My new apartment in Nairobi is on the fourth floor, located in the South of the city in a suburb called Kilimani. The building is modern, spacious and clean. There are more than fifty apartments in four different building in the complex. All those apartments back onto an extremely well maintained, if basic, communal garden. When you look out the back of building you can see both the surprising Mock Tudor styling of the buildings’ exteriors and everyone else looking out the back of their apartments, sitting on their balconies. It reminds me of Hitchcock’s classic film, Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart nurses a broken leg as he sits, immovably, by his back window, watching his neighbours’ lives and obsessing about everything he can’t see.
From the other side of the building a couple of landmarks stick out. One is the Yaya Centre, a luxurious shopping mall located about a 20 minute walk from us. We can’t actually see the Centre itself; what we can see is one of the crumbling tower blocks it sits next to. It is a large, ugly, yellow building that is visibly falling to pieces. We asked how it had fallen into such disrepair, sitting as it does in the middle of an affluent suburb, and were told that it had been partially built before its funding fell through. , sometime ago. The investor was an MP at the time and refused to pay the bill. The contractors ceased building after pouring liquid concrete into the drainage system rendering the land more or less useless now – neither removing nor replacing the building makes any financial sense. So it continues to stick up into the local skyline, decaying slowly but surely, like a warning to the surrounding area.
The other landmark I notice is an extremely tall crane, busy constructing the latest luxury apartment block or shopping centre or office complex. Everywhere in Kilimani, you see construction. The crane is very noticeable, perhaps it is because the window from the bathroom frames it so well or perhaps it is because it is a particularly huge example of construction machinery. It is adorned in enormous Chinese characters indicating that the building it is working on, like many construction projects all over this continent, is yet another Nairobi-based project that Chinese investors are behind. This is not a new story.
It is also not just Kilimani that you see this happening. When I arrived in Nairobi, the first thing I noticed was how much construction of all kinds was going on – everything from roads to housing to offices to retail space to hotels – it seemed like every road had a new project on it. I’m sure that many people are struck by the enormous expansion and investment going on all over the city which is probably why, whenever I asked a taxi driver who was building X or Y, the answer would come very quickly, as though they were bored of answering such an obvious question. After a while I stopped asking who was paying for all this infrastructure; there’s only so many times you can hear someone saying “the Chinese” in a tone of voice that suggests they’d actually like to say “who do you think?”
Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I like watching the city around me move and change and grow but can’t help but feel uneasy about all those things I can’t see.
Presumably, the actual labourers involved in these projects are predominantly supplied from the local area. How are they being remunerated? How long are their hours? Is it a case of any employment, any improvement in industry, is automatically taken to be a good thing? Who are the Chinese guys overseeing this projects on site? They stand around in broken down clothing, in the rain, usually alone, as they instruct a bunch of subordinates on what they should do and how they should do it. Often, it seems like these construction teams have very little in the way of a shared language. How good, how reliable, how long lasting can these investments be?
Is this a golden age of investment, an infrastructure boom that will literally pave the way to even more growth for the Lion economies of East Africa? Or, as a recent blog post on Kariobangiblog highlighted, is the focus on all these urban building projects missing the point entirely – if urbanisation is slowing down then the causes of the enormous economic growth in East Africa may have a lot less to do with the cities than people generally seem to make out. It’s clear that the benefits are seen in urban centres in real concentration but does that actually indicate much about what is fuelling these benefits? From my window, I can’t say with any certainty that I really know what’s happening out there. I do know that pretty much every major INGO and investment group is looking at Nairobi from very similar windows to mine.
The building under that enormous crane is far from finished but work continues every day. It’s probably only about half a mile away from the great, useless yellow tower block that was so crippled by a contracting deal gone wrong. Let’s hope this building project doesn’t lead to another totem of poorly planned, poorly executed investment.