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The fascinating history of how Nairobi’s informal settlements were named after what afflicts them-World News , Happy Easterday

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

The names gave a voice to residents, representing the problems that they battle with every single 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 the 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 have been compelled to dwell in dormitory-like working quarters. Despite these restrictions some nonetheless discovered their means from their rural properties into the town. Nevertheless, with their illegitimate standing, they might solely assemble shanties (crudely constructed shacks) on unused land.

These shanty cities have been, occasionally, destroyed and the occupants compelled 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 anyplace within the nation, this included the city areas which have been beforehand closely restricted. In consequence, many individuals moved to the town to search for employment alternatives. Between 1963 and 1979, the inhabitants of Nairobi grew from 342,000 to 827,000 folks.

Nairobi was ill-prepared to deal with such a large inflow. From newspaper archives, I noticed how an absence of housing led to the enlargement of casual settlements and efforts to curb them by way of 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 personal builders.

I carried out a research which investigated the naming technique of three of Nairobi’s largest ghettos; Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru. I additionally appeared on the names of the settlement’s “villages”, roads and pathways, outlets, kiosks and different institutions. I did this utilizing Kenyan and British archives, newspaper information 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 shortage of provision of fundamental infrastructure. The names gave a voice to residents, representing the problems that they battle with every single day.

What’s in a reputation?


Kibera is situated 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 folks. This broad disparity is due to the excessive variety of unregistered those that dwell there and since many individuals consistently transfer out and in. Official statistics can’t seize this.

By Mélissa Wanjiru

Kibera’s historical past is intricately tied to the Nubian neighborhood, initially from Sudan, who have 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 this time within the early 1900’s.

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

For the reason that 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. As an example, “Soweto East” and “Soweto West” are named after the South African township to pay homage to the 1976 scholar uprisings in opposition to the authorities.


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

The settlement has a protracted historical past. The primary residents arrived within the Twenties. It was often called a historic centre for opposition to the colonial authorities with residents collaborating within the Mau Mau anti-colonial motion. This made it a relentless goal of demolition and arson assaults in the course of the emergency interval from 1952 to 1960. The principle highway chopping by way of the settlement was named “Mau Mau Street”.

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

Mathare additionally has many smaller neighbourhoods named after nations for the actions identified within the space. For instance, an space often called “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 residing there from Uganda.


Mukuru is an in depth settlement situated 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 (when it comes to space) of the three settlements. With an estimated inhabitants of 300,000 it comes second after Kibera. It is usually the latest settlement, having been developed within the Eighties.

Mukuru is a very hazardous settlement to dwell in. It has an oil pipeline, excessive voltage electrical energy transmission traces and the extremely polluted Nairobi River operating by way of 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. The truth is, one of many worst hearth tragedies in Kenya within the current previous was the 2011 Sinai hearth attributable to a gasoline spillage. It led to the loss of life of 120 folks and 100 extra have 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 residing situations. Jamaica and Kingstone level to the Rastafarian life-style adopted by some younger folks, 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 exhibiting the delicate ecological situation of the village, and the opposite one connotes a spot the place folks wish to take pleasure in themselves identical to ‘Mombasa Raha’ particularly whereas consuming low cost liqour.

A glimpse

My work exhibits the unbelievable array of names inside Nairobi’s casual settlements, and gives a glimpse into the lived realities of those that 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 beneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the unique article.

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Updated: June 2, 2021 — 1:55 pm

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