For many Kenyans, there was always comfort in living in city apartments near workplaces, schools, entertainment spots, and shopping malls, which saved them the trouble of commuting for long hours.
However, as the Covid-19 pandemic graduates from an acute distraction to a long-term disturbance, city residents trapped in small apartments with little or no outdoor space are feeling suffocated.
Now homeowners are outfitting their homes with backyard resting spots and outdoor spaces that offer extra room to relax, work or exercise from, unsure how long the coronavirus threat will persist.
Homeowners living on small plots are becoming creative. Some rooftops may be relegated for hanging out clothes, storing water tanks, and smoking, but to others, these are mini-paradises with lots of greenery.
In Nairobi’s Parklands estate, Meerabella Shah has turned her rooftop into a miniature garden.
It is impossible to imagine her delightful rooftop, filled with colours and smells inspired by nature was once an open, concrete space.
“Every time I take the stairs to the rooftop, it’s like I’m going to a paradise far away,” she says as we walk up to see the wonder that she has created.
I was not prepared for what I saw. On my right, she has placed an indoor metallic swing, with Ankara cushions and throw pillows.
A jewellery designer by profession at Suhani Mara Designs, here is where Meerabella sits to draw inspiration for her jewellery collection.
On the right side, she has put two seats/tabletops made from old tyres and painted pink and blue. Then on both sides, she has vegetable gardens with everything luscious green; a variety of herbs, carrots, swiss chard, kales, chillies, beetroot, radish, and cherry tomatoes.
Her rooftop feels like stepping outdoors in a different location. Because of the rain from the previous night, the air smells earthy and the soil is damp.
To protect the plants from the sometimes unforgiving sun and mousebirds, she had put over them a green shading net and small garden umbrellas. At the edge of the net, she has hung baskets with flowers.
She has grown more flowers and herbs in pots of different shapes and sizes, some store-bought and others repurposed. In one of the corners, she has a potted lemon tree, heavy with fruits.
“I’ve seen it grow from flowers to this,” she says.
On the far left of the balcony are large pots of fast-growing bamboo and fruit trees of grafted avocado, orange, mulberry, strawberry, and guava.
“When the bamboos grow, they’ll give us much needed privacy,” she says.
It is during this stay-at-home and curfew period that she has truly come to appreciate her garden.
“It keeps me busy and connected to nature. The birds, bees, soil, and plants are a great company. They give rather than demand,” says Meerabella, who loves life outdoors.
Additionally, it has been a place to hang out with her six-year-old daughter.
“After her online classes are done, she comes up here to relax, watching the birds chirping by the bird feeders, the bees sucking nectar from the lavender, checking on her pet beetle, the wiggly worms and bugs,” Meerabella says.
Meerabella had desired a green space and sought help from Sheena Shah of Harvesting For Good East Africa, who did the initial design, then Meerabella added onto it.
Before Covid-19, the rooftop garden was a smaller project. Now that the pandemic gifted her more time at home to spend with her ever-energetic daughter, she poured her heart and soul into the garden and watched it thrive.
Mother and daughter added tomatoes, strawberries, lavender, lemon verbena, and a host of flowers and fruits. The also added jasmine and passion fruits which she hopes will grow into an arch over the shading net.
They have also repurposed most of their waste like plastic oil jars and old toy crates into planters.
“My daughter and I spend weekends here making memories: painting these (the oil jars and stones) and making crafts,” she says, as her daughter shows me her latest painting from the previous weekend.
She has certainly got her mother’s creativity pouring out of her in childlike bits and pieces.
“We have so much fun here. I don’t know how sane we would have been without this garden. I love the joy my beautiful garden brings to me and the people who visit,” she says.
Reaping its value
There is always comfort in a big house on a plot of land that is your own. The allure of suburban life is bringing the outdoors indoors, having spaces where a father can do his Zoom conference away from the Zoom classes of his children and phone conversations of his wife.
There is also the advantage of having an urban garden, which gives the illusion of self-sufficiency.
In Nairobi’s Kamulu, Kelvin Munyottah, a businessman and a part-time pastor, has named his outdoor space Grace Garden.
The garden sits on an eighth of an acre piece of land and was groaning under the weight of neglect before the busy schedules pre-Covid-19.
The only things that stood proud were young palm trees. But thanks for spending more time at home, the garden tells a different story.
Kelvin’s hard work is noticeable right from the entrance of his home. The first thing you see is the mix of colours: green, red, orange, pink, and purple, rising and falling with the height of the plants attached to them.
“This place is a dream come true,” he says.
“Gardening was a passion cultivated by association. When I was young, we had a neighbour who sold flowers and flower nurseries in Westlands, Nairobi. I would visit her and spend time admiring the flowers, and eating her vegetables,” says the 34-year-old.
The neighbour’s love for greenery soaked his mind and he purposed to have a garden when he grew up.
The second thing you notice is the garden’s design made by Kelvin. This is what has been keeping him busy at home. Using ordinary stones, he has subdivided his land into rectangular beds where he grows different types of plants.
He has many herbs and spices, vegetables, fruit trees, and an exotic flower bed. Around the edges of the vegetable gardens, which have kales, swiss chard, and onions, he has planted flowers.
All their different smells draw you in and you find yourself bending to inhale their scents.
“The flowers act as a windbreaker as well as attracting pollinators like bees. Plus, I enjoy the beauty and fragrances of flowers,” he says.
On the other beds, he has planted the Kai apple hedge plant.
Borrow herbs and cuttings
Even more interesting is his live fence of beans stalks and luffa normally used for cleaning and exfoliating the skin. In my curiosity, I inquire about them.
“I just discovered them a short while ago,” he says, adding that this is one benefit of neglecting his space. “Nature shows you what does well and what doesn’t.”
The space between the beds and the pathways between the house and the gate are graveled. Graveling is inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and the grey background allows the plants to shine.
He and his wife are reaping value from the garden.
“Having our food during this time makes economic sense. Besides, the garden feels like another place to go to other than sitting indoors watching TV,” says Kelvin, who can spend a whole day in the garden.
“This place is our ‘new outdoors.’ I cringe when I imagine what I'd be doing without this space. I love my beautiful garden,” he says.
With many people craving for beautiful outdoors, his neighbours have been coming for gardening tips and tricks, and to borrow herbs and cuttings.
“I’m thinking of commercialising my herbs knowledge. When you come here next, I’ll have a new title: herbalist,” Kelvin says.