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Ideas & Debate

Nairobi needs to reclaim its golden allure to charm poets

Uhuru Park
Nairobians at Uhuru Park in Nairobi on January 1. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT  

Has Nairobi lost its charm? Today I take a break from my usual genre to provide a commentary on the degradation of Nairobi’s charm.

Nairobi, being the political and commercial capital of Kenya, is the golden fishbowl of all individual economic ambitions. It has borne the brunt of post-colonial rural-urban migration due to its ever-burning oven that keeps baking the so-called national cake.

It gets empty over holidays as its migrant inhabitants retreat to share their slices of the national cake in villages. As the economy has grown to become even lighter, it’s class demographics has also changed over time.

In his timeless ballad, Lunchtime, Gabrielle Omolo paints a vivid picture of the class difference in a bustling city, by describing a scenario, where lunchtime choices are dictated by economic power; from those people unable to afford lunch, taking in fresh air in open parks to wind down the lunch hour, to those who enjoy five-course meals.

Although he doesn’t mention the city, the description in the song fits Nairobi. In the midst of all these, Nairobi is supposed to maintain a distinct identity; from mannerisms, cuisine, entertainment to dressing. All are supposed to convey its identity.

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No one conveys that identity better than poets and artistes. When the two fall in love with a city, they give it a poetic description that helps reinforce that city’s identity.

Canadian singer and songwriter Loreena McKennitt poetically brings out the charm of Instanbul, Turkey’s famed commercial hub, in her song, Gates of Instanbul. In a way, what gives a city its charm are the great poets and musicians who live(d) there.

In my late teens, the late musician E-Sir, in one of his timeless descriptions of Nairobi nightlife entertainment, made us fall in love with the city’s entertainment scene.

From his description of entertainment spots, his words chiseled the image of a city that is eager to entertain.

It’s a worry that there are no artistes (or poets) interested in archiving Nairobi’s identity or even redrawing the city in the musical map. Perhaps one cannot blame them. The city is choking and has lost its old charm.

Major streets within its central business district are potholed, partly due to a drainage system that is unable to cope. Street lights stopped working and the people paid to maintain them are simply indifferent.

Traffic lights within major intersections gave in to the very indifference long time ago. Hawkers have invaded major pavements, rendering them impassable, not to mention the usual matatu menace.

Cities with charm are poeticised even beyond their boundaries. For instance, there are many books about Paris (as the city of love), something which speaks to the fact that art is generally an unrestricted culture (it doesn’t the matter language or jurisdiction).

Nairobi has also demonstrated the same in the past when Congolese songbird Mbilia Bel, in her song Nakei Nairobi, talks about going to Nairobi to evacuate a childhood friend who wasn’t doing well and in process, brings Nairobi to her musical map.

As the Turkish writer Yahya Kemal said; “our novels are our songs”. Nairobi needs to get back its golden allure and restore its poetics. Perhaps the city should be designated as a national government territory.

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