Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate has gained fame due to its rapid development into a commercial hub of East Africa sustained by much investment from the Somali diaspora and trade networks stretching as far as China. The Somali influence on the estate has led to it being dubbed ‘Little Mogadishu’, and as a place somehow apart from the rest of Kenya. In our experience, however, the story of Eastleigh is very much a Kenyan one, and the ‘Little Mogadishu’ label simplifies a very complex story…
Eastleigh is a major commercial hub of East Africa, brimming with around 40 shopping malls selling cheap goods from China, Dubai and elsewhere, that is located only a couple of kilometres away from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Despite this proximity to the heart of Nairobi, the way many Kenyans speak about Eastleigh, it almost seems as if the short journey from town to the estate on the famous number 9 matatu is taking the passenger much further: from the heart of Kenya into the heart of Somalia.
Eastleigh has been described as if it were an imported city from Somalia, the place to which the big businesspeople relocated when conflict pushed them out of Mogadishu in the 1990s. Indeed, for many Kenyans, shopping trips to Eastleigh offer a taste of Somalia, as Somali language and identity seem to dominate, while Islamic influence is everywhere in dress styles, the prevalence of mosques, and even in the names of such businesses as ‘Madina Mall’. Rumours of the area being awash with smuggled weapons and al-Shabaab operatives further consolidate the idea that this place of cheap jeans is dangerous and ‘other’, and decidedly not Kenyan.
Such impressions combined with the influx of many Somali refugees over the course of the last two decades, means that the ‘Little Mogadishu’ label rings true for many Kenyan and outside commentators.
Of course, Eastleigh today is the major urban centre for Somalis in Kenya. Many thousands of refugees from Somalia have arrived in this relatively small area (consisting of two main avenues and several streets that connect them) since the early 1990s, most surviving and others thriving thanks to the opportunities provided by this important retail and wholesale centre. Furthermore, its development and growth are underpinned by Somali connections stretching to the West and Somalis resident there, and the East in the form of networks importing cheap clothes, textiles, electronics and so forth.
However, ‘Little Mogadishu’ is a name rarely heard from anyone who actually goes to Eastleigh on a regular basis or indeed from its residents. The label hides a wealth of other histories, processes and identities that need foregrounding in order to understand the dynamics of this estate and its transformation.
Firstly, Eastleigh is not just a Somali story. For example, conspicuous amongst its population are vast numbers of Meru from central Kenya: many have migrated to the estate to sell the khat grown in their home region, attracting other Meru in turn to either join the khat trade or start up cafes, salons and so forth. There is also an important connection to Eritrea and Ethiopia. More established Eritreans and Ethiopians have had a major stake in the matatus plying the Eastleigh route, some becoming involved in this business as far back as the 1970s. Ethiopian restaurants and businesses are easy to find in the estate, especially around 10th Street, an area that might be labelled ‘Little Addis’ if one were so inclined. Among these Ethiopians, Oromo form a large and increasing proportion as more and more flee persecution in Ethiopia. In appearance and dress they can often be mistaken for Somalis, but in fact operate a significant number of the stalls in the Eastleigh malls. Reporting on Eastleigh needs to recognise this diversity and most importantly, this interconnectedness – which in the end is what makes business and peace possible.
Secondly, key to the success of Eastleigh are its connections to northern Kenya – in a way it feels like a capital of northern Kenya, located in the middle of Nairobi. In particular, the business activities of Kenyan Somalis have been very important in the original steps which established Eastleigh as Nairobi’s neighbourhood of malls. The woman credited with being the force behind the original Eastleigh shopping mall – Garissa Lodge – is Kenyan born and bred, an Isaaq woman from a family that reached Kenya early last century. Indeed, the intermingling of Kenyan Somalis and Somalians (those from Somalia) – and the fluidity and ambiguity of Somali nationality in the border regions of the northeast – means that ethnically Eastleigh may be dominated by Somalis, but in terms of national identity the picture is more mixed.
A case in point is the Garre, a group usually labelled Somali, but with a long history of interaction with Oromo, and who speak the Oromo language. Most Kenyan visitors to the estate would perhaps assume them to be Somalians, not knowing that the majority of Garre in Eastleigh are Kenyan, coming predominantly from Mandera and Moyale in the north. They are a critical force in the estate, acting as intermediaries between Oromo and Somali, and owning much business property, including the plush Grand Royal Hotel, and Mandera Shopping Mall. They also act as conduits for much of the trade of Eastleigh commodities to other parts of Kenya. Garre are to be found in plenty in such towns as Kakamega and Kisumu, owning retail shops from where yet more Garre source goods on credit to hawk on the streets. That such Kenyans might be taken for Somalians speaks volumes for the marginalised status of northern Kenya, often viewed by those in Central Kenya as Kenyan in name only.
Finally, the idea of a Little Mogadishu neglects important dynamics behind the collapse of the state in Somalia. The Mogadishu that existed under Siad Barre reflected the dynamics of a centralised state working to tighten its control of patronage networks. In particular, Siad Barre worked to concentrate business activity in in Mogadishu. A key complaint of elites in Hargeisa, for example, was that they were prevented from establishing businesses in their home areas, the northern provinces (today’s Somaliland). Even today people will explain how the Barre regime limited the number of storeys a building in Hargeisa could have as well as the number of licenses granted to businesses based in the north.
The collapse of the Somali state involved an unravelling of this concentration in Mogadishu. The success of places like Eastleigh is testament to the ability of
people to mobilise alternative connections, move to different localities, and play different roles than before. Eastleigh is not just a displaced Mogadishu. Business people’s capital, augmented by funds from a widely scattered diaspora has been invested along multiple routes strung together by kinship, friendship, and religious solidarity. A network of connected nodes lies behind the economy that sustains places like Eastleigh.
Many of the connections behind Eastleigh’s success reflect a history that predates 1991 and lies outside Mogadishu. Somali transporters and traders were active across east Africa long before state collapse in Somalia, especially the Isaq and Harti who came with the British as part of the Kings African Rifles or to work with settlers or on infrastructure projects. Other connections were forged during the 1970s and 1980s when people left Somalia to seek asylum or alternative opportunities elsewhere. For example, labour migrants to the Gulf sending money home via traders and brokers in the 1970s lay the foundation for the now famous Dahabshiil as well as other money transfer operators central to the economy of Eastleigh and economic nodes across the Somali territories. Other developments and the expansion of networks to the commodity cities of China are grounded in historical migration and investment patterns.
A quick visit to Eastleigh may not reveal these dynamics – and appearance alone might make it seem appropriate to term the place ‘Little Mogadishu’. But in reality, Eastleigh is both a very transnational and a very Kenyan place…tying Nairobi to the northern areas of the country, to Somalia across the border, to Ethiopia, to markets across the region, and to business nodes in the Gulf and further afield. And, of course, while its growth owes so much to Somali transnational networks, these would not be viable without the other side of the equation: the Kenyans who buy the cheap goods these networks bring.
This piece of research is part of an ongoing project on Eastleigh at the Oxford Diasporas Programme. More information can be found here.