Does Nairobi Have Street Culture?

Street Culture does not seem to have a very clear definition when each attaches it to their experience, of what they would perceive to be a city or town of Street Culture. In general, this would mean that there is expression of culture by youth through their creativity. We could also simplify it and say it’s the popular style of a city or town, and what distinguishes it from others. In this case we think of aspects like music, art, fashion and even sports.

Google would mainly attribute these street cultures to major cities such as London, New York and Sydney. What about some of the cities within Africa’s over 50 countries, or the Chinese city of Guangzhou – whose, what I would call their Street Culture, was for me more of a culture shock. And perhaps that shock is what would really make it clear that there is some culture in the city, which is not necessarily expressed by striking graffiti or the romantic gondolas of Venice or the delicately curated museums and galleries in the streets of Moscow.

Maybe we also need to understand a little more about the people, as in Nairobi, before we can accept that the hustle and bustle of their everyday life is in large the street culture. Maybe we need an open and explorative mindset to understand that their visual art is not static on walls, but flamboyantly painted on the crazily coloured and speeding matatus (buses).

Might you notice the excessive number of cosmetic shops on the streets? Street culture? But of course, when I see all the lovely ladies walking briskly with lips in all shades from screaming purple, to hot pink and dazzling shades of red, accompanied by the long, wavy, funky bobs and blonde hair extensions. 

After meandering through the havoc in the heart of Nairobi with people chasing time and matatu’s struggling to do the same, ushering you to take a trip with them, “beba beba! Pointi!” [come take a ride! Mixed race girl!], I finally make it to a well-stocked cosmetic shop where I try a hot pink shade of lipstick that seems to go quite well. The shop attendant assures me that I should purchase it – though I don’t, I do get some flashy nail polish. I then walk further through the streets and meet a second-hand book vendor who has an amazing collection of books. I purchase Ben Okri’s Astonishing the Gods for 100 Kenya Shillings/ $1 (in solidarity with African heritage authors). This is followed by checking out a fully-fledged lingerie shop where I get some really awesome seamless panties, which I would buy for triple the price at the mall (with no culture expressed). I enjoy looking at the styled mannequins and this gives me an idea of how the city ladies might express their private sexuality; definitely in unforgettable ways, and I will not say more on that!

Finally out of the street shop, I repeat the hustle bustle through the street. Time bound, I resist not stopping to marvel at all sorts of both gaudy and handcrafted trinkets. Further along the street I catch a glimpse of a blind man playing the harmonica; appreciated in monetary form, by the pedestrians who drop coins into his cup.

I am back to the quieter bits of the city centre, where the 28-storey Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) building peeps through the tall trees. I sit, slightly out of breathe, on a pavement, and simply observe: the government buildings, the greys of the well tarmacked roads, the carefully outlined zebra crossings, and people moving at a slower pace.

It felt like I had just came out of the magical Nowhere Emporium, back into what the city seems like to those who have not yet bothered to explore its heart’s culture.

I did not get a chance to go further into another part of the city centre where I heard I might have experienced some pretty cool skateboarding and Swahili food. But I challenge you to it.

Perhaps, there are many factors to consider in analysing the idea of Street Culture. How accessible is it? How shared and accepted? How does it evolve if at all? Does Nairobi have a Street Culture? Go figure!


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