Nairobi's Bubble

The birds begin their routine at 6:30am. At 7:30 am, the thudding starts. It is consistent, steady, irregular, the sound of my arrhythmic beating heart. “Thud, thud, thud, thud… thud, thud…. thud, thud, thud…” It is the sound of concrete and steel being hammered into compliance as buildings rise from empty and near empty lots across Nairobi’s sprawling city limits. 

The new apartment building coming up next to my aunt’s house, the one that wakes me up unlike the alarm clock whose snooze button I have learned to manipulate, has been growing for months now in contrast to the week that I have been here. When I ask my aunt how long it will take to be completed, she says, “Who knows? It looks like they’re putting an elevator in it. It depends on how many floors they want.” 

The dust that has been spilling over into her compound and sifting in through her windows to trouble the housemaid, is the only engagement she has been afforded with the ghost of a building scaling her compound walls. The hammering follows me down Arwings Khodek Road, trailing behind me on Ring Road Parklands, obfuscating my vision and clouding my breath.

It is inescapable. Nairobi is growing rapidly, bursting at the seams. Like an obese child who cannot await the rotundness of their later years.

I have heard it said, not once, not twice, “Nairobi is becoming like Dubai.” Construction is hard to evade, eager to fill up our skyline; low and high alike. Standing on the 16th floor of the Delta Corner Towers building in Westlands, encased by glass, I am transported to the Manhattan skyline. It is replicating itself in the dual commerce centers of the Central Business District and Upper Hill, interspersed with Nairobi’s lush greenery, which seems easier to find this high up than on street level. I am awed. I am in love. I am afraid. 

View from the 16th floor of the Westland's Delta Corner Towers; Central Business District (CBD)on the L, Upper Hill on the R.

View from the 16th floor of the Westland's Delta Corner Towers; Central Business District (CBD)on the L, Upper Hill on the R.

The boom and bust that left ghosts of buildings, emptying wallets and retirement accounts in the America I have just returned from is still very fresh in my memory. A student of economics in those first years when no one knew when the floor had started to give way or when it would stop, I had sat in classes deconstructing the casualties around us as America slid into economic crisis. I wrote papers and read the reports on the things happening in that other great center of commerce—Europe. Ireland, Spain, Greece, Portugal, France... 

The bubble had burst, we were told. Our theories were in free fall.

Since the ‘Great Depression’ had already been taken, they named it the Great Recession. I wonder what they will call ours as my brother lists off rent prices and mortgages for apartments and houses that most Kenyans can never afford. Have never been able to afford. 

On our way home, we drive past the never ending Kibera slums, speeding down the shiny, new Southern Bypass—a gift from our new Chinese friends that had come with some unintended consequences (but such is the price of development). I am forced to look away as the minutes go by and the shanties do not. Later, when I sit down with two former high school friends and they tell me about the Kibera tours handed out to eager tourists, I cringe even further. A city teeming with new housing while housing one of the largest slums in Africa. 

Kibera Slums as viewed from above.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Kibera Slums as viewed from above.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nairobi is in the midst of a great exhale, breathing heavily, expelling everything in its lungs, stretching the membrane of the city, the skyline, of wallets and dreams. And much like balloons, it is not the internal pressure of the inequity of the two Nairobis that will be our undoing, but instead the stress in the membrane of our imagination as we dare to believe that our growth can be both limitless and lucrative. 

When the time comes and the bubble bursts, I hope—at least—that we are more imaginative and colorful in our naming. 

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.