Heritage and the City: Kenyan Tradition in the Nairobi Metropolis

The 21st century in Nairobi has been characterized by the increased internal migration of ethnic groups from the countryside to the urban metropolis. Urbanisation has sped up as large numbers of people move into the city in the hopes of finding employment, education, healthcare, and other characteristics of a better, more comfortable life. Nairobi is a melting pot of traditions and cultures and a home for many of Kenya’s ethnic groups. The management and value of land is an area where different ethnic groups have varying ideologies. The approach to land between the Masaai and Kikuyu communities, for example, holds several distinct differences, demonstrating the wider challenge of interrelating the distinct architectures of the forty-two tribes that have lived in Kenya for generations.

The Masaai are a semi-nomadic tribe that traditionally lived between Kenya and Tanzania. The typical Masaai villages are designed on a radial layout where an outer boundary of thorns and dried branches protects the inhabitants from wild animals. As one progresses towards the centre, the most valued aspect of Masaai life becomes evident- the livestock, kept in the core of their village. Large amounts of land to freely roam are integral to the Masaai way of life; as they move into an increasingly crammed urban centre, shoulder pushing for space becomes evident.

“Nairobi is not formed purely of urban areas, but instead by collections of highly dense urban, suburban, and semi-rural areas. The feel of a city can be blurred by the lack of city grids and the presence of farmland for a few kilometres in either direction.”

In contrast, Kikuyu traditions have a deeper embedded history in subsistence farming around the fertile highlands of Kenya. Farming makes up the main source of income and livelihood, and the importance of land is central in the perception of a family’s standing in society; the more land, generally, the more affluent. In addition, land inheritance in the form of subdivision is a central element of the business ambitions of any Kikuyu man or woman. The value of increasingly cramped land increases, making the reorganisation of urban centre a necessity.

While Nairobi is now a metropolitan area with over 5 million residents, it is important to note that the development of the city was determined by the British before Kenya became independent. The city has distinct areas where different communities reside, and neighbourhoods are divided along ethnic lines. Although ethnic groups tend to group up together, interaction is inevitable in the city, and this leads to the creation of unique relationships and approaches to architecture. Nairobi is not formed purely of urban areas, but instead by collections of highly dense urban, suburban, and semi-rural areas. The feel of a city can be blurred by the lack of city grids and the presence of farmland for a few kilometres in either direction. This inconsistent urban sprawl, home to growing populations of most ethnic groups, has become a reflection of a multitude of traditional ideas blended in with a modern and international style.

As land around Nairobi becomes more subdivided and privately owned, what was once considered open and free roaming land begins to close and movement through the city is now through narrow streets and between fenced private properties. Masaai pastoralists who move into the city limits where public land is not necessarily available for grazing sometimes trespass into private property in search of greener pastures, laying claim to any grass by religious right.

Across Nairobi’s urban fabric, traditional ways of life become side-lined by the demands of a western idea of life. The Masaai’s identity is transformed, eroded from the traditional semi-nomadic way of life into salary-paying, daily shift jobs. The Kikuyu’s traditional relationship to land has been advantageous in Nairobi’s unique urban context. Since independence the Kikuyu have generally been the dominant tribe economically and politically, owning more land than most other tribes. This has meant that their tradition of land ownership is closely linked to the development and expansion of the urban metropolis, in some cases determining the landscape of social classes.

Nairobi acts as a uniquely complex urban core: merging traditions, integrating cultural identities, creating new relationships and rivalries between tribes, ‘westernising’ architecture, and creating a city deep with hugely rich cultural tradition. Looking forward, ethnic groups in Nairobi must understand and realize that cultural power and unique diversity is necessary to allow visual representations and architectures of Kenya to take a place on the world stage.


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