Driving along the new inner bypass cutting through the neighbourhoods to the East of Nairobi is a timely reminder of the press of humanity as cities grow at seemingly exponential rates.
Years ago, an incomplete memory has Doctor Who arrive in a future place, a dystopian place where the urban poor were put to work, make work, as heat exchangers for the elite. Living in their tower blocks, the poor were fed and watered, kept on their treadmills of mundaneity with copious activities of meaningless self-gratification. Our hero in his time machine saw this but, can I remember a happy ending?
Now, driving along this road, two lanes of through traffic in each direction, looking at 8 storey apartment blocks towering up either side creating grey canyon walls where the middle class instinct is to check the central locking is functioning and we are safe in our capsule venturing through different social organisations. No stranger to a number of these neighbourhoods from bygone days, I recognise some of the older buildings when nothing rose above 4 storeys and the social ethic was remembered as being different. Clearly my perceptions have changed. But so have the social pressures and senses of them and us. The sheer numbers have dramatically increased – my days of being in Eastlands and Eastleigh were in the days of Nairobi perhaps being four millions souls. Now, the city is home to eight million. 8,000,000. This is an awful lot of curved figures fitted into rectangular boxes reaching higher and higher, blocking the sun from more and more windows. Taking the light from lives?
There are speed bumps and rumble strips at various points along the canyon floor. People here do not warrant footbridges and so they take their lives back into their hands crossing the 4 lanes of traffic in groups. Pressing in on to the road when someone caring for their shock absorbers bouncing across the speed bumps and rumble strips slows the matatus, buses and commuters to the outer suburbs. Window open I offer the white guy’s innocent greeting to a lad weaving between vehicles selling sweets. Suddenly, more vendors appear, these men and women earn a precarious living day to day, under the sun, in the rain. Always breathing in diesel and petrol fumes, the quality of working conditions – appalling. What choice do people have? Understandable people seek solace in the marketing of instant gratification in gambling and winning undreamt millions to lift them from the daily grind.
As the next wave of people take control to cross the four lanes of traffic and stop vehicles from progressing, the antipathy is palpable. This is a battle of wills, people have to stay locked together and take on the vehicles driven by people hurrying home to endless boxes stacked in regular neat rows; estates of ‘townhouses’. Or perhaps they step in front of a bus filled with people who have aspired to a job offering the relative luxury of a three hour commute a day. It is a situation where the driver is urged to push on, get me home so I can sleep and start again at 5:00 tomorrow. Maybe Saturday night will bring me a win betting on the Premier League? People power is evident and so is the fragility of the whole social set up. What small spark would cause an outburst of life threatening proportions? A vehicle hitting pedestrians does cause incidents when mobs will swiftly mobilise to make trouble and all the lawless to take advantage. The bus and matatus are better organised and their networks can swiftly create social disruption on a scale impacting tens of thousands within hours. The social fabric rips easily and the tears are patched but the whole city’s garb becomes ever more un-presentable. How to get over this? Or around it? Or through it? Urban freeways and central locking along with the power of prayer you are not caught when some small incident rips the fabric or creates the tinderbox for urban wildfires. Are we deliberately distancing ourselves from the experiences of the majority? Or is this a realism as inequality feeds inequity and that Gini Coefficient is never going back in the equality bottle?
Reality bites back, the vehicle fumes hang in the chasm that is an urban expressway through lives only dreaming of escaping to where the road goes. The sun has gone now, lights glow in dukas, shops, bars and the ubiquitous mobile phone shops. Seems fewer lights glow on the vehicles tracking along the road. Some simply leave the lights off; people still believe they save fuel running on with no electric being consumed in lighting their vehicle. Some simply are in such a poor state of repair, there are no working lights on the corners of the vehicle. Motorbikes weave through this setting; regularly no back lights and overloaded with two pinion passengers. The day’s heat is dispersing into a cloudless night; the pall of pollution, vehicles and the detritus of us humans living in cramped conditions with a paucity of services, hangs so heavy you can taste it on the roof of your mouth. Perhaps this is where the new wave of jobs for the urban poor will come from? Maybe their lungs will become the purification devices to cleanse the air of the pollution the few wreak on the many? Allied with the capability to exchange heat, perhaps this is the Dystopian conclusion to the establishment of social safety nets; paid to cleanse air and lower the atmospheric temperature as heat and air exchanges.
A whole new, sad, meaning to a living lung for megacities?
A new set of questions to have intellectuals re-redefine what meant by decent work and the dignity of endeavour for self-respect?
Come see cities of the dark nights and hot days where clean water is often a luxury and then think again on the Philadelphia Declaration:- Poverty anywhere is a threat to Prosperity everywhere.