New Nairobi House Numbers

Proud of his shop!

Now that I have a half-million dollar mortgage, I always need to fix this or that. I am always improving my humble abode. From the little to the big, it’s a constant work in progress I cannot even escape when traveling for work.

There I was in Westlands, a suburb of Nairobi, waiting for my boss. We were going to have dinner at Mediterrane, what turned out to be a five hour gabfest about work. But before then, I was looking at the Westlands city council shops.

These are not African shopkeeper Zen abodes. No, these are old school shanties selling all manner of household goods and services. Goods and services I was wondering if I needed for my home. Studying each shop’s wares closely, the sign shop intrigued me the most.

With all manner of hand painted signs, the artisans involved were churning out visual cues and information for Kenya’s millions. I was first attracted by the funky yellow taxi signs, and thought of buying one. Still, I couldn’t figure out a good use for it.

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Serena Hotel’s Impressive Nairobi Skyline

This week I’m staying in the Nairobi Serena Hotel, an oasis of luxury in the lush tropical gardens of Nairobi’s Central Park, and my hotel room has breath-taking views of Nairobi’s skyline – an African success story writ in glass and steel.

But don’t just take my word for it. Talk a video gander at my hotel room view for yourself:

Now don’t you want to be in the Serena Hotel yourself right now? Swimming in the pool on a warm summer day, with that skyline peeking past the attentive staff? I know I do…

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African Shopkeeper Zen

shopkeeper zen
Proud of his shop!

How can you make an African shopkeeper happy? How can you also make him legal, and hopefully move him or her from the informal to the formal economy of his country? In Kenya you can do this quickly and easily by building a kiosk.

For years under the Moi administration, small shops operated in every unimproved stretch of street that had decent foot traffic. Over time, these shops created their own traffic, their own economies of scale that, on occasion, the government would take exception to.

Then the shops would be razed, destroying livelihoods, commerce, dreams of the very poor African shopkeeper, the very people who were working the hardest to escape poverty. This cycle kept the illegal squatters from improving their shops too much, creating the very eyesores that brought the government bulldozers.

As part of the whole new Nairobi, the city council is changing its ways. It is now building strong, permanent shops for shopkeepers, replacing tin with metal, scrap wood with concrete, dreams with reality.

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A Whole New Nairobi

nairobi construction
Building a new Nairobi

In the 1990’s, Kenya’s capitol developed a reputation as a center of thievery and lawlessness. People would be harassed by glue-sniffing street kids, their cars robbed of anything valuable, and any respectable citizen fled the city at sunset. That’s why they called it “Nai-robbery.”

When I was here in January 2003, President Mwai Kibaki had just been elected, ending twenty-seven years of rule by Daniel arap Moi, rule that became exponentially more corrupt over time. Kibaki’s arrival was greeted by two weeks of parties, the country rejoicing over the change, with optimism so high it frothed over in the streets of Nairobi.

For the first time in decades the zebra crossings were re-painted and cars stopped for pedestrians. Traffic police were refused bribes with drivers requesting a real ticket instead. The whole country seemed to cleanse itself overnight. At the time, I was impressed, but I didn’t think it would last.

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