Each morning, with a quiet prayer of Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim – the first verse of the Quran – Mohaa pulls up the shutters of Nasiib Fashions, a gentlemen’s outfitters crammed with a prodigious amount of clothing. Although modest in size, Nasiib Fashions is a prime representative of a commercial revolution that has developed over the last two decades; it and the thousands of shops like it form the heart of a Nairobi estate so dominated by Somalis that it has gained the nickname “Little Mogadishu.”
From the late 1980s onwards, hundreds of thousands of people have poured out of Somalia, most of them ending up in refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia. A significant proportion, however, came to Eastleigh, bringing economic as well as demographic change. As the real Mogadishu collapsed into conflict, Nairobi’s Little Mogadishu became what it is today: a commercial hub that draws in not only refugees, but also shoppers from as far afield as Tanzania and central Africa, and investors from the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Alongside these malls, multi-story apartment blocks and hotels have also sprouted, overwhelming a once-residential landscape of one-level buildings. Thousands now work in this estate, and many more have started businesses elsewhere in Kenya, supplied by the networks that run through it. Certainly the many Kenyans who work, trade and shop here would testify to the opportunities its economy has brought them.
However, the development is viewed with great ambivalence within and beyond the country: Eastleigh itself is regarded with considerable suspicion, and is imagined by many as a place of danger. Rumors persist in Kenya and beyond that the estate has been built on money laundering of ill-gotten gains, and many fear that it harbors terrorists and terrorist sympathizers linked to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, which is in control of much of southern Somalia. Some even see it as a very alien place, despite its proximity to the heart of Kenya.
This impression of a dangerous place apart was given the Hollywood treatment in the 2015 film “Eye in the Sky,” in which U.S. drone operatives target a house in an Eastleigh overrun by armed-to-the-teeth militia. For the people who live and work there, such representations matter: its population – especially its refugees – have suffered over the years at the hands of Kenya’s security forces.
This reputation for danger and dangerous people has been heightened following the Kenya Defence Forces’ invasion of Somalia in late 2011. Sadly, rather than making Kenya more secure, at least in the short term, Eastleigh itself has been directly affected by this insecurity. The very name of the estate generates anxiety in some Kenyans, while British and U.S. travel advisories urge their nationals to avoid the place. Eastleigh has become a no-go area.
Yet thousands of people continue to go to Eastleigh daily, mostly for the mundane purpose of earning a living, or shopping at stores like Nasiib Fashions; others arrive seeking refuge. So, despite the fears of insecurity and advice of foreign governments, Eastleigh draws in crowds that can rival London’s Oxford Street at its busiest.
Its refugee population has long been a source of anxiety for the Kenyan state, especially given the government’s avowed encampment policy, and given the emphasis it places on refugee repatriation as the “durable solution” of choice in a context where integration appears unthinkable.
How to provide help to refugees living outside camps has also been a concern for the United Nations refugee agency, for whom Nairobi and Eastleigh have long been sites of experimentation for their urban refugee policy. However, its policy in this post-9/11 age is being shaped by a new emphasis on securitization. Flows of refugees are being seen as potential vectors for terror – and Eastleigh, as a suspect place through its alleged links to al-Shabaab, offers a vivid insight into how the “refugee crisis” and the “war on terror” are blurring into each other – something highly resonant in the case of Syria where refugees are seen as potential Islamic State terrorists.
But Eastleigh also offers a different take on migration by showing how, out of displacement, opportunity can emerge, for refugees and migrants and for their host communities. Indeed, the vast networks that displacement often generates can breathe new life into the places where they are woven: hubs forged out of migration become sites of innovation, and often sites of commerce. Refugees and migrants should not be preconceived as “burdens,” and displacement paradoxically can be productive economically and socially. Camps such as Dadaab have become economic hubs, deeply affecting the local communities around them despite the Kenyan government’s desire to restrict refugee interaction with wider society to a bare minimum. But it is Eastleigh that offers a concrete demonstration of the power of refugees and migrants to be catalysts of change, even in the urban heart of the host country.
Indeed, in all the contemporary focus on migration, urban areas of hypermobility such as Eastleigh loom large, as it is in cities that most migrants wish to live, and where their presence and economic activity are most conspicuous, most debated and researched, whether it be London, New York, Dakar or Libreville. Cities are increasingly the focus of migration policy debate, as witnessed by a recent International Organization of Migration conference and report focused on cities and “managing mobility” – a phrase suggestive of the perceived need to tighten control of this mobility, despite acknowledgement of the benefits that migrants often bring.
This is an edited extract from “Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub” by Neil Carrier.