31 December 2013

East Africa: Welcome to Eastleigh, Kenya's Most Unlikely Holiday Destination

With its sewage-flooded roads and dangerous reputation, Eastleigh may not be top of most tourist lists. But there are some around the world who just can't keep away.

Nairobi - Eastleigh, the Nairobi suburb sometimes termed 'Little Mogadishu' for its large Somali population, wouldn't strike many as a choice holiday destination. While it boasts fine hotels, excellent food and a vast array of shopping opportunities in its 40 or so malls, its often sewage-flooded roads, crowded streets, and dangerous reputation seem to preclude it being added to any tourist itinerary.

The edition of the Rough Guide to Kenya that I took along for my first spell of research in 1999 did mention the possibility of staying in Eastleigh, but recent editions have expurgated the estate, such is its notoriety, while the UK and US governments explicitly advise its citizens against visiting it.

This reputation as a place to be avoided is constantly reinforced by the negative press the estate garners, much of it sensationalised; in particular, the claim that Indian Ocean piracy spurred the suburb's economic boom owes more to lazy journalism than actual evidence.

It is undeniable though that Eastleigh has suffered much in the last few years from insecurity, including several grenade attacks in late 2012 that led to a number of deaths and sparked riots in the estate. Such attacks continue, the latest involving an explosive device planted on a matatu plying the Eastleigh-City Centre route that resulted in six fatalities and many injuries. These assaults are allegedly orchestrated by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab in retaliation against the Kenyan Defence Force's ongoing operations in Somalia.

Eastleigh residents themselves bear the brunt of such insecurity, and also suffer under the actions of the Kenyan security forces. Furthermore, Eastleigh has been even more susceptible to security operations since the tragic events at the Westgate shopping mall. Indeed, ever since the armed siege in September in which at least 67 people were killed in an al-Shabaab attack, Somali refugees have become yet more suspect in the eyes of wider Kenyan society and Eastleigh has been seen more and more as a potential base for radical Islam; round-ups of refugees and suspected illegal aliens have picked up in pace as a consequence.

Given all this, it might seem surprising that Eastleigh is a holiday destination of choice for many each year.

The majority of Eastleigh's holidaymakers come from the West, but they are not your stereotypical tourists; they are mostly visitors from the Somali diaspora. Of course, as a crucial hub of Somali international business networks, many coming to the estate do so more for business than pleasure. However, they do not account for all visitors and in my time in the estate numerous diaspora Somalis - referred to as 'diasporas' in the estate - would tell me they were there on 'holiday'.

While a holiday in a place so superficially unprepossessing and apparently dangerous might seem odd, for Somalis the attractions are obvious, especially for those with relatives there. Many diasporas have family, friends and prospective spouses in Eastleigh. Some even have actual spouses living there.

This was the case with Yasmin, a Somali from Puntland making a decent living retailing clothes in a small shop within a cavernous Eastleigh mall. She married a man now living in the US. While waiting for the opportunity to move there too, she and her husband normally have to make do with bridging the physical distance by phone and internet; however, he visits her as often as he can, perhaps twice a year.

Some of these diaspora tourists stay for months at a time, exchanging the comforts of life in the West for the muddy streets of Eastleigh and the company of loved ones. Others spend time there in passing. Many use the estate as a place to rest before and after travelling to Somalia itself, and Eastleigh travel agents do good business arranging onward travel to Mogadishu and elsewhere. Even Somali employees of international NGOs often prefer accommodation in Eastleigh to the plush hotels of downtown Nairobi; they enjoy the company of fellow Somalis in an estate that offers a familiar environment socially, religiously and culturally. Such travellers are especially noticeable in bigger Eastleigh hotels such as the Grand Royal, whose foyer is a prime meeting spot for Somalis of many nationalities with many different accents.

After all, for diasporas, Eastleigh offers tastes and experiences that are missed in the West. Such tastes include caano geel (camel milk), a commodity sold in large quantities that few in the diaspora can access, while restaurants serve camel meat in abundance, as well as the usual pasta and rice dishes favoured by Somalis.

Khat chewing might be part of the allure of the estate for some too, especially for those coming from countries such as the US (and soon the UK) where it is banned. In Eastleigh, there is a ready supply of high quality khat, and a ready supply of places where it can be consumed, including Shaah Macaan, a famous spot where men chew and smoke shisha while being served with the sweet tea to which its name alludes.

Somali music and the arts are found there too, some organised by the likes of Eastleighwood, a youth group promoting peace through the arts whose networks stretch from Eastleigh to points around the globe. Their events always feature singing by members of the group including Qaali Ladan whose songs are appreciated by a global audience on Youtube. Somali music and dancing are also common at the larger hotels, especially during the frequent weddings held in Eastleigh, which themselves attract guests from throughout the world.

Thanks to this rich cultural environment, Eastleigh is more homelike for some diasporas than their actual homes in the West, and it is a place in which many feel comfortable and content, despite the dirt and very real security issues. While Somalis talk of suffering from buufis - the desire to emigrate to the West - and despite the fact that Eastleigh is a place where many live in hope of resettlement, those who secure resettlement often desire to return, albeit temporarily and with the security of a Western passport.

Furthermore, Eastleigh does not just offer them the company of friends and relatives, and familiar sights and sounds; it also caters to tastes developed in the West. Restaurants in Eastleigh offer much in the way of diaspora food, including pizza and burgers, while supermarkets stock sweets and other Western treats.

Several of these businesses are at least part owned by diasporas. A restaurant that I frequented, for example, was run by a man who had spent many years saving up while working long hours as a limousine driver in Arizona. With connections in Eastleigh, he invested these savings in the restaurant. Such investors know the tastes of visitors from the West and cater to them.

Indeed, while older diasporas coming to the estate are attracted to its Somali-ness, younger diasporas there find that familiar Western food helps them adjust to an unfamiliar place. This was the case for young Somalis I met in Eastleigh sent there for dhaqan celis, which can be translated as 'cultural rehabilitation', a key social institution in the Somali diaspora. Some were youngsters from the US and UK whose parents worried they were becoming too Western and needed to improve their Somali language and become better Muslims. One young lad from Arizona told me how is mother had tricked him into agreeing to go by telling him that Eastleigh "was just like the USA." For him and other such diasporas, a milkshake and pizza can make a very unfamiliar place feel a little less so.

Of course, Eastleigh will be forever a place of commerce, and one that generates much wealth for Kenya: its remarkable economic transformation has not only enriched and sustained Somalis in the estate - many of whom are Kenyan nationals - but also spurred wider economic growth in Kenya, generating employment, raising tax revenue, and supplying textiles and clothes to Kenyan retailers dotted throughout the country. Many a retailer in Kakamega, Marsabit and Meru can testify to that.

But the economic impact of these diaspora holidaymakers on Kenya's economy should not be underestimated either. This point was made to me recently by a Somali taxi driver I met when visiting Chicago. He lived in Eastleigh as a refugee until 2003 when he was resettled in the US, and visits the estate when he can for a holiday. He emphasised that thousands of Somalis like him travel to Kenya to meet up with family and take a break from often hard lives in the West. He also stressed how each such visitor gives much to the Kenyan economy, beginning with a $50 fee for a visa and continuing with all the expenses of the stay there, as well as that spent on more stereotypical tourist activities such as visiting the National Reserves in which diaspora holidaymakers do tend to engage.

After years of infrastructural decay, there are signs that Nairobi county authorities are finally getting to grips with Eastleigh's roads, with both local MP Yusuf Hassan and Nairobi governor Evans Kidero chivvying contractors to speed up relaying the main thoroughfare of First Avenue, a road that often more closely resembles a river. As a business hub that contributes so much to the Kenyan economy, it clearly makes sense to ensure it has good roads and security. But the fact that is also a hub - a somewhat hidden and perhaps unlikely hub - in Kenya's main industry of tourism should further encourage positive engagement between its residents and the state.

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