A virus comes and captures, our bodies and familiarity. Actually, it has happened before, before we were born, not the same virus but still, all wore masks like DOOM. This is not our world alone. This virus is here, things have also changed, there’s a vaccine now.
For it Sounds Like A Pandemic, I made a field recording run around Eastleigh in mid July of 2020. From the Rona based political terrain, nostalgia, and history that repeats, this text staggers around Eastleigh.
by Kamwangi Njue (July 2020)
Mask on my face, I smell my breath, smells like something living, something fleshy, something from the inside, familiar but still not laid eyes upon.
Nairobi River’s dark flow separates Bahati and Kiambiu slum. In the riparian, exchange of “throw me the worth over the river, I throw you the product back” in these “keep distance” times serves well. Along the river, I sat or crouched contemplating my journey ahead. The water then, after I calmed down, said some things to me.
A choche stretches from the bridge on First Avenue (from Jogoo Road) to the bridge on Eldoret Road.
A choche can be, a room of ones, another narrowing in the maze of housing, a GSU parade, a nightmare and a death wish, and mostly, combinations of them all. A choche is an end to a thing.
Buzzing flies freshly un-grounded from their food and tall grasses dare to caress your face as if you had asked for it.
Then it would be quiet, not knowing who will show up in the next corner: a group of two or three and all ticking all the boxes of a person with unknown intentions. A timing of instincts, who throws what first. You pass each other. Bodies rigid. A collective sigh. A relief from the harmlessness of the Other.
Eastleigh is a lesson in life.
Eastleigh is as Kenyan as Wanjiku or the man who fought another with lethal speed and hurled stones. The scuffle stopped traffic momentarily. Amezoea, amezoea! As soon as the men who felt themselves self-organized, I left carefully adjusting my mask on the nose with the tips of my fingers, making way in-between excited onlookers and those who were contemplating either to call the cops on the assailant or to give him the mercy of the street. I walked into the commentaries of women selling vegetables by the avenue as I eased into the procession.
Looking up. Walking in the middle in the crowd. Mask-less, opened out like a flower. He holds his head in an angle that suggests that this is not new, this is not something just discovered today. His eyes of a child calmly glued into the sky.
We know them, because they are us.
The CBD’s skyline gracefully stationed on the direct opposite and just a few meters on the right, the Moi Air Base perimeter wall marks the vastness of the military land. The space between the two adjacent points, CBD and the base, has no buildings nor trees between. It is a direct line of sight. The airbase doesn’t appear in some versions of Nairobi maps. Formally known as RAF Eastleigh, the aerodrome might have well given Eastleigh a name. After independence, it was renamed KAF Eastleigh. After the failed coup against Moi by a group of Kenya Air Force airmen on August 1, 1982, it was renamed, again, to Moi Air Base.
As RAF Eastleigh, it was significant for the maintenance of air power by the British counter-insurgency during Kenya Emergency (1952-1960).
(He disappears into the mass as I envy his high, that of the sky.)
The area was Savannah.
It was established as a human settlement after it was acquired by European and white South African settlers in 1912.
It had Nairobi East Township and Egerton Estates.
Egerton Estate was for Europeans.
The first Somalis came, either as escorts or guards for British colonialists, as early as 1916.
Eastleigh as a name was first used in 1921.
The area was planned to have seven sections. Section I was occupied by the Sikhs and Goans, the latter settling around St Theresa’s Church. Section II houses would be acquired by Somali women who would rent to the migrating Somalis from the northern parts of Kenya, steadily building a rising population. The two sections lie along the First and Second Avenues, and between them and Section III (which was settled by Rajasthanis), there is California, Biafra and the Moi Air Base’s land. Section VII rests near Pumwani and General Waruinge Road.
When Asians began to move to other areas, the Swahili, following those in the neighbouring areas like Majengo, started to acquire property where they ran lodgings. The Kikuyu, elevated by Jomo’s presidency, covered more ground and earned more with the wealthy establishing businesses in the expanding Eastleigh estate.
Eastleigh has a long and disturbing history with organized police brutality and state violence. The Kenya State vs Eastleigh is a replicating Shifta War (1963-1967). It takes different shapes in the political narratives. The chronological violence set forth by the war has reached a couple of zeniths: the Garissa Massacre, 1980 and the Wagalla Massacre in 1984 and the Garissa University Attack in 2015 (the road to Garissa University College attack by Al Shabaab in April 7, 2015 has been elaborated here by Shailja Patel.)
1991: Siad Barre’s regime collapses.
300,000 Somalis flee to Kenya. Many stay, others linger on their way to elsewhere: overseas, refugee camps.
October, 2011: Operation Linda Nchi.
May 2020: Government bans movement in and out of Eastleigh and Old Town, Republic of Kenya. (The Interior Ministry defined Eastleigh as- Pumwani Maternity Hospital roundabout and all the way to 1st, 2nd, 3rd Avenue to 17th, 18th and 19th streets.)
Also Eastleigh: K’naan. Soobax.
I lost myself in Eastleigh.
Wind passes in the long and wide streets, it wafts in the stalls giving the atmosphere a mixed smell of delicacies, perfumes, passenger buses and car emissions. Language changes from definitive Sheng’ street lingo to Arabic to various Bantu dialects.
These combinations and layers of reggae and other sounds leave one bare and with others, thoughts of boiling blood and of the sun burning violently above.
On a stoop of a second-hand book joint, a tattered Anna Karenina (that I ignore) nests under a layer of dust. A copy of an old print on Iran-Iraq War reviews, poems and essays in Swahili titled “Vita baina ya Haki na Batili” printed in Tehran in 1985 costs me 100 bob.
I wanted to see Calif again, but I lost myself. I might have rubbed myself against it, a small portion of it, a block, a people. I got some coconut powder for home. Later on Google Maps as I tried to locate the way I might have taken, everything was a blur and just lines on a screen. The memory of the long streets fades me, Captain Mungai St., Major Kinyanjui St., Muratina St. (formally known as Ainsworth Street), and a wish of a toke to quench a faded youth thirst of when Calif Records was a thing consumed me. I rest where Major Kinyanjui St. meets Muratina St., on the latter’s kanjo sign, I sneak a photo, for the meme Muratina as a street name conjures up.
Somewhere in Wood Street, Slim Ali’s famous balcony faces out to a pandemic, fully masked or chin masked or not masked at all, the urgency seems to have dwindled, the fear of an immediate coronavirus death now is a distant memory for some. Those who are observing the protocols in Nairobi and elsewhere, do so in the uncertainties of the many that stopped to bother. To flatten a curve is now not a health issue but a question of labour. When the so-called “COVID relief fund” has gone to a few pockets like where most government loans are known to go to, what more’s left to be done?
© 2020 SOUND OF NAIROBI