Architecture Kenya

Today most Kenyans live under house arrest. The gated households have little to do with the ancient fortified cities or homesteads. Whilst the peoples of the past shared external walls and internal open spaces, the “homes” of today (read that as “houses”), alienate the next door person and in deed the neighborhood at large. In a bid to make households safe, we have put multiple “essentials” in place including watchman, “mbwa kali”, sophisticated alarm systems, live electric fences and grand masonry perimeter walls, to name but a few. 

Insecurity being the chief suspect it can be well understood why we go to great lengths to imprison ourselves. No doubt it is desirable to be and feel safe at home. Seclusion from the outside world appears to be a good security measure. On the contrary isolation is the biggest incentive to merchants of insecurity. Isn’t an isolated person or place prime spots of scoundrels?  

Look keenly into yesteryears; the lessons reveal that the gated communities watched over each other’s back by virtue of all being within the same wall. The traditional African homestead was spatially organized in such a way that there was one entry point to a fenced area, which opened onto a central courtyard. The houses were arranged around the quad with entrances facing it or the gate. The day to-day activities of a typical homestead, i.e. cooking, cleaning, children playing, adults talking, etc. took place in the courtyard. The common storage spaces were the kraals and the granaries. These were located also at the central yard. This quality of space was achieved through the concern for security and the need for all and sundry to be involved in surveillance.

Today the world is ironically considered a global village. We also argue that any one anywhere is within reach visually and audibly. However, the bitter truth is that we are so socially apart that situations of two families sharing a plot line barely knowing each other are abundant.

Not so long ago one’s predicament was everybody’s. We knew our neighbour’s cat’s name. We dashed into the lady next door’s kitchen to borrow a cup of sugar… Today and, God help us, one’s “shauri” is none of our business. The social rift that we have created can, safely, be concluded to be an important cause of the escalating insecurity. It is now commonplace to be robbed without anybody raising a finger, let alone hearing about it first hand. The stringent security measures we introduce in our houses not only keep intruders and doom peddlers out, but also friends and well-wishers.

Recent reports indicate that security business enterprises in Kenya are raking in more money day after day, night after night. Can money buy security and peace of mind? The fear of insecurity is worse than insecurity itself. While it is possible to move on after an encounter with insecurity, it takes longer to feel secure. If community surveillance is successfully installed it could serve homesteads better than high walls, watchmen and security dogs.

In residential planning terms the concept of defensible space entails that houses are designed so that every house can be monitored by someone in another. A person looking out of their window or balcony can easily see all the other houses in a given cluster. Further, the houses are arranged around a common open space which greets every visitor on arrival. Sounds more like the traditional African homestead, doesn’t it?

Within the defensible space cluster the individual households are separated by a minor boundary such as small a bush, shrubbery or a picket fence. Outside the cluster a major boundary such as a high wall can be erected. This effectively gates a greater number of people who can then associate on different levels and hence look out for each other’s welfare.
The council askari maintains the law as per the written/unwritten existing rules and regulations. Hawkers contribute to much of the dirt in the city streets; they crowd the pedestrian routes forcing people to squeeze with speeding vehicles. As if that was not enough, hawkers don't pay rates, so they don't in anyway contribute to the up keep of the streets. The askari views the street seller as a menace. In deed they are the important perpetrators of the noise, hustle and bustle, characteristic of Nairobi's east-end streets, avenues and lanes. The askari’ job description includes maintaining law and order. This would mean that they need to get hawkers out of the streets. However we, the average consumers, need the hawkers’ goods and services. 
The ‘free enterprise’ individuals have hawk-eyes for opportunities. They parch themselves in places of greatest human confluence. Their customers are ordinary Kenyans on their way home. The customer has no time to bargain much. More often than not the customer is unlucky having fallen for an inferior product. The businesses flourish and blossom each new day because of the high traffic of visitors. More and more hawkers flock to the 'market area'. With no serious check in place, sooner or later the thoroughfare becomes impassable. Subsequently it comes as a relief when the council askaris arrive with their (dirty) truck to whisk away the ‘garbage’.

Unfortunately the solution of sweeping the streets clean of hawkers and, recently, the relocation of hawkers to a designated market area does not come as a lasting solution. It only ends up in the customer (who is supposed to be king) losing the convenient service, and the hawker losing a livelihood. Creating a common marketplace does not work either because the essence of 'get-it-on-the-way' is essentially downplayed. Building a permanent home for a nomad does him no good no matter how great the house. The life of the man on the move is complete when he gets to go from place to place to look for greener pastures.

The only way to aid a street entrepreneur is to help him carry on his business under a set of rules and regulations. After all we cannot deny two facts: the rule of law must be upheld and that many families survive on this trade. The first step towards healing is acceptance. To stop this hawking nag we must understand the trade, and then get a way around the phenomenon in order that it is done in a better manner. Making street markets legal will not only benefit the sellers and the buyer, but will also go a long way to enhance revenue collection hence benefit the council.

An architectural design could provide the necessary schematic solution for the persistent spate. A city like Nairobi is desperately begging for practical measures, of a kind. Having the uniqueness of a third world country characterized with lots of informalities, our city needs to accept some of these informal activities by designing our planning around them as opposed to through them. One humble answer to the hawking question would be the utilization of important pedestrian routes, lanes, alleys, tunnels, footbridges, etc to serve as hawking zones. Well defined areas should be laid out to allow street businessmen and women to carry on with their enterprises. Footbridges over, and tunnels under busy highways could not only get pedestrians safely to the other side of the roads, but also provide small-time market venues.
First Post! 04/15/2010
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