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Eastleigh: What's in a name?

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Friday March 24, 2017

Traders at Eastleigh malls on August 15,2016./PATRICK VIDIJA
While Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate has been misrepresented over the years as a place of pirates and terrorists, most notably in the recent Hollywood film Eye in the Sky, for most Kenyans it is a place heaving with shopping malls all offering bargain goods such as clothes and electronics. It is one of the most dynamic estates in Africa, drawing goods from Asia, investors from the Somali diaspora in Europe and North America, and shoppers from throughout East Africa.

Of course, Eastleigh was not always a place of commerce, and in fact all its shopping malls are very recent, Garissa Lodge – the first Eastleigh shopping centre – becoming converted into a mall in the early 1990s. Before this, Eastleigh was a very different place, with a fascinating history of settlement by different groups, and much of this history has been inscribed into the street and building names found within the estate. Indeed, you can build a fairly accurate history of the estate using these names as follows.

Dreams of England

To begin with, the name Eastleigh itself tells much about the early history of Nairobi as a colonial capital. Indeed, to a British ear ‘Eastleigh’ conjures up a bustling town in the south of England. However, Nairobi’s Eastleigh would only take on this name in 1921, when two earlier estates were amalgamated into one. These estates were the rather blandly named ‘Nairobi East’ and the very colonial-sounding ‘Egerton Estate’. The land forming them was bought up by European and South African speculators who actually did very little to develop them apart from giving them a spatial blueprint that survives today. Nairobi East in particular was laid out in the grid fashion that survives today of numerically named main avenues criss-crossed by streets. Egerton was more conventionally laid out filled with street names referencing some key European figures in early Nairobi, including Ainsworth Street, named after John Ainsworth, Nairobi’s first administrator. Both estates were envisaged as exclusively European by their initial owners in the racial segregation that characterised colonial Nairobi, and these early street names reflect this.

By the time Eastleigh became Eastleigh, it was no longer seen as a European estate, but the very English name it was given still speaks to a limited geographical imagination when it came to naming such estates. Why the estate was named Eastleigh is something of a mystery, though the railway company owned some housing there, and perhaps its name is a nod to the railway connection with the original Eastleigh, a town that owed its existence – like Nairobi itself – to the coming of the railways. Interestingly, Harare has a suburb called Eastlea, perhaps suggesting a parallel colonial history, or simply a tendency to use Eastleigh as a name for suburbs to the East of cities.

Little India

When it was soon understood that few Europeans were interesting in settling in Eastleigh, that land became seen as perfect territory for Asian settlement instead, and much of the area was bought up by the wealthy trader Allidina Visram in 1913 with a view to this settlement. This led to the Indianisation of Eastleigh as different groups from the Subcontinent settled in different parts of the estate: for example, many Goans settled in the north of the estate around St Theresa’s Church, while Rajasthanis settled Section III to the south.
An Indian influence is still reflected heavily in the architecture of the estate, which principally took the form of single-storey residences built around courtyards some of which still survive among all the new development. But this settlement was also written into the street names of the Indian era, especially to the East of First Avenue. A map I have of the estate from 1958 shows that between the original numbered streets emerged a number of lanes which had distinctly Indian names, including Saurashtra Road, Ganges Road and Moghul Lane. So while early Eastleigh seemed connected through its names to dreams of England, Eastleigh by the 1950s shows an estate whose social networks stretched far eastwards.

Little Kiembu

While colonial segregation tried to restrict African settlement in Eastleigh, this failed, and even in colonial times there was a significant local African population, although a population living there ‘unofficially’. However, with Independence many Eastleigh Indians began to move out of the estate, and Kikuyu and others began to move in and buy up plots. In this era the estate’s names were also Africanised. Now there was no more Ainsworth Street which became Muratina Street, while Girmar Road became Muyuyu Avenue. Eastleigh also became a key place in the social life of wider Nairobi, with bars and venues such as Disney, Mateso Bila Chuki and Muungano Point becoming well know among revellers throughout the city. Despite the notion that Eastleigh is now purely a Somali place, Kikuyu investment remains strong (especially in its apartment blocks), so much so that a Somali friend of mine suggested parts of the estate are more Little Kiembu than Little Mogadishu.
Little Garissa

However, throughout all this history there was a constant Somali presence in the estate. Indeed, Somali settlement in Eastleigh is not new: they were in Eastleigh even before it was called Eastleigh. Somalis from the Isaaq clan-family (some of whom had come with the British from what is now Somaliland) were some of the first townspeople of Nairobi, and began to settle in ‘Nairobi East’ around 1916. Farah Aden, the steward of Karen Blixen, lived in what would become Eastleigh, and in her writing she described visiting Somali homes in the estate in 1917.

These early Somali settlers in Eastleigh would attract many others from northeastern Kenya over the years, and the Eastleigh ‘namescape’ took in many references to a Kenyan Somali geography, including a now legendary establishment called ‘Garissa Lodge’. This lodging would play a great role in the transformation of Eastleigh in the 1990s, hosting a number of Somali refugees – some with trading experience from Mogadishu – who began to turn the estate into a place of commerce.

Little Mogadishu
Indeed, thousands of Somalian refugees would settle in Eastleigh in that era, leading to the estate gaining the nickname of ‘Little Mogadishu’. In the 1990s and 2000s, the impact of Somalians on the estate was felt strongly, reflected in some of the names of buildings around Eastleigh, including the Hotel Taleh, referencing a part of Mogadishu. However, the main impact of these Somalians was in commerce, and in some ways Eastleigh took on the economic role for Somali society that Mogadishu itself had before the war – a vibrant trade hub linking East Africa to the markets of the Gulf, Middle East and Asia.

Global Geographies

Becoming a Somali global hub also meant connecting Eastleigh to many other trade hubs as Somali networks supplying the estate grew in scale, initially taking in Dubai, but later Bangkok, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. This global geography is also reflected in the names in the estate. One of the earliest shopping malls was named Dubai Shopping, later replaced by Bangkok Shopping Mall, an establishment sitting opposite Hong Kong Shopping Mall.
Eastleigh is not just connected to such trade hubs, however, and a vital part of its recent history is its connections to the wider Somali diaspora settled all over the world, including North America and Europe. Much capital has come into Eastleigh from this diaspora, some in the form of remittances to help family members establish businesses, some as direct investment in the estate mediated by advertising through Somali cable TV and other networks. This connection is evident in an estate where many different accents can be heard, including London, Minneapolis and others, but also in other names in the estate. Some Somalis there who have lived in the US, for example, are appreciative that Eastleigh supermarkets often stock Hershey brand chocolate.


Interestingly, Eastleigh also has a restaurant named Karmel after a Somali shopping mall located in Minneapolis. Karmel Mall itself is quite likely inspired by the shopping mall developments of Eastleigh, an example of the to-ing and fro-ing of global influence in the Somali world. In fact, the Eastleigh influence stretches well beyond the relatively small area the estate takes up in Nairobi. Somali-owned shopping malls in Nairobi city centre show the influence of the Eastleigh mall design, while Somalis have turned parts of Nakuru, Kisumu and Eldoret into mini Eastleighs. Indeed, a part of Eldoret is now nicknamed ‘Eastleigh’. Further afield, parts of Johannesburg also show an Eastleigh influence brought by Somali and Oromo migrants who passed through Nairobi en route.

Indeed, Eastleigh is a powerful brand and blueprint in its own right. A place of justified worldwide fame for all its commerce. Perhaps in the real Mogadishu there will one day be a ‘Little Eastleigh’.
Neil Carrier is Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University and author of the recent book Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub

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