The images were like twisted modern-day versions of the biblical Exodus or the historical Great Trek of southern Africa: throngs of people walking from Nairobi’s many estates pouring into the city centre.
To complete this dramatic picture of a seething mass of humanity on the move, long queues of vehicles dotted highways that had been turned into parking lots. These scenes that defined Nairobi on Wednesday were the result of a matatu strike stirred by the county government’s move to increase parking fees.
But it was a broader statement of the agony of life in the city. Indeed, Kenya’s quintessential urban space has symbolically been characterised as a place of untold suffering, unlimited privilege and the attendant immorality.
Like other cities in Africa, Nairobi is battling to cope with poor infrastructure and planning. Parts of the city centre, just like the visitors’ lounge in most houses, is clean and orderly. Street lights work, manholes are covered, and one is unlikely to lose one’s phone or handbag to muggers.
But life becomes almost unbearable once you step out of this “zone”. The sheer number of people, congested roads and noisy vehicles is overwhelming.
But while some call it Shamba la Mawe (rocky farmland) for its hardships, others see it as the “city of many lights” denoting progress. And despite the hardships that await newcomers, the capital city continues to attract thousands of Kenyans from across the country.
However, recent events have once again raised the question: is life in Nairobi becoming tougher by the day?
There was more unflattering news this week when Nairobi took the prize for being the most expensive city to live in Africa.
Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked Nairobi as the second worst city in the world to be born in. And last week, the same unit ranked Kenya’s capital as the most expensive city to live in with the chaotic Nigerian capital of Lagos coming second.
But it is not hard to decipher why Nairobi is earning all these unenviable rankings. For starters, you have to pay through the nose to survive in what was once known as the “City in the Sun”.
In the latest EIU study, which sampled eight African cities, Morocco’s Casablanca was placed as Africa’s third most expensive city followed by Lusaka (Zambia), Cairo (Egypt), Johannesburg (South Africa), Pretoria (South Africa) and Algiers (Algeria).
The 2014 survey says Kenyans are digging even deeper into their pockets to pay for basic needs like food, toiletries, rent, fuel and utility bills besides paying a premium for political stability and security.
But not everyone is convinced by the ranking. “Did you know the more Nbi is depicted as dangerous means higher risk allowance for many NGOs. It’s pure business. Think twice before you RT (retweet),” tweeted hotelier Mohammed Hersi.
The survey, however, tracked prices of over 160 items and determined that Nairobi residents have to pay higher prices for beer, wine and cigarettes.
The cost of basic goods skyrocketed last year when Parliament passed the revised Value Added Tax law that affected the prices of almost everything. Landlords also took advantage of the law to increase rent.
Weeks later, the Nairobi County government passed its Finance Act, which also increased a wide range of charges.
Besides the high cost of living, all Nairobians share a big headache in the form of public transport. The perpetual matatu menace was brought to the fore on Wednesday morning when residents woke up to barricaded roads after crews took to the streets protesting against increased parking fees by the county government.
The crews displayed their usual impunity by switching off their vehicles’ engines, causing snarl-ups stretching tens of kilometres. For hours, the city was at a complete standstill.
Thousands who rely on public service vehicles trekked to work while hundreds of motorists remained marooned in the gridlock for hours with all major roads and escape routes blocked.
With public transport left entirely in the hands of private investors, matatu operators hold the trump card. This meant the government could only plead with them even as the police used force to disperse protesters.
Mr Kariithi Murimi, a governance expert, estimates that the economy lost between Sh700 million and Sh800 million during the five-hour stand-off.
“Businesses within the city centre lost Sh300 million, commuters lost Sh10 million in extra fares and other businesses that could not get goods from industrial area lost Sh270 million,” he estimates.
But matatus have for decades been a source of misery for both passengers and private motorists. Unlike in cities with organised public transport, it is impossible to know when the next vehicle will come and how much fare you will be charged. Most termini are manned by extortionist gangs who dictate the fares with vehicle owners and passengers the biggest losers.
“If you board one (matatu), it is overloaded and the fares increase haphazardly. You will also be lucky if you are not dumped halfway through the journey,” says Ms Maryanne Nkatha, a resident of Umoja.
National Transport and Safety Authority chairman, Mr Lee Kinyanjui agrees, saying that for decades there has been no attempt to organise the country’s transport.
“For a long time, things have just been happening,” he said. “We are coming up with ways to address the situation in 90 days which the minister will be announcing in the coming few days.”
Some crews also collude with criminals to carjack the matatus and rob passengers especially towards end of the month. On some routes, one is never sure of reaching one’s destination without ruthless hijackers commandeering the vehicle.
Private motorists also have to contend with disrespectful matatu drivers who unceremoniously switch from one lane to another, overlap at will and stop to drop or collect passengers at undesignated bus stops. These bad manners are often an inconvenience and a danger.
Critics of Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero accuse him of endless promises and taking to social media to promise solutions, yet there is little action.
Mr Kidero on Friday said Nairobi’s rapid growth has led to overstretched facilities especially in public transportation. He said designs for the roads currently being constructed include a bus rapid transit system.
“Nairobi County buses will have their own lanes and schedules by July,” he promised.
But most road users seem to have given up any hope of the authorities finding solutions to the traffic mess. Indeed, a 2011 commuter pain survey by IBM revealed that Nairobi is the world’s fourth worst city for traffic.
It beat bigger cities like New Delhi, New York, London and Los Angeles. Beijing, which has a population nine times bigger than Nairobi’s, is ahead.
The study also noted that in Kenya’s capital, which is home to 3.1 million people, two out of three people say that congestion has a negative impact on their work, family and health.
In terms of economic implications, the study showed Nairobi’s traffic jams cost the economy Sh50 million every day.
The reason for the gridlocks are the often bad roads with potholes and poor design. The presence of many indisciplined drivers and poor law enforcement do not help matters.
With the number of vehicles in the city having more than doubled since 2012 to 700,000, getting parking space in the CBD is another source of headache.
The subsequent problem is increased parking fees – Sh300 for personal vehicles per day and as much as Sh8,000 a month for buses.
Vehicle owners also have to cope with parking boys who often demand “security” fees. Yet vehicles are still vandalised. Indeed, owning a car in Nairobi is slowly turning into an inconvenience.
The 2011 commuter pain survey ranked Nairobi in 13th position when it comes to drivers taking the longest times searching for parking space.
Besides, drivers in Nairobi join those in New Delhi, Bangalore and Milan as the ones who argue the most over parking spaces.
In addition, insecurity in the city has become the order of the day and no one is safe any more. Even those living in the posh estates like Karen, Runda, Kileleshwa and Lavington that were once considered secure, have been soft targets due to the exclusiveness of the areas. Karen has particularly been in the spotlight in recent months with many high-profile attacks.
This does not mean that those in the lower-class estate have it easier. In one instance in Kasarani last year, a gang besieged an entire flat and stole household goods from the tenants.
On the streets, pedestrians have to constantly watch out for muggers. Hawkers operate in and around the city with impunity. Most of them sell their merchandise on the city’s pavements and road sides, and on many occasions they engage county askaris and police in running battles.
Businessmen are incurring extra costs of securing their premises by installing CCTV cameras, which have not been a deterrent. Recently, six thugs in two saloon cars were caught on camera storming a petrol station in the city and making away with 36 gas cylinders. M-Pesa outlets are also hit daily by gun-wielding thugs.
And a dramatic daylight shoot out on Kimathi Street last week, where a passerby and at least two suspected criminals were killed, also brought to the fore the dangers that lurk in the city.
Grenade attacks from suspected al-Shaabab adherents and the Westgate mall attack last year all show how unsafe it is for Nairobi dwellers.
Some investors in Eastlands have been forced to pay protection fee to gangs that have taken over security operations in their areas. New gangs like Gaza in Kayole seem to be sprouting at an alarming rate.
And unlike in the better organised cities where police response to distress calls is fast, once you are attacked in Nairobi you are usually on your own.
Despite promises of reforms, the police are ill-equipped, indifferent and will often cite excuses that their vehicles are out on patrol when called upon to assist.
Street families, urchins and beggars — who were briefly done away with when the Narc administration took power in 2003 — are now back in full force and can be spotted on many corners in the city.
In 2007, there were more than 60,000 children living and working on the streets of Nairobi, a study commissioned by the Consortium of Street Children showed.
Mr Shamit Patel recounted in January how he was accosted by urchins wielding human waste and he had to part with some money on Uhuru Highway.
Then there is the problem of pollution. City churches, mosques, exhibition stalls, clubs, bars and matatus are a great source of noise pollution.
Clogged drainage systems are also a common feature in the city’s neighbourhoods. If it rains in Nairobi, poor drainage systems become evident. Those difficulties aside, a basic need such as water is in short supply. While Nairobi resident require 750,000 cubic meters, only 500,000 cubic meters are available daily, according to the Nairobi Water Company.
With suffering such as the scenes on Wednesday compounding the “usual” problems, one question lingers: is the city losing its allure as the most attractive destination for Kenyans?