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Eastleigh: dynamic economic hub - not terror epicentre

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Feb. 24, 2017, 12:30 am
Neil Carrier of Oxford University has written a landmark study of Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate.
Carrier gets off to a flying start with his Preface, which opens, “This book seeks to understand Nairobi’s remarkable Eastleigh estate and its transformation into a Somali-dominated
commercial hub packed with shopping malls. It tells the story of how Eastleigh became a ‘Little Mogadishu’, offering urban refuge to thousands of refugees, and linking
Kenya to both the worldwide Somali diaspora and to vast global networks of trade.”
This portrait of Eastleigh, an important retail and wholesale centre, is a powerful antidote to the prevailing media myths and Hollywood ballyhoo about the estate being an epicentre
and safe haven for the militant alShabaab. Instead, it brings out Eastleigh’s Eastleigh’s characteristics as a transnational economic hub that has risen from the ashes of the fall in neighbouring Somalia of the Siad Barre regime of 1969-91, a quarter century ago.
Carrier is both an anthropologist and a journalist, and Little Mogadishu, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub is both scholarly and journalistic. Of the five rave review blurbs on the back cover of the Hurst paperback edition, four are by fellow anthropologists, the exception being Yusuf Hassan’s, MP for Kamukunji constituency (of which Eastleigh is part), Nairobi.
Hassan has this to say, “Carrier’s brilliantly researched and skillfully crafted book challenges the widespread negative perceptions about Somalis in Kenya. He unearths the
deep historic roots of this entrepreneurial community in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood and how, against all odds, they have overcome barriers and transformed this sleepy
place into a dynamic global business hub”.
China's sites of production and Dubai's sites of consumption
Catherine Besteman, Professor of Anthropology, Colby College, and author of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine, says, “In this compelling and breathtakingly thorough account, Carrier documents the vast reach of Eastleigh’s ‘refugee economy’ throughout Kenya and across the world, from China’s sites of production and Dubai’s sites of consumption, through Somali financial diaspora networks in Europe and North America. The superb review of Eastleigh’s historic dynamism takes the reader
through colonialism in East Africa, Somalia’s collapse, the intersection of diasporic networks and global finance, contemporary security worries, and anticipatory views of the city of the future. A terrific read”.
In his Introduction, under the crosshead ‘Displaced Development?’ Carrier writes: “Eastleigh is a place of much ambivalence and ambiguity. It is a place people want to leave,
yet to which others want to return; a place where the upheaval of war has brought opportunity and development, a place where great wealth is made out of low-end goods; a place
of shiny malls and hotels sprouting from muddy decayed streets; a place of refuge that can be a place of danger; a place where the state is both all too absent and all too present.
This ambiguity and ambivalenceruns through how the Kenyan state and the wider Kenyan society have viewed a l l its recent changes; at times praising Eastleigh’s development and entrepreneurship, at others condemning it as an economy built on dubious goods and capital”.
Little Mogadishu, written as part of a project examining the Somali-dominated Eastleigh estate for the Oxford Diasporas Programme, is divided into seven chapters followed by
14 pages of Notes, a 22-page Bibliography and a 10-page Index. Eastleigh estate and its internal dynamics and international outreach have been the subjects of scholarly study and keen media interest for decades. Perhaps only the Kibera slum area, the biggest in Africa and one of the biggest in the world, has received as much research and media attention in Nairobi as Eastleigh estate.
Eastleigh is more than 'little Mogadishu'
In a paper written before the book was published last year, Carrier said, “However, while nicknamed ‘Little Mogadishu’, Eastleigh is home to a much more varied population than
this name suggests, and among the other ethnicities (and nationalities) who live there are Oromo, a refugee community from Ethiopia. This paper highlights their lives in the estate, from their journeys to reach it, to their incorporation into Eastleigh’s economy and the sense of moral community that aids this incorporation. It also contrasts their relationship to the estate and its economy with that of Somalis: while Eastleigh is a place in which many Somalis in the wider diaspora invest and return, for Oromo, Eastleigh is generally a place they hope to survive before leaving for greener pastures, rarely to return”.
In Chapter 3, entitled ‘More Than Little Mogadishu’, Carrier observes, “… different sections of Eastleigh have different population ratios. … However, within Sections I and II, something of a third diaspora exists, constituted by another group whose roots in the estate were laid before the commercial transformation: the Meru (principally the Tigania and
Igembe sub-groups from the Nyambene Hills district northeast of Mount Kenya), whose cash crop miraa (khat) is hugely in demand in the estate, both for consumption there and
for onward export to Somalia, Europe and elsewhere. Khat has been consumed there since at least the 1930s, and the Meru themselves have come to the estate for decades to establish khat kiosks”. This book is written as a historical and ethnographic portrait of Eastleigh and it sets out to answer two questions. In the author’s own words in the Introduction, How has a once modest residential district of Nairobi transformed into a global commercial hub in the wake of Somali displacement? And why has this development met with such ambivalence,
suspicion and even hostility?
Commercial hub created by global shockwaves
Carrier answers his own two key questions comprehensively in the course of the book, observing at one point in his Conclusion, “… in large part, this is a story of a commercial
hub catalysed by the global shockwaves of the collapse of the Somali state and its social and economic repercussions. In this regard, we explored how in the wake of Somalia’s civil war Somali networks expanded to form a vast, socially tight diaspora that could mobilise capital and connections to some of the world’s most significant trade hubs. These networks coalesced in Eastleigh as thousands of refugees fleeing the war moved to the estate”.
Little Mogadishu is not just about adding significantly to the literature on refugee economies and to the theoretical and empirical knowledge of a complex subject; it is also about
people and communities. Chapter 4, entitled “Living the Eastleigh Dream” is full of them. Heading the cast of real-life characters is Mohaa, proprietor- operator of Nasiib Fashions,
a gentleman’s outfitters. A photo of Mohaa at Nasiib Fashions in 2011 is the first of 26 images of people and places throughout the book. The images include an Eastleighwood concert, Meru in Eastleigh, a number 9 route matatu in a muddy First Avenue and Burhan, Eastleigh entrepreneur and impresario.
There are pen portraits of such people as Mama Fashion, a Reer Hamar woman, and Abdi Warsame, as narratives of the trajectory leading from exile to an Eastleigh shop and a path to relative prosperity.
Media and hollywood myths of a dangerous place
Carrier acknowledges rumours persist in Kenya and around the world that Eastleigh is built on money laundering of ill-gotten gains (including the proceeds of the spate of piracy on
the Indian Ocean a decade ago), and that it harbours terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, including al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab. “This impression of a dangerous place apart has
recently been given the Hollywoodtrea tment in the 2015 film Eye in the Sky, where US drone operatives target a house in an Eastleigh overrun by armed-to-the-teeth militia. For
the people who live and work there, such representations matter: its population, especially its refugees, have suffered over the years at the hands of Kenya’s security forces, including during the infamous Operation Usalama Watch.”
Eye in the Sky was so ridiculous, it portrayed an Eastleigh in which al Shabaab patrolled the estate in ‘technicals’ 4x4 Toyota Land Cruisers with mounted machineguns. Shot in South Africa, it portrayed an Eastleigh and rest of Nairobi with such smooth roads it was unreal, at least in Kenyans’ eyes. It starred Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in his last role) and the superb American-Somali actor Barkhad Abdi.
That Eastleigh can be so misrepresented in a movie with such accomplished stars underlines Carrier’s description of the estate in this book and in a number of papers as “a place
of much ambivalence and ambiguity”. Al Shabaab is undoubtedly present in Eastleigh but it has nowhere near the power and influence alleged in the media and Hollywood and by
some anti-terror police commanders and some in the spy agency NIS.
Little Mogadishu, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub should be required reading for reporters, editors, National Counter-Terrorism Centre director Ambassador Martin Kimani
and as many of his counterparts in the war on terror as there are, as well as anyone who enjoys a good, well-researched, informative and eye-opening read.

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