A picture of Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera.

It is a myth that history repeats itself. A truer statement is that people feel that history repeats itself because they look to the past to predict the future. But the future is never like the past. By focusing on this supposed repetition, mistakes are made as people repeat the past even though the situation has changed. This is particularly true with urbanization in Kenya. People assume that urbanization in Kenya will repeat the process of urbanization in the United States and England, but it is quite different as I will indicate in this Report from Kenya.

The United States has become predominately an urban country with over four out of five people living in urban areas. In 1790 the rate was only one out of twenty and even in 1900 the rate was four out of ten. As people left the farms for urban centers they propelled the industrial revolution in the US as former farmers became factory workers. Likewise in England during the enclosure movement people were forced from the countryside into urban areas where they became employed in the industrial revolution. In both cases the conditions for the new migrants to the cities were originally terrible.

This is the accepted history that is supposed to repeat itself – namely, rural areas become depopulated as the cities absorb and employ those who have moved from the countryside. This is not what is happening in Kenya.

While the urban population, particularly in Nairobi, is growing rapidly, this is due to the fact that 60% or so of the economic activity of the country is based in Nairobi. That is where the jobs are so people move there for employment. But unlike the American and English “history”, people do not stay in Nairobi. They sojourn there for work only. For example, while 5% of the Kenyan population is over 60 years old, the normal age of retirement, in Nairobi only 2% of the population is over 60. Those who have retired have moved back to their homes in the countryside where they grew up. Likewise only 30% of the people in Nairobi are under 15 years old, while for the country as a whole 40% of the people are under 15 years old. In short the city has a deficit of children and elder people with a surplus of those of working age. This is also true of the other cities in Kenya – Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kakamega, Kitale, and so on.

One of the main problems with Kenyan urbanization is that there is no low or even moderate cost housing. Sixty percent of the 4.5 million Nairobians are squeezed into its 250 or so slums which comprise only 5% of the land area. See the picture of Kibera at the top of this article. I have a brother-in-law who has lived in Kibera for decades, doing whatever economic activity he can find. His wife and children live in Viyalo, Gladys’ home village. He frequently makes the journey from Nairobi to Viyalo to visit his family and bring the wherewithal needed for the family to survive. When he retires, he will move back to the countryside.

Gladys has a good friend, Ebby, who worked for the United Nations in Nairobi. With a regular salary, she was able to buy a house in Nairobi. Yet through the years she nevertheless continued to invest in her rural property, building a nice house and developing a productive farm. When she retired she did not stay in Nairobi, but moved back to her country home and rented out her Nairobi house for additional income. In other words, psychologically the move to Nairobi was only temporary.

When a person works for the government as a teacher, police officer, or other official, he or she can be appointed anywhere in the country. Moreover over the years the person is likely to be moved from one place to another. This makes it difficult for a person to buy a house where he or she is working. Consequently he or she rents the one room apartments so common here in Lumakanda and all over the country. It then makes complete sense for that person to invest his or her surplus income in property and farming in the home area.

Gladys and I have an extremely large number of young relatives. When they finish schooling, many of them go off to Nairobi or other cities to seek their fortune. While a few succeed, most do not. Typically they might go to Nairobi, then Mombasa, then perhaps to Eldoret or another city to look for employment. Many then return to their home in the countryside and perhaps after while they try again. In other word people are not moving permanently to the cities, but there is a continuous churning as people come and go.

The exception to this are the landless people who, for one reason or another, do not have a home in the countryside. They have no place to return to and so are marooned in the cities. These people, though, are a minority of the population.

The 2010 new Kenyan constitution implemented “devolution” setting up 46 counties with a governor and local legislature in place of the formerly completely centralized government in Nairobi. To date it seems that this has led to more economic development outside of Nairobi including in the countryside. This may make it much more practical for people to work in their home area.

In the United States and England, as the population moved from the rural areas to the cities, they became employed in the industrial revolution. This is not happening in Kenya. Less than twenty percent of the adults have paid jobs with a regular salary. The rest live from hand to mouth with whatever activity they can to secure some income. Consequently they have no specific ties to any certain place and can easily move from one place to another and back home again if things are not working out. At home there is no need to rent or impose on some relative or friend for a place to live and food can come directly from the farm. There may be economic opportunities in the cities, but the cost of living in the city is many times larger than the countryside.

The history of migration from the rural areas to cities is not repeating itself in Kenya. As the birth rate continues to decline and more economic opportunities develop in the countryside, it is not at all clear how this will develop. Looking what happened in the US and England is not the repetition of the history that will occur in Kenya. Making the assumption that this history will repeat itself will lead to mis-interpretation of what policies need to be adopted in Kenya.

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David Zarembka

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