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

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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.

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