Nairobi in the Making

How does one manage the remains of the past? Constance Smith echoes #rhodesmustfall and decolonial deliberations in her new book: Nairobi in the Making.

In 2015, a new shout went up around the University of Cape Town. Rhodes! Must! Fall! Student protests brought down the bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes that decorated the campus, a monument to the im­­perial fantasist and former prime minister of the British Cape Colony and early mastermind of British interests in the ‘scramble for Africa’. The #rhodesmustfall campaign continues to reverberate, not only in South Africa but at the University of Oxford, where a statue of Rhodes features on the façade of Oriel College, and on university campuses further afield. This antipathy towards colonial statuary is a symbolic (and media-savvy) element of a more fundamental decolonial movement: the need to address structural racism in universities, to critically examine the texts and voices that form the educational canon, and to lay bare the insidious ways colonialism continues to shape forms of knowledge production.

Central to these debates is the question of how to manage the remains of the past, whether they be material, textual, or discursive. As leaders of #rhodesmustfall are well aware, achieving institutional reform, decolonised curriculums and a more global, critically engaged, scholarship will take more than just demolishing monuments to colonial ‘big men’. Even so, the contested figure of Rhodes prompts some reflection. By removing statues, do we pretend that these figures never existed? What to do with the cast-off remains? Can we simply wipe clean problematic historical residues, scrubbing them from the record? What does this do to the politics of the future? Could we think about these statues, and their power and potentiality to inspire action, in a different way?

#rhodesmustfall and decolonial deliberations have reverberated throughout the writing of my new book, encouraging me to contemplate such questions. Nairobi in the Making explores the afterlives of colonial architecture in the Kenyan capital city, asking how material remnants from a previous era continue to influence the lives of Nairobians, shaping their relationship to the past as well as their ideas about the future. Buildings are some of the most enduring of human enterprises, often outlasting their designers, builders and intended occupants. If we take seriously the idea that architecture can embody and transmit the intentions of its makers, influencing the day-to-day behaviours of anyone from social housing tenants to airport passengers, then what happens once that architecture is out of its own time? Especially, what happens when buildings designed to implement colonial ideologies persist into a new political era? Do they continue to act, to influence ways of being?

The focus of my book is Kaloleni, a housing estate designed and constructed in the 1940s by British colonial authorities as a model neighbourhood for African families. It was intended as a holistic, all-encompassing environment that would produce the ideal colonial urban subjects of the future: compliant with British ideas of domesticity, sociality and discipline. Undertaking an ethnography of Kaloleni today, I thought I would find residents frustrated by colonial design, living with the consequences of a deeply problematic, yet still unfinished, history. Their neighbourhood is now rundown, and they face many challenges in managing its decaying infrastructure. Despite this, their relationship to place and home is not necessarily uncomfortable. Families described how, through decades of family life, home maintenance and DIY, they have rooted themselves in the estate, forging an attachment to an urban landscape which they have made their own.

Reconfiguring colonial architecture through DIY Kaloleni Estate 2014.

Kaloleni is now faced with demolition, as part of a wider state-led vision to turn Nairobi into a ‘world-class’ city. Exactly what will happen to residents is as yet unclear: the form of urban planning strategies remains ambiguous but looming overhead. My book follows residents as they try to anticipate this deeply uncertain future, reflecting on their place in Nairobi and how to ensure a future of urban belonging. I found that residents are turning towards the history of Kaloleni in ways that actively sought to recast its past, as well as the history of Nairobi and Kenya more broadly. Their history making practices have generated convincing, if unorthodox, narratives of property, belonging, and even of independence that put Kaloleni at the centre. ‘Kenya grew from here’, the chairman of the residents’ association told me; like a seed planted in the apparently inhospitable ground of colonial design, new ideas for the future took root. Today, Kalolenians are again crafting alternative futures, the material world of Kaloleni animating new ideas about belonging and critiques of the ‘world-class’ city. In their campaigns, residents are adamant that the place of Kaloleni should be preserved, not as a memorial to colonialism, but as a generative landscape that continues to foster a vibrant community unafraid to critique the present as well as the past.

Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki celebrate the KANU victory in Kenya’s first independent elections outside Kaloleni Social Hall, 1963. Image courtesy of Kenya Year Book.

The politics of the past – of how to manage it, remember it, and sometimes how to neutralise it – is and will never be a singular campaign. It is a challenge that every generation has to address on its own terms, making their own histories anew each time. The awakening of Rhodes’s bronze effigy as part of #rhodesmustfall suggests that, like relics, historical residues can still act in the present, animating new forms of political engagement even as they index contemptible historical actions. Life in Kaloleni taught me that to understand urban change we need to think about the incremental character of cities, as landscapes of accumulation built across time. We live with problematic residues of the past all around us, but through everyday acts of making, recrafting and rethinking, they can become platforms for critical action to live towards a different kind of future.


This guest post is written by Constance Smith, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester.

Nairobi in the Making
by Constance Smith
Hardback, 9781847012333, 20 b/w illus., £39 or $64.35

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