kenya’s fashion industry.

It is a melting point of cultures in which the West meets the East and financially co-exist. The scent of perfumes from Europe, Asia and Middle East pervade the air, mixing with the aroma of boiled maize and fruits sold at the place.

In some spots, street children with bottles of glue spiced with concoctions of indeterminate drugs, roll on heaps of garbage characterised by a strong stench of urine. At the entrance of Ninth Street from the First Avenue is a pile of yellow plastic containers heaped onto the garbage and halfway on the withered road.

What was once a paved road is now a scrappy affair. The only reminder that it had tarmac on it are the kerbstones. Old and new cars (some with Somali registration numbers) are haphazardly parked. Walking down the main avenue, one sees vehicles moving at snail speed as they loudly honk their way.

Despite the disharmony between people, vehicles and wares on display, life goes on normally. Not until the din drowns as an imam calls for mid-day prayers. Aluminium screens are hastily pulled down, prayer mats hurriedly fetched and robes quickly slipped on as traders dash to the mosques.

Some of the shops are left unattended while other stalls are temporarily closed. Business is forgotten as the devout go for prayers. Such is the seriousness with which praying has been taken in Eastleigh by traders. They even abandon customers midway a deal to pray.

With water splashed on their heads, the worshippers re-emerge from the mosques reborn.

Although it is only one minute past 1pm, Mr John Irungu is still holed up in his office. He has not gone out for lunch.

"Last year, we issued over 2,000 Kenyan identity cards to these Somali-born residents. We get high numbers. They all want to be Kenyan citizens although they cannot speak English or Kiswahili," Irungu says.

"These are very rich Somali people here. Some banks and other institutions have been flocking to Eastleigh too," the chief says. Some banks and forex bureaux operating in Eastleigh are not found in many parts of the city. Some of them are Dubai Bank, Gulf African Bank, Chase Bank among others.

The area, the chief warns, is in danger of being taken over by Somalis arguing that the foreigners now own virtually everything. "They are offering as much as Sh40 million to buy buildings. They then demolish these and put up shopping malls," a resident, Hussein Roba adds.

He points at a building outside his compound, which was bought for Sh35 million and will be pulled down. One owner however has resisted attempts to buy his premises where he operates a guesthouse and a bar.

A walk across the road through a tangle of alleys and ducking heaps of garbage takes one to a nameless building which squalor and wealth call home.

Secret deals are sealed over sips of dark tea taken in tiny cups. "Here, you can buy anything. From a gold bracelet, American dollars and silver, to passports and drugs. You must be very careful. This part of the town never sleeps," cautions a guide, who gives his name as Izak.

The estate also referred to as Garissa Lodge had been transformed from a purely residential area into a commercial hub for East and Central Africa. "From the roundabout at Malewa road to Gen Waruinge road, we have about 400 lodgings. If you come here after 11 pm, you will not find a place to sleep," he adds.

Interestingly, the place, which boasts of more banks and forex bureaux than the Nairobi Central Business District, has very few entertainment joints.

"You can count the bars in Eastleigh North with the fingers of both hands. The entire area has not more than 50 bars. Those still operational are being targeted," adds a resident, Mr Kennedy Isigi.

Roba recalls how some popular joints such as Matatizo Bila Chuki and Tiger have been bought and pulled down to pave way for shopping complexes. The rent for the shopping mall is paid in dollars and are out of reach for the ordinary small-scale trader.

"Tell me how many Kenyan small traders can afford to pay Sh26,000 for a small stall. They have locked out locals," laments Irungu.

The chief, and his administrators are just like the other residents of Eastleigh, majority of who started off like refugees in the 1990s. Very soon, they will be relocated from the social hall to a place at the fringes of Mathare slums to pave way for yet another sky-scrapping shopping mall.

"Do you see that mall. It was built during the campaigns. The land on which it stands once belonged to the public but not anymore," says Mr Hussein Roba. Roba is one of the original owners of a plot in Eastleigh which he says he bought at Sh300,000 in 1970.

Next to the AP line, an iron sheet fence has been erected, cutting the compound into two. A building, which resembles a warehouse is erected. "They have already given the police notice to move. We suspect this plot has bee sold. Once the police are gone, we will have no security," moans a resident.

The Eastleigh North AP camp has been in existence for more than 20 years and is one of the permanent features of the area. Just next to the chief’s camp stands what serves as an inland dry port.

The open space next to the ultramodern Sunrise Shopping mall is an empty lot where trucks and goods are parked. Here, timber dealers and lorry drivers as well as wholesalers who source their stock in Nairobi, connect to the region.

At the entrance, hordes of youths who act as flight managers tout for passengers.

"Boss unataka kukaa mbele? Hiyo ni shilingi elfu moja na mia tano kwenda Marsabit. Garissa utalipa Sh2,500. Iko gari ya leo (Do you want to ride on the drivers cabin to Marsabit. That will cost you Sh1,500. To Garissa is Sh2500. We have lorry going today)," explains Mr Muhamed Abdi.

Another self-styled transport manager, who is fondly known as Mrefu, explains that from Eastleigh to Moyale costs Sh2000. "We want passengers who travel direct to Moyale. We do not want those paying small money," he advises.

There are buses plying the Garissa-Nairobi route and their departure point is Eastleigh.

According to sources, this is the same route where majority of people sneaking from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia use to move into Kenya. "They are mostly transported at night by buses. Once they arrive in Nairobi, they are hidden in lodges as travel documents are organised. We suspect there is a lot of human trafficking going on," says the chief.

Next to Roba’s house, a full packaging factory is in progress. About 20 youths are busy rolling, weighing and packing miraa, ready for export. "This cargo must be delivered in London tonight. The men must hurry otherwise there will be a delay," explains a miraa trader.

The miraa packers are an angry and aggressive lot. They do not encourage any communication with strangers. They also hate being photographed.

While Somalis dominate majority of businesses, Ethiopians too have distinguished themselves by taking over the local transport industry. Many Ethiopians own Matatus plying route No 6 and 9, which go round Eastleigh.

The owners are to be seen occupying the front seat in the drivers cabin, logging in every stop made by the matatu, minutely recording every time a passenger is picked along the route.

"At the end of the day, the owner is able to determine with accuracy, the number of passengers ferried and the money, realised," explained Mr Karis Jimmy, a driver.

Jimmy says since most operate both day and night, each vehicle has two sets of crew.

In Eastleigh, people do not literally sleep.

"Lorries arrive throughout the night. Traders from as far as Sudan and Congo visit Eastleigh for their goods. That is why the economy is very vibrant," he says.

Just as Eastleigh attracts legitimate traders, underworld figures too have sought refuge in the area to traffic uncustomed goods, smuggled into through panya routes. Rings of human traffic too operate in the area as they dupe job seekers that they will link them up with employers around the world.

For the last one month, Yona has been waiting for his papers to travel to Canada. He says that he does not know how he will go about it. Yona, like hundreds of other Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians, came into the country many years ago and was granted refugee status.

Now Yona operates a shop in Eastleigh and occasionally travels to Moyale to collect a stock of leather shoes. Once he lives for Canada, his brother who has since sneaked into the country, will run the shop.