LITTLE MOGADISHU: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 11/07/2018

Author: Neil Carrier

Publ: Hurst & Company, London 2016

Reviewer: Diana Lee-Smith

This is a scholarly and academic book, written by an anthropologist studying the commerce of Eastleigh. It is for that reason very thoroughly referenced and footnoted, but that does not mean it is not also a good read. For any Nairobian it is an absorbing and informative read, and because it is so thoroughly researched you can trust what it says. It goes back to the origin in colonial times of the place called Eastleigh, before it was called that. Somalis were there from the beginning, together with their livestock, which they lived off and traded.

Eastleigh has been called many things, Little Mogadishu, the title of the book, being just one. It is a misnomer coming from non-Somali Kenyans according to the writer, one that fails to capture its multi-ethnic and global nature as a centre of trading networks. Another is ‘Islii’ as it is called and spelt by many Somalis in Kenya, Somalia, Minneapolis, Toronto or London, who treat it as a place to be – temporarily or permanently – to escape to or to escape from. Their many stories form the substance of the book, always in relation to their commerce. Commerce is a way of surviving and sometimes becoming wealthy through avidly-seized, usually risky, business opportunities, some of which lead to enterprises with global reach and others that enable a hand-to-mouth existence.

There are stories of refugees melting into its mix of inhabitants along with Kenyan Somalis, Oromo, Ethiopians, Meru, Kikuyu and Kenyan Asians, while the things traded portray an even richer mix of origins, including China and Dubai. The writer highlights five types of commodity traded through Eastleigh: livestock, miraa, gold, clothing and food. The first, livestock, may not be as visible as the others even though its trade is focussed there. The others have clear local geographies that characterise Eastleigh’s nature as a place.

Carrier describes the boom in Eastleigh malls that mushroomed as Somalia and Mogadishu collapsed economically through war and conflict. He claims that the Eastleigh malls began as a prototype that influenced malls elsewhere – a collection of tiny enterprises collected in one building that originally served another purpose, where customers can choose among many similar items – although many readers will find it sounds like a bazaar anywhere. He admits this mall type has transformed rapidly in Eastleigh, growing bigger and morphing into other types as many businesses have attracted investment and thrived.

Eastleigh’s role in the wider landscape of Kenyan commerce is explored. It is clearly a driver, moving in and out of informality to formality as well as illegality, in a kind of dance with the ‘official’ or dominant modes of business, encompassing entrepreneurialism as well as corruption. Carrier describes Eastleigh commerce as the epitome of neo-liberalism with its vision of unfettered commerce and capitalism. Casual anthropological descriptions based on first-hand reports by Eastleigh business people tell us how corruption works in the sugar trade through Eastleigh, also through the links to the north and mediated by the armed forces.

Islam is described as one of the driving forces of the Eastleigh way of doing business, but by no means the only one. The book covers Eastleigh’s particular commercial model and the influences that have created it, from Somali ethnicity, clan ethnicity, Kenyan identity, Islam as a religion and guide to business, and global identity and networks of trade. Those called Somalis are those having Somali ethnicity and language, whether from Kenya, Somalia, USA, UK, or any other place, while those called Somalians are people with Somali nationality, whether they are Somali, Arab or Bantu.

The way he draws out the commercial dynamics in relation to Somali and Kenyan cultures as they intertwine makes fascinating reading and casts light on our day-to-day life as modern Kenyans. He describes how camel milk for example, as a commodity of cultural and social as well as economic value, ‘links many disparate groups together, from suppliers and middle-women elsewhere in the country, to women from different backgrounds in Eastleigh itself’. As it has become commodified it still retains strong social value. Like miraa (khat), its perishability generates trade networks based on trust that have to operate fast and efficiently. He likens camel milk, miraa and livestock as traded goods meditated through Eastleigh that link it to northern pastoral economies in a very Kenyan way.

It is only in the last chapter that the author leaves his meticulous anthropology and gives a historical overview, so as to examine the ‘state of suspicion’ that has characterised Kenya’s official behaviour towards Eastleigh. He describes the many abuses of Somali people in Eastleigh and elsewhere by the Kenyan state, including the Wagalla massacre of 1984 and up to the recent ‘Operation Usalama Watch’ that caused depredations in Eastleigh. He recounts the efforts of civil society to moderate these state excesses (which intertwine with some political efforts to deal positively with the place). He criticises the weakness of the Kenyan state in resorting to harassment of Somali people as ‘theatrics’ to cover up its inability to deal with terrorist threats. And he criticises the USA and Western “representations of spaces” that are outside their perceptions of “normal social order”.  He critiques perceptions of Eastleigh as a hub of violence and illegal trade in items like weapons, using documentary sources. While admitting that Eastleigh youth may be prey to extremist ideologies he demonstrates they are also the source of ant-extremist activities such as Eastleighwood and that misplaced Kenyan state harassment and labelling of the place as alien do more to propagate extremist responses.

Carrier’s book shows we are living in a rapidly changing Kenyan economy that is delineating how our urban centres and lives are evolving and solidifying in patterns that are creating our urban future. He highlights how ‘displacement economies’ – the Somali refugees and their interactions with the Kenyan economy – have played an important part in our urbanizing world. Will Eastleigh characterize Nairobi as a city in future?

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2018 18:56

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