Whoever named this part of Ruaraka fell short of giving his uncle’s name. My first roots in
Nairobi were spread one year shy of the millennium, right here in Babadogo. I am that crop of
urban-to-urban migrants who came to the Big City in the Sun to visit relatives. Can you imagine
the dreamy-eyed gaze of a child mesmerized by this concrete jungle? There was tapped water in
your house all day, more than one television station, matatus that looked like art galleries and
boomed like discos, chips and chicken joints round every corner, a town with so many streets
that they named some after other African cities and leaders!
The name BabaDogo stretched beyond the tarmac that led into an industrial complex of factories and distributors of toiletries, medicaments, fish, processed foods, roofing materials, steel, brushes, vehicle spare parts, beauty products, trailers, seeds, shoes, clothing and agrochemicals. Like ants onto sugar, thousands of Nairobians work there and call BabaDogo, neighbouring Huruma, Kasarani, Mathare and Kariobangi home.
This complex mushroomed in the 1980s and has since grown to house several multinationals. The nearest housing complexes to the industries form the greater part of Kasabuni and Riverside. Here one finds stories of apartments that stand shoulder to shoulder like giants at war; consider them Nairobian wonders because of how every rule in the urban planning book was overlooked.
The children have BabaDogo and Chandaria primary as their public schools, right opposite the matatu terminus that occasionally parks buses travelling upcountry to Western Kenya. Evenings at Kasabuni, Kariadudu or Riverside are very noisy with hordes of people treading streets where peddlers sell various factory products at prices cheaper than supermarket ones.
Some of the wares were discounted staff purchases while others had failed the factory quality test. Some factories held sporadic sales that sold wares at gate price while others had cheap gate prices all year long- a Nairobian hustler’s secret. Nearby was Kariobangi where counterfeiters could reproduce every single product and give these manufacturers a run for their money. Quality in BabaDogo is a spectrum based on price.
There are wage-earners who scuffle for the limited casuals slots at the factory gates from dawn. This hand-to-mouth life grew the Ngomongo shanties to a collage of stone, mabati, concrete and mud houses. Like I said, quality in BabaDogo is a spectrum and landlords here generally demand less rent than adjoining neighbourhoods.
The “plots” as they are called, are enclosures of one or two-roomed partitions with the common lavatories and limited personal space that always sparks a spat between occupants. A foreigner in Ngomongo is easily noticeable as a resident would be at ease with the maze of houses that is devoid of landmarks. I can only recognise the entrance/exit which is the red metal bridge that links BabaDogo to Ngomongo, as it passes over the green waters of River Mathari.
Beyond the tarmac of BabaDogo, there once existed an expanse of scrub and riverine reeds. This was not a game park and Nairobians’ appetite for land had not yet swelled. Far-sighted investors like my relatives marshaled their Sacco savings (bank loans were for the rich back in the 1990s) and dared to build. The vendor of this land was said to be an old man, closely knit to the first president of this country. The rumour mills spoke of a different ownership that perhaps the Truth Reconciliation and Justice Report will reveal one day. In the Nairobian spirit of weird naming, some fellow that was high on his luck decided to name this peri-urban estate Lucky Summer.
Lucky Summer or Lucky in short, grew from the infrastructure of BabaDogo, at a snail pace. My relatives spent a whole six months waiting for electricity connection; it was laughable that they lived in the capital city. The matatus’ final stop was BabaDogo, therefore getting to Lucky Summer safely at night meant paying a Maasai moran twenty to fifty shillings to be escorted to one’s gate. Despite there being a police post next to the abattoir at the furthest end of Lucky Summer, robberies abounded. These morans were paid monthly by the neighbourly watch which marshaled every household to contribute 100 shilling per month for night patrols. Unlike other well-established residential areas of Nairobi, Lucky Summerians were frontiers of their own paradise.
There was and still is the dust that never forgave us for encroaching on riverine territory. Lucky’s dust made any efforts to clean your house futile, especially when the children played outside. However, for those who lived in Upper Lucky Summer, the dust was nothing compared to the stench and eye sore that was the Dandora dumpsite. Lucky housed all of Nairobi’s poison and this was so unbearable that opening one’s window for fresh air beyond five p.m. was unthinkable. By dusk, the incineration produced a giant dome of smoke and a field of orange that evoked my imagination of Grecian Hades. Dirt and dust made land very affordable but Lucky Summer was competing with places like Mwiki, Kiambu or Kahawa Sukari which had more appeal. River Mathari’s green waters carried effluent all the way from Mathare and sometimes a miasma of raw sewage hung about until your nose established equilibrium.
Childhood games in Lucky Summer were nothing short of adventure. We chased hares through thickets of Lantana and Aloe, raced paper boats on the tributaries of River Mathari, shouted down our echoes at the three-metre deep quarries and spent hours searching for Mimosa plants to touch as we watched their leaves cringe. The worst luck was being the seeker all morning only to see one’s playmates return at lunchtime, sucking and chewing all variants of candy from their hideout at the confectionary in BabaDogo. The typical Kenyan entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and by and by we had shops, churches, mosques, schools and apartments come up.
Upper Lucky Summer(found uphill) had Biashara Central with bars, fishmongers, a carwash at a remnant of a swamp, clinics, a dirt-field called Kiwanja where children played soccer and cyber cafes. Lower Lucky Summer was sparsely populated and thieves had a headstart before the call for help was sounded. I left Nairobi as a child at the end of my holiday and returned as vicenarian eleven years later, ten decades into the millennium. Nairobi was on a growth spurt and economic tides heralded a property boom.
There was not an idle parcel of land that was given a mere single glance: land agents sprout all over and the price of land was skyrocketing like those zealous joggers heading uphill towards Kasarani. There were towers of apartments all over, gated and named as courts. The most important way to secure one’s land was to build anything on it; you would get tenants even before you embarked on finishing touches. Otherwise Somali herders would be grazing their large droves of sheep in your plot or you would constantly be warding off squatters and their mabati shacks as they complain to journalists how they have been there since independence. There were more people, getting cosmopolitan by the day.
One had their choice of mama mboga for the latest gossip and groceries, their butcher who swore the meat was fresh after the blackout, their tailor that got the kitenge design right and their cobbler/keycutter/ who always had a roasted maize stand or a smoked sausage trolley nearby. At strategic corners were motorcycle bases where from thirty shillings you could get a taxi ride faster than any route twenty five matatu. The morans were now grocers and rampant as insecurity was (we twice had a shootout and street roundup), each corner of residential quarters was gated and sirens placed at specific houses. The thieves from Lucky raided Muthaiga or Kahawa while those from Dandora and Kariobangi raided Lucky-that was the word on the street.
Noise could be Gor Mahia fans marshaling their green army, pupils at assembly or break, spectators at a sports event, worshippers praising or people squealing at the nieghbourhood camels.
BabaDogo is spreading fast beyond its ward boundaries. LuckySummer is the offshoot that was once a sleeping and holds much promise. As the Dandora landfills are closed, the allure of green lawns testifies to this. One can hope that the roads will be tarmacked and the rivers cleaned just as the citizens keep the fire to do better for their survival.