Published: September 2005

Inventing Nairobi

Women Hats

Nairobi, Inventing a City

A boisterous metropolis glows with the promise of a better life, but doesn't always deliver

By Binyavanga Wainaina
Photograph by David Alan Harvey

The nearly three million residents of Kenya's burgeoning capital are reshaping a uniquely African city.

For those trying to understand it, Nairobi can be a very slippery city. Four years ago I came back after spending a decade in South Africa—my mother had just died, and I was tired of being away from home. But it was difficult to adapt. I found myself living at the edge of Mlango Kubwa, a slum on the east side of the city, in a cheap hostel called Beverly Hills, where college students and the newly employed lived. That first night there was a flood, and I woke up to see my laptop floating in four inches (ten centimeters) of water.

I slipped and slid and fell in love with this city. Mlango Kubwa is all motion—streams of people finding original ways to survive and thrive. You never get the impression there are fixed and rooted institutions (buildings, legal entities) around which people organize. The organization of Mlango Kubwa is hidden in the unhindered to-ing and fro-ing of people feeling their way through the day.

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