Under pressure in high-rise Nairobi: the perils and promises of masculinity in Kenya’s capital 

Guest post written by Mario Schmidt, author of the book Migrants and Masculinity in High-Rise Nairobi.

When I left the bus I had boarded almost an hour before in Nairobi’s central business district, I stepped into a world I had not expected. Hundreds of people crisscrossed the roads, hooting moto-taxis and lorries fighting for space with hawkers who sold all kinds of things on the narrow roads, from rat poison to children’s toys. During my first visit the dense and overcrowded atmosphere of the high-rise settlement, Pipeline, made me feel disoriented, almost dizzy. When we reached my friend’s single room apartment after I had followed him for roughly twenty minutes, I had to sit down on a sofa first, to breathe and regain my orientation. Competing with the loud noises from outside – pastors warning bypassing residents about the devil, the newest ohangla music blaring from across the corridor, and couples arguing about whatsoever – I confessed to my friend that he needs to accompany me back to the bus stage later. Otherwise, I feared getting lost in one of the estate’s hundreds of bypasses or being sucked into a bar, gulping down cold beers while eating hot mturaa, Nairobi’s famous sausage, and trying to ward off the advances of sex workers who advertise their yellow-yellow thighs for a dollar and a half. 

Having one of the world’s highest population densities, Pipu is the first urban contact point for many internal migrants who come to Nairobi in search of a better life. It not only offers its over 200,000 residents cheap shelter, affordable food and clothes, as well as a wide variety of capitalist entertainment options, but also allows us a glimpse into a future of Kenya’s capital that has increasingly grown vertically for the last fifteen years. New high-rise towers open every other day, fueling migrants’ dreams of capitalist consumption and investors’ fantasies of endless and automated money growth while they stretch the city’s infrastructure to its limits. As I was fascinated by the estate’s architecture, history, and emerging forms of high-rise sociality from the first day, I decided to rent an apartment in one of the intimidating tenements in August 2019. Though unplanned, I ended up staying in Pipeline for three years until September 2022. During this time I was increasingly drawn into the daily lives of my male friends whose struggles, hopes, and experiences of pressure, as well as the latter’s often debilitating side-effects – such as, among others, headache, insomnia, aggressiveness, tiredness and depression – are the focus of Migrants and Masculinity in High-Rise Nairobi

The book zooms in on how migrant men from predominantly, but not exclusively, western Kenya, navigate the economic and romantic expectations of their rural and urban intimate others and how they try to overcome and evade the pressure caused by these expectations. Following male migrants into more or less male-only social spaces – such as gyms, bars, pool and video-game parlors, masculinity workshops, as well as the increasingly influential sphere of the so-called online “manosphere” – Migrants and Masculinity in High-Rise Nairobi paints a sympathetic, yet critical picture of migrant men and their attempts to navigate the promises and perils of masculinity in the twenty-first century. Catalyzed by patriarchal and capitalist narratives that peg masculine virtue to economic success and promise migrant men power over women and other men, pressure in high-rise Nairobi is both embraced and rejected by male migrants. They socialize with one another to forget about their frustrations and to refuel the energy they require to keep on trying to fulfill the expectations of their loved ones and survive in Kenya’s often brutal capitalist society, against all odds.  

MARIO SCHMIDT is a senior research specialist at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi and an associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale). Apart from exploring notions of masculinity among rural-urban migrants, he is interested in the effects of evidence-based development aid interventions across East Africa and the epistemological and ethical foundations of the behavioral sciences. 

Migrants and Masculinity in High-Rise Nairobi is available to read free online as anOpen Access eBookavailable under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND. 

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