Our transformation into an urban civilization is now more than halfway done, and irreversible. Globally, more than 3.5 billion people live in a city or a town. With an urban population of 26 percent Kenya is one of the least urbanized countries in the world.
However, we all feel the pulsating surge of urbanization. Our cities and towns are bursting at the seams. Mobility is strangulated by traffic gridlock. The squalor and indignity of slums rob a majority of our children of the joy of urban nativity. Life on the streets for pedestrians and all those who would seek leisure and in the outdoors is made improbable by a lack of decent pedestrian walkways and poisoned air. Moreover, our cities don’t work for children, senior citizens and the disabled. Pedestrian walkways are riddled with open storm pits, and its tough to get into a Matatu if you are little, elderly or disabled.
In the soaring and dense tenement neighborhoods of Eastleigh, Zimmerman, Huruma, Rongai, Umoja, Parklands, Kawangware, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Zimmerman, our children are denied open spaces and city authorities turn a blind eye to a lack of public services. Provision of water and sanitation services is ephemeral. As Pope Francis warned urbanization can be fraught with dreadful injustice. Dreadful injustice because the elite anaesthetized by hubris, greed and power inflict misery upon the majority and then device solutions that amount indifference and mere containment.
Everyday, I wonder if anybody cares whether our cities are livable for the majority of Kenyans. Every so often I ask myself if anybody is in charge or answerable. I think about what the so-called privileged think every time they cause fellow citizens to run perilously across the streets because the automobile has right of way. What do the few who drive think when they empty the filthy waters of road puddles onto unsuspecting pedestrians?
Urbanism can be beautiful. Urbanism can joyful and hopeful. Urbanization must be just and equitable. Urbanism must be joyous, extending hope and opportunity and a right to equal opportunity for girls and women. Urbanism must fulfill, for the majority the unyielding desire of all of mankind – decent lodging and dignified work.
Last Saturday, through its Youthful Cities initiative the East African Institute in collaboration with K–Youth Media, which works with youth from the urban slums of Nairobi and Aga Khan Academy Nairobi, organized an immensely uplifting digital photo exhibition.
The exhibition was an invitation to Nairobi’s youth to take and submit photographs that represent their urban experience; living, working and leisure. The pictures ranged from the built environment (streets and residential spaces), sports and recreation, the environment, art and culture, education and opportunity.
The sobering convergence of two factors, rapid, unprecedented urbanization, and the fact that about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years motivated the exhibition. It is seldom that two consequential forces converge at the same epoch and at the same place.
At the exhibition, these young, amateur photographers were invited to say what the pictures meant to them. The narratives were impassioned, brilliant, insightful and packed with resolve and agency. I have never been more hopeful about our future and the promise of urbanism.
The winning photograph, out of 22 submissions, was by Lewis Muruiki from K-Youth Media. In this picture, taken against the backdrop of Korogocho slums, a handful of girls are playing soccer, some barefoot. The field is bare earth, fortunately not yet grabbed. Lewis’ picture was motivated by young women unbowed by the circumstance of birth demonstrating teamwork, respectful competition, and willingness to play by the rules. These are qualities that are an anathema in public life, especially among the privileged few.
The second best photograph was by Michelle Kamunyo from Aga Khan Academy Nairobi. Michelle’s was a provoking image of unspeakable filth, which chokes one of the tributaries of Nairobi River in the so-called upmarket neighborhood of Riverside. For Michelle, it was not about what the government can do, but what young people like her must do; from boycotting polythene, to mobilizing a clean up and having a dialogue on responsible stewardship among riverine communities.
The views and perspectives of the youth must inform the governance, management, planning of urban development. The historic opportunity is unprecedented. We can and must build cities the serve the needs of the majority of urban residents – the youth.