Nairobi’s Infrastructure: The Darker Potential of Innovation and Development

Posted on June 24, 2011

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I’ve made note of it before briefly, but it deserves its own post: I have to make a comment or two on infrastructure in Nairobi.

If you drive through the city, you’ll notice that you’re failing to notice one major thing: any sort of traffic signal or road sign whatsoever. The idea of traffic control is possibly the most foreign concept imaginable here. Sure, a man walks out into the street with a cap and uniform and tries to wave people along, but the rule is one of might and mighty altruism—muscling through congestion and intersections, waiting forever unless you have a level of boldness unheard of outside of New York, and then benevolently letting those less self-confident pass before you, slowing to allow the pedestrians to scatter in fear, and smirking at your own power and goodness.

All the worse, public transit off the main roads is done via a vehicle called a matatu—like the Ghanaian trotro, it’s usually a Nissan Minibus with all the seats stripped out, a gaggle of grabbing hands and sweaty chests mashed together barreling down the road, sometimes against traffic, hoping to god every driver is altruistic. There’s only one Spinal Injury Hospital in the city, and it’s not easy to access. And the risk of being thrown from a matatu in a wreck of human flesh if for some reason the amazing order within this anarchy breaks down … well, the thought does not bare thinking about for more than a few moments.

That’s all understandable. As I’ve mentioned, this city grew far too fast for any sort of infrastructure to match it adequately. An exploding population of migrants from the countryside, especially during periods of downturn and independence, does not encourage upward growth. And when you sprawl while undergoing turmoil, defining yourself as a nation, and sprawl so quickly as Nairobi did, any attempt at reeling it all in would be more cataclysmic and depressing than a simple amount of apathy and faith in the populace to preserve their own lives.

Now that the population has stabilized and the economy and political climate done something similar to stabilizing, it’s time to think about the development of infrastructure, and the phasing in of legal restrictions and educational measures that would help to slowly transform the roads of Nairobi within the next ten years. But for now the best the government can do is attempt to slow traffic down enough to encourage thought and consideration for the lives and wellbeing of others. And how does one slow down traffic?

Just throw up huge bumps in the road that force cars to decelerate from 80 kmph to 10 kmph on major roads. If one values life, it’s a great move, far preferable to giving drivers total free reign before the government and the city can slowly sort out the situation as a whole. But if one values their sanity and a commute less than three hours more than the life of some jackass on the road who shouldn’t be in his/her goddamned way anyway, well the blocks and bumps do nothing more than to extend the chaos and congestion of Nairobi streets.

And the longer the commute, the more polluted, the angrier, and the less efficient this city is. Inefficiency, that’s the word of the hour for infrastructural inadequacy in this city.

The entire city suffers from fairly frequent rolling blackouts. This office depends on electricity for most of its functions. Whenever the power goes out and stays out for more than a few hours, I crack a book and wait and see if it comes back. But most everyone else just calls it a day. It’s impossible to meet a deadline or set a realistic goal if you can lose a whole day, a whole week, with no recourse and only the acceptance of a high and cruel deity to fall back upon.

At tea the other day, someone here told me about how the middle class is the bane of development in young nations. Counterintuitive to the western narrative, so I was a bit taken aback, but I heard him out.

The rich, he said, have little motivation to mediate between government and the poor—they are totally insulated from the streets of Nairobi. It’s the middle class that still feels the effects of infrastructural inadequacies, who can still empathize with those in the slums or even those living the humdrum life of Nairobi. It’s that class that has the clout and the reason to channel support and aggravation into political action, to actually expedite the evolution of the nation, the development of the streets, the security and efficiency of the office.

But the middle class has ready access to innovative technologies invented by the new global elite—folks like Elon Musk who like to think they’re doing a service to the development of the world. Power goes out? Generators have become incredibly efficient and incredibly cheap. Problems with the water? Purification and storage tanks are similarly easy to acquire. Wealth equals the absolution of civic duty, the end of any incentive to mobilize action and see improvement in the nation. The cost of action times the duration of the implementation of change is far higher than the cost of purchase times the product of operating costs by lifespan.

Interesting, that—the way in which an innovation we think will solve a vital problem and enable the development of the globe actually does more to create a dissonance between the classes that might have once allied. Interest, that—the way in which modernization does not mean stabilization and equitable profit from progress, but rather disparity and discontent in the developing world. Interesting, that—the reason Nairobi may slowly creep towards infrastructural development, but only slowly, painfully, inefficiently, only a shadow of what really could happen in this city if there really were a fire under the ass of the middle class.

For now, Kibera gets bigger, and its problems remain constant (despite some strange steps to develop intra-slum banking, governance and welfare). And everyone who struggles his/her way out of Kibera gets sucked into the vortex of tranquility that is the higher-class life. For now, matatus rush over gargantuan speed bumps and leave many crippled and hopeless.

Let’s hope that token of change, which will eek its way forward over the next generation, is at least notable and effective. I have my doubts though.

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