In Nairobi, the reek of exhaust fumes permeates the air. Despite the green presence of majestic Cape Chestnuts, spreading fig trees and ancient liana vines, a thick white haze hangs around the city, following the major roads like a poisonous ghost. After a few days in the city, one quickly becomes accustomed to sitting in traffic with the windows rolled up and air conditioning on, even on the most glorious mornings. Here, that has as much to do with ‘snatchers’ strolling alongside the traffic jams as it does with air pollution.
But tucked behind the City Stadium, just east of busy Lusaka Road, is a quiet escape from the bustle of Nairobi. Set against an urban backdrop of informal settlements and midrise apartments, Kaloleni is a neighborhood in the most old-fashioned sense of the word.
- Olack Ezra, head of the Kaloleni Residents’ Association (KERA) points to locations on a plan of the original development from 1948. KERA conducts independent research on Kaloleni’s historical development and is keenly focused on preservation.
Based on Clarence Perry’s famous Neighborhood Unit, Kaloleni was originally designed in 1927 (while Kenya was still under British colonial rule), to house 3000 bachelors in single-dwellings and duplexes. According to Professor Peter Makachia of the Univeristy of Nairobi, the estate was developed following the recommendations of Sir Charles Mortimer, who chaired the African Housing Committee (AHC).  When they were finally completed in 1948, these bungalows were gifted to African soldiers who fought for the British army in WWII. As bachelor accommodations, the houses were appropriately small, with an entry space leading directly into a tiny kitchen and, with a turn, into the main living space. Directly through the living room is a bedroom just wide enough to accommodate a single-bed and small desk. As these bachelors quickly became family men, many residents added lean-tos and sheds to the back of their houses. Even today, the streetscape is exactly the same as its original design, while extensions on the back provide more space for growing families. Because of the heavy materials used in their construction, these homes are well-insulated and comfortable—worlds away from the corrugated steel shanties that characterize most of Nairobi’s low-cost housing stock. Not unsurprisingly, these covetable houses have been passed down from generation to generation, giving this community an unbreakable sense of continuity—and ownership.
Kaloleni was built between 1945-48 by Italian prisoners of war. Although the designs had been around for some time, the Second World War stifled urban development in Nairobi. After the war came to an end, the POWs used imported materials, including roof tiles from India and large red bricks, to construct the well-crafted homes. If you squint, Kaloleni looks exactly the same as it did seventy years ago. And in a city where urban development is almost completely unregulated, that is a huge achievement. This preservation speaks to the planners’ well-thought out design, but equally to the residents’ perception that this neighborhood is something worth preserving.
- Residents gather inside the Kaloleni Social Hall (the first Kenyan Parliament building) for a presentation by DASUDA regarding their new demonstration project in Kaloleni. Although the hall’s original structure is fully in tact, heavy maintenance is required to return this beautiful building to its former glory.
Historical figures such as nationalist leader Tom Mboya, former Ugandan President Milton Obote and Charles Rubia, the first African mayor of Nairobi, once lived in this neighborhood. Residents recall various historical moments with a mixture of pride and nostalgia: Queen Elizabeth of England opened a clinic in Kaloleni in 1952, and Senator Robert Kennedy gave a speech here in 1969. The community hall was originally used as a center of the independence movement, and later as Kenya’s first parliament building. The anecdotes are endless, and point to Kaloleni’s rich—and largely unknown—cultural history. It’s a history that lives on almost solely in the memories of the residents.
At 17:00, the dusty roads in this Garden City are suddenly filled with workers moving through Kaloleni on their way home from the industrial areas south of Kaloleni. These roads haven’t been paved since 1948, and the crumbling asphalt is testament to the municipal government’s lack of interest in this area. Despite public water lines running into Kaloleni, the neighborhood hasn’t had running water for years. Residents are forced to buy their water from private vendors at a huge markup. There are grumbles that this is all political maneuvering to encourage residents to leave and make room for redevelopment, but like many stories in Nairobi, this is almost impossible to verify. In any case, “no water!” is a general refrain in Kaloleni. Even the local dispensary and clinic don’t have running water. Good hygiene, as one might imagine, becomes more challenging under such conditions.
Until the 1980s, Kaloleni had a nursery school, bakery, post office, grocery shop, butcher, and lively cafés famous for their local brews. Today, most of those facilities have been reclaimed as sports bars, giving the area an overabundance of alcoholic options and a lack of other public amenities. Unemployment is rampant and bored teenagers often turn to petty crime.
As one of the least dense areas of Nairobi, Kaloleni is also vulnerable to the pressures of the booming real estate market. The Chinese have recently expressed interest in redeveloping this area and unknown to the Kaloleni Residents’ Association, the tribal chief has recently sold off an entire soccer field—part of the development’s original plan—to private developers.
- "The Chairman" inside his own home in Kaloleni.
Known locally as “The Chairman”, an impressive figure known for turning around Kaloleni’s overcrowded primary schools and for refusing to take bribes—wants to show us this abomination in person. As we walk toward the former football fields at the southern edge of the development, his face moves ever deeper into a frown. “What’s this? What’s this? None of this was here a week ago!” he thunders as a silvery shantytown comes into view. Apartments are quickly rising on the former playing field, and in the foreground, corrugated shacks are inching ever closer to the original brick houses. The Chairman turns a shade darker and glowers at some unfamiliar children hovering behind a corrugated door. His greatest wish, echoed by other members of the Residents’ Association, is to have Kaloleni listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. For many reasons, they see this as the only viable way to preserve the Garden City structure for their children.
- Local children in school uniforms play outside. Note the resident carrying a large blue tub—this is one of the only ways to gain access to water.
For INTI, as a research institute specialized in planned towns and cities, it’s easy to wax poetic about this special place, but the residents’ love for Kaloleni is palpable. They want to stay here, but they want it to be better. They want running water and paved roads and enough space for growing families. They want to feel safe at night, which means working streetlights and maybe a night guard or two. They want to preserve the Garden City structure of Kaloleni that they intuitively know to be precious. They want the tribal chief to stop selling off land, and they want the shantytowns to stop creeping in. For westerners, who often see the romance in informal settlements and bottom-up initiatives, it is eye-opening to see the long term effects of good master planning—a topic that has become increasingly unpopular in recent years. Kaloleni, though dilapidated and poorly-maintained, is still one of the most popular neighborhoods in Nairobi. It’s also one of the most likely to be lost as Nairobi hurtles towards a more heavily urbanized future.
 The AHC was responsible for addressing the urban housing needs of native Africans within Nairobi. See: Makachia, P.A. “Design strategy and informal transformations in urban housing”. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 2013. Vol 28:171 and Ogilvie, G.C.W. The Housing of Africans in Urban Areas of Kenya. Nairobi: Kenya Information Office, 1946.