The informal economy, or at least a tiny outpost of it, lives right outside my gate in Westlands. Not far, in fact, from a piece of architecture that worries me. Every time I leave my gate to walk the doglet, it’s right there, poking me in the eye, and I keep wondering: What was the architect smoking? In whose world is a towerlet of blue window panes a good idea? Especially if accompanied by red window frames? Against peach walls? And what’s with the elaborate, yet completely pointless little gables in the roof? Tiled roofs for the fence posts? What happened to form follows function? |
It’s puzzling. But back to my walking route, and the informal economy. It lives on the first street corner I get to, and on the second as well. And on the third. And it is a lot more vulnerable than the peach-coloured monstrosity. I can’t photograph for toffee, but a while ago, I managed to take a handful of interesting pictures of the little kiosks down at the second corner: on a grey day, a pile of wooden planks, broken signs and rubble at a muddy street corner, people gathered to watch in the background, and in the foreground, men carrying clubs and axes, walking away from the destruction.
No, not post-election violence, even though you’d be forgiven for thinking so from looking at the photographs. It was a handful of gentlemen dispatched by the City Council, curiously dressed in fairly formal clothes, worn-out suits, but suits still. ‘We are just doing our job’, one of them threw in my direction after I had gone back home to fetch my camera and returned, accompanied by the intrepid doglet.
The City Council had sent out their suited demolishing team to beautify our street corners, or that’s at least what I assume. It happened a little while before Dr Alfred Mutua decided to replace the flowers and bushes in the CBD with coloured pebbles in the name of beautification (or, I suspect, before he decided to hand out a pointless contract to someone who needed to be given a contract).
And so the little street corner kiosks disappeared. The lovely couple who had run the kiosk on corner number two disappeared, too, and with them my supply of pineapples and avocados. Supplies of neighbourhood airtime recovered quickly, because most small traders returned to exactly the same corner with their goods in baskets and plastic containers (also, in a fantastic example of customer service matched by few formal businesses in this town, one of the local newspaper men not only delivers the papers to my house, but has also granted me account facilities for both newspapers and airtime, and all I have to do is text him for a top up). So little changed for the residents, but the traders had no shelter on rainy days, and had to find a safe place for their goods over the night.
It infuriated me: This is a tough city where so many are struggling to make a living, and my neighbourhood kiosk people did just that by providing services that were clearly in demand. This is also a city that hosts many NGOs and aid agencies mulling, endlessly, over policies and initiatives to improve the lots of the ‘poor’, and alongside Government of Kenya representatives, harp on, just as endlessly, about small and microenterprises being the backbone of the economy. And finally, in this city, in my neighbourhood, a man associated with one of Kenya’s largest scams, is free to run for MP whilst small kiosks are being torn down in the name of ‘beautification’ and ‘security’.
And my architectural gripes? Well, they won’t be resolved anytime soon, but I was briefly jolted out of my cynicism when I listened to a presentation by Mumo Musuva, an architect with Planning Systems Kenya, on city planning and road construction in Nairobi. I had first been in touch with Planning Systems years ago when Trevor Andrews and his colleague enthusiastically introduced me, over a knock-out gin & tonic (late in the afternoon, so clearly a sundowner) to a low-cost housing prototype.
Even back then, they pushed for a plan to rehabilitate the Nairobi River, and to turn it into a zone that combines business and socialising. They are passionate about what they do – and how they can use their professional knowledge to make Nairobi a city that’s easier and more pleasant to live and work in. And that would also then give space to such small business to thrive: Mumo’s presentation and my neighbourhood walkies also made me suspect that we can probably save a lot of cash spent on programmes, workshops and related four-wheel drives for ‘small enterprise promotion’ and actually let small enterprises grow if the city infrastructure were made more functional. Since the City Council appears busy shopping for more overpriced cemeteries, fat chance, I guess.
PS: In my neighbourhood, trader at corner one has a new kiosk. Its completion is a bit slow. He was, he said, forced to buy it from contractors stipulated by the City Council.
Republished with kind permission from the Star.