Nairobi, it is often said, is a (perhaps ‘the’) fragmented city (Charton-Bigot & Rodriguez-Torres 2006). It is certainly and unavoidably diverse; socially, racially, ethnically and culturally. But the notion of fragmentation also carries with it other qualities that pertain to Nairobi; perhaps most of all an edginess, even sinister, and a recognition that its diversity is devoid of the innocence that that term sometimes implies, and is rather the result of myriad fraught histories of division and concentration, differentiation and exclusion. Fragmentation also implies a temporality; the possibility that once there was a whole – coherent, planned, glued seamlessly into an identifiable, bounded thing – but that that time, if it ever existed beyond aspiration and imagination, has gone. An even older everyday cliché about Nairobi is that nobody is from Nairobi. Likewise if that cliché ever reflected a truth, it holds less water now. Plenty of people identify as Nairobians. Yet just as there are many Nairobians so there are many Nairobis, past, present and future; coexistent in the very fabric of the city in uneasy yet productive tension. Thus Nairobi’s fragmentation presents a challenge, a challenge that intersects across the immense multiplicity of everyday lives in and around the city, and lies at the heart of this book project, analytically, empirically and methodologically. A challenge of coherence. Nairobi may be fragmented but it does cohere, it multiple ways, times, spaces, at different tempos of duration and transformation, from momentary glimpses of mutual unspoken sociality to much longer-enduring tropes of recognition, formality and shared aspiration.
Another recurring trope about Nairobi, which too reflects and refracts Nairobian everyday lives, is one of mobility and flow, and their contraries, stasis and stagnation. Undoubtedly flow and blockage do in many ways define Nairobian lives, at once impetuous levelling mechanisms yet productive of renewed and ever heightening differentiations. The blocked flows of impaired movement, as manifest in the temporalities of traffic jams for example, affect everyone in the city, yet produce responses that are socially differentiating in profound ways, as if there is a unspoken will to fragmentation and difference that inevitably manifests in recurring bureaucratic efforts to formalise and plan the movement of Nairobians across the city. The idea that Nairobi is all about mobility (and its counterpart stasis) reflects not only physical movement but also social movement, aspiration, and self transformation, the possibility of something new, exciting, of change itself. Again that promise has the potential to envelop all. There is no Nairobian wholly immune from the seductive promises of wealth, status and social advancement, whether manifest in the proselytising allure of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, Vision 2030 and Kenya’s own dotcom techno-volution, the conspicuous moralising of Pentecostal churches almost replacing older modes of middle class respectability, or in the obsessive landed and propertied wealth of ‘Kikuyu gothic’, or of ‘expat-nobodies’ hooked on the ego-inflating indulgences of enormous red-number-plated 4x4s, palatial houses, armies of servants and expensive nights out with obsequious hookers in Westlands. Yet if the promise touches all, offering a coherence to the dreams of the city – then its realisation, like responses to Nairobi’s traffic woes, too is often profoundly re-differentiating, entrenching older fragmentations, exclusions, distortions and divisions.
Likewise security. ‘Nairobbery’ is another older Nairobi cliché now replaced by references to ‘hotbeds of terror’, the ‘white widow’ and Al Shabaab in the wake of the Westgate, Garissa and myriad other attacks across the city and the country, pointing to a fearfulness and outrage that ripples across Nairobi’s many parts. Yet this coherence of shared emotion – of the inverted promise, one might say – again alludes to very real differences of the city, as manifest in and reinforced by its very fabric and the buzzing activity of its participants: the electric fences, razor wire, alarms, and durawalls, askaris around fires, the uniformed security companies, the guns, the police, the scanners and soldiers. The foci of fear are complex, multiple and diverse around the city. If expat-nobodies, NGO-do-gooders and self-important diplomats imprison and exclude themselves within ever more elaborate security architecture, apparatus and elongated procedures, for fear of real but nevertheless remote possibilities of ‘terrorist’ attack, then for young men in Mathare and other ‘slums’, or Kenyan Somalis in Eastleigh, there is little greater fear than of the police and state security apparatus itself, threats to be negotiated on the way to work, school or pleasure. If Kilimani mums at charismatic churches fear the threat of Satan in their children, friends, husbands and lovers, they also can also galvanise against rowdy Matatu touts, themselves sometimes incited by, into or against vigilantism, gangism and the violence of sexist excess. At the same time, employers and employees, tenants and landlords, city dwellers and city officials are locked in mutualities of distrust, corruption and deceit that conjugate through odd matrixes of legality, obligation, race, class, ethnicity and prejudice. In multiple emergent ways questions of security, safety and propriety turn inevitably on the vagaries of uncertainty, anxiety and contingency in which everyone is immersed, and all are complicit.
This book/project seeks to examine all these challenges of coherence amidst fragmentation; of mobility, aspiration and transformation amidst endurance and repetition; of present futures and emergent pasts; and of formalised informality and informalised formality; of creativity, pleasure and love amidst narcissism, deceit and ruthlessness; of uncontained violence amidst tolerance, free-thinking expression and critical reflection, and a will to get along, to keep moving amid stasis and the threat of stagnation in the rebounding bonds of mistrust and loyalty prejudice and endless pretence. And like the city, these challenges determine the shape of our project-in-the-making. Like the sprawling, vibrant and edgy conurbation of Nairobi that it examines, this book is not one but several things-in-the-making. It is, in equal measure, a detailed, historically and anthropologically-minded monograph-cum-edited collection focusing on the diverse, contradictory, and constantly changing city-scape that is Nairobi, and at the same time, a critical exercise in experimental, multi-authored, contingent and subjunctive urban ethnography. The emergent, multiple and always becoming shape and fabric of the city is reflected in the shape of our approach to this project – coherent yet fragmented, multiple, tense and fraught, yet awake to the mutual collectivities, complicities and shared lenses through which order and disorder, of past allure and future promise, are imagined, beset upon, dispelled and reconstituted. The methodological problem at the heart of this project – how to write a multi-authored, contingent and open-ended and yet coherent and cohesive historically informed ethnographic portrait of an African city in 21st century – therefore directly echoes the empirical realties of a city that coheres at once through, despite and yet because of its fraught multiplicities, diversities and fragmentations.
Anthropology has long been comfortable with leaving behind the old, tired image of the lone, intrepid researcher embedding themselves for years in dutiful participant observation in a single field site, in some degree of arduous rural remoteness, in order to understand deep rooted cultures of a past era perching precariously on the edge of an abyss of impending newness and transformation. It has embraced a proliferation of multi-sited ethnographies of movement, flows, and global assemblages, of rootlessness, alienation and aspiration. Not only has ‘the field’ been brought ‘home’, it now takes on such a diverse plethora of forms, moments, spaces and contexts, that the old idea of ‘the field’ is hardly recognisable. Fieldwork is rarely as spatially or temporally contained as it once was, and one progressive spin off has been that neither are our ‘informants’ anywhere near as constrained into predetermined space and time by our writing as they once seemed. Yet despite a profound (even debilitating) self-consciousness about the power-laden contours of its own knowledge production, and some early experiments in innovative and reflexive ethnographies during the angst-filled days of 1980s post-structuralism, anthropology still struggles with the problem of its authorship. Too often anthropologists have fallen back on imperfect (and imbalanced) collaborations, rather than embracing the real inevitability of multi-authorship and the rich potentialities of relational knowledge production that it entails. If confronting Nairobi’s will to coherence amidst the strains of fragmentation is the empirical and analytical challenge of this project, then multi-authorship and relational knowledge production constitute the methodological challenge of portraying a city that is and always has been so many things at once. Through this lens a single-authored monograph of a city like Nairobi hardly makes any sense, if indeed it does anywhere at all. This then is the second purpose of this book: a methodological project in the very best sense of that phrase, chiming almost unnoticeably with the fraught multiplicities of the city itself. Where is the coherence? – is it just a will to, or promise of cohesion, order, meaning? Or is there something about Nairobi that does cohere, make sense, join the dots. But what, when and how is it? Moreover, how can one portray such an ephemeral but very real quality of collective being and becoming without constraining it into an artificially bounded box of incredulity? Welcome to Nairobi. We hope to show you why Nairobi is such a good city with, in and against which to do this critical exercise.
Contact: Nairobi Becoming is an ongoing project @BIEA in Nairobi. If you are interesting in learning more, or getting involved please email: [email protected]