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How Somalis ended up settling down in Nairobi's Eastleigh suburbs

NAIROBI, Kenya - The recently released census results in Kenya put Somali community as the sixth biggest in number, slightly debunking a traditional narrative that the community belongs to minorities, of Kenya's 43 tribes which are officially gazetted.

Data obtained from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicate that there are close to 2.7 million Somalis in Kenya as of 2019, despite the fact that the figure has been challenged by a number of the community's leaders for alleged "manipulation".

Traditionally, the Somali community are nomads, who move from one place to another in search for pastures for their livestock, within northeastern Kenya. But in recent years, a number of them have ventured into business, commanding Kenya's competitive market for decades now.

UK-based historian Odhiambo Opiyo traces the mass movement of Somalis from northeastern Kenya to Nairobi during the construction of Kenya-Uganda railway by the British, which started in 1898 from the Port of Mombasa. By 1909 when the railway line was almost in Nairobi, there was a significant number of Somalis in the capital.

Data obtained from archives in London indicate that by 1914, the population of Somalis had grown to around 300. After 1927, he notes, Isiolo town became the second most important centre for Somalis, and the British also envisioned the town as somewhere they could settle Somalis who had fought in the war.

According to the British, defiance was one trait of the Somalis. Henry Johnstone, a colonial administrator noted in 1913 that "they [Somalis] have shown themselves inimical from the start."

In 1928, the Governor of Kenya said that" Somali tribesmen have always adopted an independent and truculent attitude ... they defy our laws and pay no taxes." But they also gave them credit where it was due. J. W. Gregory remarked, " Scratch the Somali" and you will find someone with great "devotion and discipline and latent powers of organisation."

Charles Eliot, the commissioner for East Africa Protectorate from 1900-04 lauded the Somali community, arguing that "there can be no doubt that they are the most intelligent race in the protectorate."

By the first decade of the 20th century, Nairobi had been divided into seven regions, observes Odhiambo, a researcher at Oxford University. These were Railway centre, the Indian bazaar, the European business and administrative centre, the railway quarters, the Dhobi quarter, the European residential suburb [Parklands], and the military barracks outside of the town.

At that time, none of the Europeans lived in either Indian bazaar, or in various African villages. These unplanned villages included Kileleshwa, Mji, Mombasa, Masikini, and Pangani, as well as the four Somali villages along the present-day Murang'a Road in Nairobi.

But by 1910, the Europeans decided to relocate African villages to other parts of Nairobi because of what they termed as "unsanitary conditions". This was one of the indicators used along with economic marginalisation to antagonise Africans by the settlers around the continent.

According to historical records, the colonists informed Somali headmen living in Nairobi of a decision to relocate them to Mbagathi, also within the capital. The decision had been made in August 1916, without the involvement of the community.

This decision, Odhiambo notes, was taken following the expansion of Swamp Road in January 1915, to create a thoroughfare between the European residential area of Parklands and the centre of Nairobi.

During the extension work, the medical authorities had discovered nearly twenty cases of Smallpox in the village of Hassan Hersi. Consequently, the Europeans living nearby, submitted a request for the removal of the Somali.

But Upon receiving the notice of their removal the Somali called a meeting on the N’gara Plains on 15,16 and 17 September 1916. Five men, Hussein Ali, Hassan Hersi, Abu Bakar Sugale, Hassan Yusuf, and Aden Jama, were chosen to represent about 300 village residents, he adds.

The five men employed legal services of solicitors, Shapely and Schwartz to draft their complaints, and to present their case to the protectorate authorities and the British government. They also employed architects Tate, Smith, and Henderson to construct plans for an alternative new model village.

In rejecting their relocation to Mbagathi Somali families emphasized the longevity of their residence in Nairobi, having lived there for about 17 years.

They also pointed out that most of the inhabitants of the villages were working for the government and military as askaris and interpreters, and that it would be impossible for them to carry out their business in Nairobi if they were living in Mbagathi.

Although the Somali later agreed in principle to relocate, even if not to Mbagathi, they sought the security of tenure. They requested their lawyers Shapely and Schwartz, to recommend the construction of houses made of stone or cement, with ceilings ten feet high, bathrooms with drainage, and crucially, a 99-year lease.

Architectural plans for the model village produced by their architects Tate, Smith, and Henderson showed a central 100-foot wide boulevard lined with eucalyptus trees for keeping away mosquitoes. Secondary streets with plots for housing, run parallel to the main boulevard and were 60 feet wide. 20-foot wide back streets for drainage ran between every two rows of houses.

However, according to information obtained from archives, the relocation never took place because of financial constraints caused by world war l, which was fought both in Europe and Africa, with Germany being the epicentre.

The question of the creation of a native location nonetheless resurfaced again 1919, when the new Nairobi Town Council considered plans for the layout of an area where Africans could live decently.

This led to the establishment of Pumwani estate in 1921. All African estates of Mombasa, Masikini and the four Somali villages were relocated there.

But by 1931 the population of Pumwani had swelled to 7,173, three thousand more than was originally conceived. In 1938, the village of Pangani was also demolished and moved to Pumwani, so that by 1939, there were well over 8,000 people residing there.

Overcrowding became a problem, and what was meant by the colonialists to be a planned African housing estate, soon turned into an uncontrolled settlement.

They realised they had done a big mistake by setting up an African estate on the outskirts of Nairobi. Africans from upcountry who couldn't find a house, set-up their own informal structures, and crime was on the rise.

The fate of Somali semi-permanent dwellings in Pumwani was therefore revisited at the end of the Second World War. A memorandum on demolition was written in 1946, though it was not implemented, and the estate continued to expand towards the neighbouring estate of Eastleigh.

Like Pumwani, Eastleigh was also established in 1921, as a place where Indians could settle when the Indian bazaar was closed. However, the poor infrastructure at Eastleigh deterred many wealthier Indians from settling there.

A number of Isaq Somalis also bought a share of over 3,000 plots in Eastleigh. Isaq connections to kinsmen in other urban centres in Kenya, as well as to other Somali clans, meant that many other Somalis also visited and settled.

By the 1930s and 1940s, Eastleigh was the biggest settlement of Somalis in Nairobi. Today, the estate plays host to thousands of Somali businesses and is considered as the biggest market for all essentials in East Africa.

It falls under Kamukunji constituency represented by Yusuf Hassan, also of Somali descent, and who at one time survived a bomb explosion, which left him severely injured. The estate was recently put under lockdown as a measure to combat Coronavirus pandemic in Nairobi.


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