Kenya: Why Are People Leaving Nairobi's Umoja Estate En Masse?

16 November 2020

There is something quite unusual happening in Umoja, or Umo as it is popularly referred to, that is causing its residents to move out en masse.

Umoja is considered convenient by tens of thousands of lower-middle-income Nairobians due to its strategic location and accessibility.

It has now become a pale shadow of its former glory.

You see, any Eastlander will tell you that Umoja was considered one of the suburbs of Eastlands some time back. It was the place to live if you ask anyone who lived in the area in the 90s and early 2000s.

And, in recent years, Umoja was the choice for anyone in their first job in Nairobi.

Houses were built with proper aesthetic value and enough room left for children's playing grounds besides well-defined walkways.

The roads were also tarmacked with proper drainage systems.

Lost glory

Not any more. Even those in their first job no longer wish to be associated with Umoja.

In a span of a few years, demand for housing blocks in the area has led to rapid sprouting of housing flats. Any available land was converted into a housing block five or six storeys high, leading to its rapid deterioration.

"I came to live in Umoja in 2007. At that time, I was attending studies at a technical institute in the city. Umoja estate was largely well-defined in terms of housing structures. Most houses were mainly main houses and the flats there were only two storeys high," recalls Oscar Odwar, a former resident of Umoja.

Water was plentiful and it was difficult to experience water shortages for weeks or months. But when housing blocks started to be built without a proper plan, the problem started," he went on.

The influx of people moving to the area to occupy the cheaper rental spaces slowly changed Umoja from its state of glory to a state of devastation.

Besides the cheap houses, Umoja attracted many urban dwellers because of its accessibility to the Central Business District and neighbouring areas like Thika and the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Easy access

Umoja can be accessed from the CBD via Jogoo Road or Outering Road.

The many routes to access the estate was another added advantage that made the area favourable to Kenyans working in the CBD.

This meant that commuters would spend reasonable time on the road especially during rush hours.

"Its accessibility is actually one of the main reasons I decided to move to Umo. Also, the availability of public transportation at any time. I was living in a two-bedroom house, which cost Sh8,000 per month. You would hardly see these carts that are used to ferry water in 20-litre containers," said Mr Odwar who lived in Umoja for 13 years before relocating to Kahawa in 2019.

"There were several basketball courts and children had plenty of places to play but most of these fields ended up being developed into apartments."

Back in the day, most houses in the estate were mainly occupied by their owners but, with the rising demand for housing in the area, most home owners opted to either rent them out or develop them into bigger housing units.

As the years went by, essential commodities like water supply in homes started becoming scarce.

The Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company introduced water rationing in order to feed the surging numbers of residents.

But the rationing seemed not to have solved the problem as taps remained dry for weeks and sometimes even months.

The sewer lines also took a hit as they could not support the increased population in the area.

"Burst sewer lines started becoming a common occurrence," explained Mr Odwar.

High rents

Then came high rent charges demanded by landlords due to increased demand.

"If I compare the population by then and now it has really increased. Children are now forced to play on balconies due to lack of space. Umoja was a very clean estate. But now there is lack of water, leaking sewers and insecurity," laments Mr Odwar.

Francis Nderitu, a photojournalist, also has good memories of the estate. This is where he was born and raised but he decided to move out last year after he got fed up with buying water every day from vendors.

"No water was coming out of the taps, it would sometimes come once in two weeks, forcing me to spend extra cash to get the precious commodity," lamented Mr Nderitu.

He says Umoja changed from being a family estate to a bachelors' haven.

This happened when some of the home owners decided to move out of the area.

Many pubs

Then there was a mushrooming of pubs and other small drinking joints.

"Pubs started popping up because of the demand by people who were now moving to Umoja. The bachelors moving to Umo were mostly people starting off their lives as independent people, and they wanted places where they can buy ready-made food, drinks and shopping without going too far from home. This gave rise to the small-scale businesses," said Mr Nderitu.

In fact, he says there is a street that was nicknamed "Pewa" because of the number of small pubs found on that stretch of road.

"It started with just one pub and then, all of a sudden, others started coming up," said Mr Nderitu.

This then attracted criminal activities like mugging and walking alone at an isolated alley was no longer safe.

Over the years, the roads also peeled off and were not repaired.

So, when it rains, the situation worsens as roads become impassable.

But Umoja was not always like this, Mr Nderitu says, and he hopes that something can be done by the county government so that Umoja does not sink deeper into the abyss.

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