The fascinating historical past of how Nairobi’s casual settlements had been named after what afflicts them-World Information , Alenz

The fascinating historical past of how Nairobi’s casual settlements had been named after what afflicts them-World Information , Alenz

The names gave a voice to residents, representing the problems that they battle with each day.

By Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita

In Kenya’s capital metropolis, Nairobi, it’s estimated that over 70 p.c of the inhabitants dwell in casual settlements. Many of those have a historical past rooted in colonial insurance policies whereby the “African native” was a short lived resident of town. Africans may solely dwell within the metropolis as registered labourers.

As these casual settlements grew through the years, their names – and the names of locations inside them – have grown to encapsulate their historical past.

Africans had been pressured to dwell in dormitory-like working quarters. Regardless of these restrictions some nonetheless discovered their manner from their rural properties into town. Nonetheless, with their illegitimate standing, they may solely assemble shanties (crudely constructed shacks) on unused land.

These shanty cities had been, now and again, destroyed and the occupants pressured again to their rural properties. The 1922 Vagrancy Act made this doable with provisions to segregate, evict, arrest, expel and restrict the motion of the “African employees”.

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, native Africans got the proper to dwell wherever within the nation, this included the city areas which had been beforehand closely restricted. In consequence, many individuals moved to town to search for employment alternatives. Between 1963 and 1979, the inhabitants of Nairobi grew from 342,000 to 827,000 individuals.

Nairobi was ill-prepared to deal with such an enormous inflow. From newspaper archives, I noticed how an absence of housing led to the enlargement of casual settlements and efforts to curb them via demolitions – which didn’t succeed. One other technique to curb their progress was by denying them fundamental infrastructure resembling water, sewerage and electrical energy connection. Regardless of this, the inhabitants in these areas grew exponentially.

After which got here the names – what would these settlements, inhabited by most, if not all, of Kenya’s over 40 ethnic communities – be referred to as? In any case, in contrast to different “deliberate” residential areas, the residents themselves have the prerogative of naming their neighbourhoods as a substitute of the native authorities or non-public builders.

I carried out a research which investigated the naming strategy of three of Nairobi’s largest ghettos; Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru. I additionally seemed on the names of the settlement’s “villages”, roads and pathways, retailers, kiosks and different institutions. I did this utilizing Kenyan and British archives, newspaper data and focus group discussions with long-term residents.

What I discovered was a testomony to historic injustices – resembling land grabbing, forceful evictions and arson – and concrete inequalities, resembling the dearth of provision of fundamental infrastructure. The names gave a voice to residents, representing the problems that they battle with each day.

What’s in a reputation?


Kibera is positioned about 6 kilometres from Nairobi’s metropolis centre. It covers an space of two.5 sq. kilometres and has a disputed inhabitants measurement starting from 200,000 to 1 million individuals. This broad disparity is due to the excessive variety of unregistered people who dwell there and since many individuals always transfer out and in. Official statistics can’t seize this.

The fascinating history of how Nairobis informal settlements were named after what afflicts them

By Mélissa Wanjiru

Kibera’s historical past is intricately tied to the Nubian neighborhood, initially from Sudan, who had been introduced into Kenya by the British colonial authorities to serve within the East African Rifles, a regiment of the British colonial armed forces. They settled in what’s Kibera at present within the early 1900’s.

The settlement’s title was initially “Kibra” within the Nubian tongue, which means forest or jungle. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, different African communities settled there. They mispronounced the phrase and it grew to become “Kibera”.

Kibera is presently divided into 13 villages. Lots of the village names replicate the settlements’ army historical past. For example, “Laini Saba”, initially generally known as “Lain Shabaan”, refers to a rifle vary space. Kibera was additionally organised into “camps”, as occurs in army barracks. For example, the realm “Kambi KAR” is called after the Kings African Rifles (KAR) and “Kambi”, the Swahili phrase for “camp”.

Because the settlements’ inception, Kibera residents have had a tense relationship with authorities authorities, who sought to evict them. Sure names are a nod to this battle. For example, “Soweto East” and “Soweto West” are named after the South African township to pay homage to the 1976 scholar uprisings towards the authorities.


Mathare is roughly 6 kilometres north-east of Nairobi’s central enterprise district. The title “Mathare” comes from the Kikuyu (the most important ethnic group in Kenya) phrase for Dracena bushes.

The settlement has a protracted historical past. The primary residents arrived within the Nineteen Twenties. It was generally known as a historic centre for opposition to the colonial authorities with residents taking part within the Mau Mau anti-colonial motion. This made it a continuing goal of demolition and arson assaults in the course of the emergency interval from 1952 to 1960. The primary highway slicing via the settlement was named “Mau Mau Highway”.

Residents of Mathare have long-struggled with evictions. This was largely as a result of some individuals in energy – from members of parliament to Chiefs – grabbed land. For example, in 1999, some residents had been evicted to make manner for a mosque and had been to be resettled, however as a substitute individuals from exterior the settlement had been introduced in to dwell there. This induced a significant battle and the realm was named “Kosovo”, after the Kosovo Conflict which was taking place across the similar time.

Mathare additionally has many smaller neighbourhoods named after nations for the actions identified within the space. For instance, an space generally known as “Nigeria” due to its unlawful companies – resembling drug peddling – reportedly achieved by some West Africans there. There’s additionally “Kampala” due to the excessive variety of immigrants dwelling there from Uganda.


Mukuru is an intensive settlement positioned East of Nairobi’s metropolis centre. It borders the commercial space and lots of residents work as informal labourers within the industries. At 2.7 sq. kilometres, Mukuru is the most important (by way of space) of the three settlements. With an estimated inhabitants of 300,000 it comes second after Kibera. It’s also the latest settlement, having been developed within the Nineteen Eighties.

Mukuru is a very hazardous settlement to dwell in. It has an oil pipeline, excessive voltage electrical energy transmission strains and the extremely polluted Nairobi River operating via it. The settlement has 21 villages, or neighbourhoods.

The origins of the names of Mukuru’s villages are numerous. One is called Sinai after a mountain in Israel as a result of it’s on comparatively excessive floor. One other is known as “Moto Moto” (which means hearth or scorching in Kiswahili), due to the settlement’s hearth hazards. Actually, one of many worst hearth tragedies in Kenya within the current previous was the 2011 Sinai hearth attributable to a gas spillage. It led to the loss of life of 120 individuals and 100 extra had been injured.

Different village names embrace Jamaica, Kingstone, Kosovo, Diamond and Mombasa. These names make reference to the approach to life of residents in addition to the dwelling circumstances. Jamaica and Kingstone level to the Rastafarian life-style adopted by some younger individuals, Kosovo (like in Mathare) factors to the conflicts with the native authorities and Mombasa which appears to hold two meanings — one is of an space that floods displaying the delicate ecological situation of the village, and the opposite one connotes a spot the place individuals prefer to take pleasure in themselves identical to ‘Mombasa Raha’ particularly whereas consuming low cost liqour.

A glimpse

My work reveals the unimaginable array of names inside Nairobi’s casual settlements, and provides a glimpse into the lived realities of people who inhabit them.

The names replicate the challenges confronted by the residents and, as such, slum upgrading proponents ought to make an effort to grasp the names inside casual settlements as a step in drawback identification. Understanding these bottom-up naming processes offers a extra nuanced and intimate understanding of our poor city communities.The fascinating history of how Nairobis informal settlements were named after what afflicts them

Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita, Lecturer, Technical College of Kenya

This text is republished from The Dialog underneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the unique article.

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