There was a time when, to navigate around Nairobi, you only needed to know the shape of one building. Not even the name, although that was important if you got too lost, but just the shape. You know the one, the one whose shape we were told a few years ago was inspired by a donkey’s heft. If you found it, you knew to orient yourself in this green city in the sun, and go to your date. Which most likely begun at the same place outside a shoe shop, where you could both still see that one building.
In case you haven’t noticed, that’s almost impossible now. Nairobi’s skyline is raging with new and imposing buildings, with glass facades and lengths that make the city’s former center piece look small, very small. If you get lost now, like a Ugandan friend of mine who had a physical map but was looking at it upside down, you are mostly on your own. Although you could just use Google Maps, or talk to an Inama Bookshop vendor nicely, both of which make things too easy. To truly experience a city, you need to get lost in it.
At more than a century in, Nairobi has changed more in the past two decades than in the century before. Not only in expansion-can you even tell where it ends now?-but in height. This city that was never meant to be a city, just a temporary stop, is now unstoppable. Everything is getting taller and bigger, and it feels like Nairobi is growing new parts we didn’t even know it had.
A few weeks ago, I piggybacked on a NairobaeIGTour because I’m now too lazy to explore the city on my own. I was the official day time guide for the inaugural edition in 2017, and one of the few who made it to the next morning, but each time I join the crew, it feels like I’m seeing an entirely new city. Which also means I had a crown to lose, since the basic concept of the tour is a 24-hour run around Nairobi. The last person standing gets bragging rights, and a maddening hangover.
So when the Whatsapp images started checking in at 6 a.m, I put the phone on silent and covered myself again. Nairobi looked cold, gloomy, like it was in a bad mood because it hadn’t had its coffee yet. “I feel you,” I muttered to myself.
In a cab three hours later racing to join the tour, I looked at the images again. If you’ve been to any of the rooftops of Nairobi’s tallest buildings, then you know that feeling. It comes after the adrenaline of being ‘on top of the world’, when you realize that you think you know Nairobi, but you’ve never seen it like this. You might even feel a tad bit powerful that your ancestors never got to see this glorious, messy city like this. And you are here now, when its molting.
The morning part I’d missed was pretty simple, until you hear the details. There’s a new building, more of a complex, in Westlands, well technically between the city and Westlands, that will be one of the tallest towers when its complete next year. Actually, while researching for this article, I realized that all three of Global Trade Center’s towers will fit somewhere among the top tallest buildings. The tallest of them is 184m, the next 143m, and the third 103m. Don’t get bogged down with the details, just know that these things are tall, really tall. And architects take these things seriously, it turns out, because they measure it from ground to tip.
Later that day, as I avoided the briefing and hid in the Global Trade Center’s cigar room, I dove into the marketing materials. The idea here, it seems, is that once you go in, you will never need to come out, unless of course you need to visit relas or renew passport. An apartment will set you back 22 to 44 million, depending on how big you want everything to be, and of course, whether you can afford it. And everything here is in superlatives- …“tallest building”…“largest private club”…”city within a city.” It will also have a boutique mall, a 5-star hotel, and many many other things that just boil down to one question: what would you do if you had everything in one place? But the convenience of living in a city within a city is one thing, the soul, another.
The reason I hadn’t joined the briefing is because I don’t like being shown around new places. Unless there are hippos around, of course. I don’t know why movies portray hippos as cuddly beings-they are the most dangerous things that nature ever made!
Being shown around a place forces me to listen, and see things as they are described. I want to feel the soul of a place, how it looks when no one is around, how it feels when no one is describing it. Which is why I had propped myself on a leather couch in the cigar room, staring at the paintings on the walls and disturbing the wait staff.
At some point, I overhead a sales lady describing Waiyaki Way as “one of Nairobi’s busiest thoroughfares,” which made me chuckle. I couldn’t see her, so I didn’t know she was pointing at the scale model of this entire place. In that model, which I studied like a crazy man later, Waiyaki Way looked serene, dreamy, unreal. I wanted someone around to ask the vital questions, like where are those mean drivers who refuse to give you way when they can tell you want to switch from Chiromo to the other side of the road?
The reason I wanted to sit there, alone, is because I wanted to feel the soul of the place. Unlike almost everyone else, I hadn’t been up 12hrs earlier on one of its highest floors, seeing this Nairobi I love and hate from a whole new angle. So this was my chance to experience it, ask its walls to talk to me, and stare at the ceiling.
Do you know how expensive places tend to feel like too much thought, and money, have gone into the place? That unnerving feeling that makes you want to sit upright, keep you head up, nod and smile at everyone who passes by? This one doesn’t feel like that.
I’m not sure it feels like home, but perhaps it might for its target audience. But it didn’t feel uncomfortable, which is a bigger win for me than everything else. That I wanted the barman’s lighter though, which he shared and then returned to a bottom drawer for safekeeping from my thieving eyes, is another matter altogether.
(All images courtesy of Turn Up Travel)
Author– Owahh ( He is a writer, researcher and blogger at www.owaahh.com He also moonlights as a freelance journalist. He spends most of his time digging into and investigating mysteries, beating stories into shape, and eating bananas.)