Nairobi has come a long way. During the construction of the Uganda railway in 1889, a watering hole which was roughly between Mombasa and Kampala, called Ewaso Nyirobi in the Maasai language, was chosen to host a supply depot, mainly because of the Nairobi river (as a water supply), the cool temperatures that made it difficult for parasite-carrying mosquitoes to survive.
Apparently malaria was not the only epidemical threat. In 1900, the original town was burnt down and rebuilt because of an outbreak of plague.
That was a long time ago. The watering hole in the black swamp has grown in leaps and bounds, from the capital city of Kenya, to a regional business hub.
It has been called the green city in the sun and in some unflattering reference to rampant insecurity, robbery and car hijacking; it came to be known as ‘Nairobbery’.
For its ups and downs, Nairobi today is the defacto business and administrative capital of east and central Africa, and perhaps, the most prosperous sub-Saharan city outside South Africa.
Today, the first announcement of Nairobi, as you glide along the Nakuru – Nairobi highway, is the smooth dual carriage way, separated by a metre high concrete slab, which seems to endlessly descend into the outer Nairobi, in the posh suburb of Westlands.
Nairobi is not called a green city for nothing. There are all kinds of trees in homes and along the streets and venues, in the numerous public parks and gardens.
Nairobi’s central business district could be mistaken for a European city. Planned in the shape of a rectangle with the main highways forming closing the CBD in, a skyline that makes it impossible to see the next street, either way.
Public transport vehicles are not allowed in most of the CBD, hence leaving a lot of space for pedestrians to stroll, and the less numerous private vehicles.
The town is littered with huge supermarkets that literally stock everything, putting meaning into the phrase ‘one stop shopping centre’.
Going down to Moi Avenue, the hundreds of matatu minibuses, their melodic horns hooting, heavy hip-hop beats or genge music blaring out of their speakers, conductors hanging by the doors as they speed along, picking and dropping passengers without stopping.
The matatu spirit is like a never ending carnival of music and flashy colours. They make the city appear idealistically brimming.
The conductors do not shout out their destinations, instead they yell out route numbers, each of which automatically represents a destination or a set of destination. Woe to those who are not privy of their route number.
During rush hour, you will spot queues, believe me. The queues snake all around the stages, sometimes half a kilometre long.
When the matatus turn up, they also queue up, so that at the end of the day nobody fights to jump into the matatus.
It reminds me of all the good old memories of the passengers struggling at Rubangura in Kigali, or at the old taxi park in Kampala.
Nairobians are a very busy people. Every boy is constantly on the move. People don’t stop to greet others on the streets, less they are mistaken for thieves.
It is said that some of the most professional thieves, will ask you how much you will pay for a nice watch that a passer-by is wearing, and as soon as you agree on a price, the fellow disappears and turns up with it from a different direction. No hassle.
You don’t shout thief, at him, because, his network will instead accuse you, and within a blink of an eye, you will become the latest victim of mob justice.
Nairobi is a town of many worlds. In the suburbs of Runda, there is a Switzerland of sorts, assured security, efficient services, and good roads.
In the many middle class estates, the worry is how to get into the gates of the estate and you are good. Then they are the slums.
Kibera is the currently the largest and most famous slum in Africa having successfully dethroned Johannesburg’s Soweto and probably houses a quarter of Nairobi’s population, but do not be deceived.
Many of Kibera inhabitants drive cars. In fact most of poor suburbs of Nairobi from above appear as jungles of television aerials.
Nairobi is famous for its skyline which resembles that of most cities in the western worlds. For a long time the tallest building in Nairobi was the thirty-storey Kenyatta international conference centre (KICC).
With its architectural style borrowed from the African hut, it is the most recognisable landmark of Nairobi. However, since 2000, the central Bank of Kenya-owned Times Tower is the tallest building in east and central Africa at thirty eight storeys.
If you have followed lightly, the politics of Kenya of late, Uhuru Park should ring a tone in your mind. An open area surrounded by trees and grass, next to the parliament and other government buildings, the park is famous for political rallies.
It has seen the largest rallies in Kenya, and hosted the famous handover of power from president Moi to Mwai Kibaki.
Most of all, Nairobi is a city of opportunities. Nairobians are a vibrant mix of east Africans, and even Europeans. The creativity is spelt out on the roads, on bill boards, in the numerous television and radio stations, in the newspapers.
Prime time television in Kenya is a nervous time switching the remote control from this to the other station. Young people are constantly thinking about ways to make money, differently and uniquely.
Most interestingly, Nairobi is a golden trove for tourists. It has several varied museums and zoos. And right next to the city (seven kilometres from city centre) is the Nairobi national park.
A wide array of animals which include the African buffalo, black rhinoceros, Burchell’s zebra, cheetah, hippopotamus, lion, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, Maasai giraffe, and ostrich are sometimes separated from the city by an electric fence.