“It has been estimated that the richest 10 percent of the population of Nairobi accrues 45.2 percent of income, and the poorest 10 percent only 1.6 percent,” according to a 2009 study on urban poverty by Oxfam.
Statistics on inequality and poverty are ubiquitous in the developing world. They are often underwhelming, however, in their impact. What does 45.2 of income look like? What does “urban poverty” look like? As, of course, every statistic is relative. Whatever the answer, inequality in Nairobi is definitely visible from above.
Residents who are slated to be moved from either the planned railroad or highway improvements.
The Unequal Scenes I have found in Nairobi are a mixture of traditional “rich vs. poor” housing images, but also depictions of how infrastructure constrains, divides, and facilitates city growth, almost always at the expense of the poorest classes. Infrastructure, I've come to realize, represents the physical manifestation of inequality better than almost any other visual element - what Eyal Weizman calls "the surface of human inscription". Further, it seems to make the reality of back-room discussions and planning meetings actually real. It's where decisions, usually taken around a table by a group of powerful men, come alive.
For example, the Kilimani-Langata road extension that bisects Kibera, estimated to have displaced over 11,500 people and destroyed over 598 structures, including schools and clinics. Of course this road helps alleviate the city’s traffic problem, but does it cause more problems than it will solve? For example, just to the south, a new road has already cut off part of Kibera, causing people to cross it illegally, resulting in many deaths. Additionally, the benefits in the form of improved connection times for residents of Kibera - most of whom take packed minibuses called matutus - is unclear. From interviews with residents, it seems that the planned infrastructure upgrades haven't even taken into account the public opinion in a meaningful way. Is this the price we need to pay for progress? Are some people just born to lose?
It's important to understand that Nairobi is not just Kibera. A vibrant, educated middle class is quickly growing, turning the city into a center for innovation and tech industries, not just on the continent but worldwide. It's known as an incredibly international city - perhaps more than any other on the continent - due to the location of the UN and other major international business headquarters. Kenyans are friendly, welcoming, and the country is largely stable and peaceful. This growth, dynamism and overall - the people - contribute to make Nairobi one of the most fascinating cities in Africa.
In Nairobi, a city of chaos, dynamism, and incredible unequal growth, inequality is difficult to portray. Yes, it has poor urban slums, where every drainage is choked with tons of raw sewage and rubbish, and children play on live train tracks. But also, the wealthy parts of Nairobi are difficult to see. They are hidden behind gated communities, ensconced in shopping malls, or wrapped in dingy-looking apartment buildings. Moreover, researching these inequalities is made difficult by the lack of searchable data sets, a draconian drone flying environment, and Nairobi’s infamous traffic problems.