Moving Up in Upper Hill, Nairobi

Sprouting up in every field
Yes, this is still Africa
Back in the 1960’s, the Upper Hill section of Nairobi was the enclave of the rich. It had nice homes surrounded by gardens above the bustle of Nairobi proper, but still very close to the city. After independence, many of the white landowners turned their property over to Kenyans.

By the time I first visited in 2004, it seemed a run-down neighbourhood. Those old homes were not kept up, and the gardens long gone. In fact, the Upper Hill seemed downtrodden enough to have a hostel there, Upper Hill Campsite, where I stayed.

Now flash forward to 2009, and Upper Hill is on the up and up. Those old homes and Upper Hill campsite is gone. replaced by shiny new office buildings. For me its the most obvious sign that the days of Daniel arap Moi have passed, and Kenya is taking its rightful place as a capital of East Africa. The Wikipedia confirms what I saw:

Companies that have moved from the CBD to Upper Hill include Citibank and in 2007, Coca Cola began construction on their East and Central African headquarters in Upper Hill, cementing the district as the preferred location for office space in Nairobi.

The largest office development in this area is the Rahimtulla Tower, which is primarily occupied by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. World Bank is also located in Upper Hill

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, note that old ways are still strong. Camels are still in Upper Hill, and empty lots still have “Beware 419” signs. And after last year’s riots after the election, business seems to have stalled overall.

Change doesn’t stall. And so Nairobi’s skyline is in constant flux, now growing up the side of Upper Hill, and into Karen and beyond, even if takes a few years longer than Nairobians hoped.

Meet me in Nairobi, Abjua, or Accra

How I roll in Africa
I’m headed to Africa soon for three weeks of meetings and trainings in Nairobi, Abuja, and Accra for Inveneo. I’ll be in each city about a week, and would love to meet up with loyal Belly Button Window readers if you’re around.

See, while I am a fanatic proponent of web-based discourse – I’m publishing at least six different blogs right now – I’m convinced that online discourse is an amplification of offline, in-person connections. In fact, I believe that online conversations are not possible without some level of face-to-face discussions between participants.

Or as a friend once said “meatspace has the highest bit rate” And I haven’t connected with that many Belly Button readers in a while.

I’ll be traveling through Africa in accordance with this general itinerary:

  • Nairobi the week of July 27th
  • Abuja the week of August 3
  • Accra the week of August 10

If you’re in any of those cities when I am there, or know someone I should meet, then please let me know. And if you’d like to follow along on this adventure, be sure to subscribe to Belly Button Window in one of three ways:

As always, I’ll be recording this adventure for your enjoyment here.

A Taxing Music Copyright Society of Kenya

Musical copyright protection or personal wealth creation?

music tax
Kenyan music tax taxi sticker
Back in the day, I chose my Kenyan matatu by its paint job and musical selection – the more wild and African the better. But today the matatus of Nairobi are quiet, their proud African voices silenced by a music tax.

The Music Copyright Society of Kenya has put a tax on the sounds of Africa by requiring that matatus pay Sh2,000 ($27) or more to MCSK in royalties to play music in their share-ride vans. Now that may not sound like much money, but it’s the concept that strikes me (and a few matatu drivers) as crooked.

Matatus, taxis, and other commercial passenger vehicles usually play the radio or CD’s. With the radio, it’s the broadcasters that should have already paid royalties. With CD’s and tapes, how can the MCSK make such a blanket tax without knowing if the music was legally bought or even made by the musicians they represent? Its not like MCSK is passing on the royalties to Bob Marley or any other Western artist. Its not even paying it own members all that much.

MCSK is making money from Kenyans. By going after everyone from radio broadcasters and concert promoters, to bars and restaurants, down to hotels and cyber cafes MCSK is pulling in over Sh60 million (almost $1 million) a year. Yet its paying its 1,300 musician members a base Sh6,000 ($8) per year, with the highest payment only Sh 300,000 ($4,000).

You can do the math to see that MCSK’s royalty income far exceeds its payments. Where might this money be going? Trainings in 2005 sure do not impress. I wonder if the staff salaries would?

Kenya: Royalties Collection Agency Marks First Great Year
‘Toothless’ Music Society Out to Regain Former Glory
The return of the ‘oldies’

Serena Hotel’s Impressive Nairobi Skyline

An African capitol’s captivating view from luxury

nairobi skyline
Nice view, eh?
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…

A Whole New Nairobi

Watch Out! Kenya is back like a heart-attack

new nairobi
Building a new Nairobi
no bribes here
A whole new mind-set
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.

Arriving in Kenya last night, I realized I was wrong. First off, my taxi from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was relatively new and clean, not the wire and bubble gum jalopies of past. Then, when downtown, I was first struck by the streetlights. They were on. And their glow illuminated a city alive at night. Nairobians were up, out, and about, dressed fine and crime not on their mind.

Asking the driver, and then dozens of Kenyans over the next week, I came to understand that Kibaki’s election was a real watershed for the whole city. Gone was Nairobi’s outward criminal element (corruption is still endemic) and down was the random street crime. While Nairobi is still Nai-robbery – a friend’s side view mirror was stolen from his car while he sat in traffic – it’s not the same city as before.

Now it is similar to any other large African city. Keep your wits and your jewels about you. Don’t be stumbling down a street drunk at night, and always fear the Mad House. Yet, enjoy its energy, its beauty, and above all, enjoy its people.

Nairobi is back!