Best of Panoramicdon

How Nairobi’s Geography Shapes Our Lives

A little over a hundred years ago, the bustling city that we call home was little more than an uninhabited swamp littered with wild animals. The city of Nairobi came to be when the British took advantage of the last flat area they encountered before beginning their ascent up the escarpment wall while constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway. Where Nairobi stands today, the British pitched camps where they could pause for a breather before embarking on the grueling attempt to ascend the rail track over the escarpment, into the Rift Valley and beyond.

The decision to pitch camp at Enkare Nyirobi, as it was known then, and the resultant growth of the camp into the capital city has shaped and continues to shape the lives of its residents to date.

Before proceeding, it’s best to understand the position of Nairobi relative to its surroundings for this piece to make sense. Nairobi lies a few kilometers to the East of the Rift Valley, with the closest distance being the 30 Kilometers to Ngong’ Hills, which forms part of the escarpment.  The map below shows the position of Nairobi relative to the escarpment. The red line is roughly where the escarpment runs.

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Nairobi’s proximity to the Rift Valley has lent it a unique geography with the city roughly divided into two halves of varying elevations. That the city is quite limited in terms of acreage only serves to better highlight the striking difference in altitude between its Eastern and Western halves. As you approach Nairobi’s Eastern boundaries from Athi River, you are in a relatively flat area: the Athi plains. This flat area stretches North-South from Ruiru, across Eastlands, Industrial Area, the Nairobi National Park all the way to Rongai in the South.

The city experiences a sudden rise on its western side as the ascent up the escarpment wall begins. This ascent sees Nairobi areas such as Karen, Langata, Ngong’ road, Westlands, Parklands, Gigiri all the way to Kiambu being higher than the aforementioned areas on the eastern side.

The difference in height manifests itself clearly along the low-high divide that cuts across the city, a feature that sees sudden steep ascents/descents in various parts of Nairobi. The slope that marks this divide runs from Rongai cutting across Magadi road near Multimedia University and extends all the way across the National park. You will notice the descent if you’ve been to a game drive at the National Park where you drive from a high area where the offices are located (with lots of trees) to a low flat grassland. The low-high divide is shown in the map below with the black line roughly indicating where the slope is located across the city.

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The slope extends past the National Park and cuts across Langata road near Uhuru gardens, hence the elevation as you approach Langata. The cliff face extends beyond Nairobi Dam and manifests itself on Mbagathi road where it cuts across the road near Highrise and extends all the way to Upper hill behind Kenyatta Hosital, KASNEB and Madaraka estate. Along this particular stretch, the railway runs adjacent to the slope. The slope approaches the CBD and can be clearly seen on Bunyala road near NIC Bank and the Railway Golf Club. Uhuru Park is perhaps the most famous stretch of this slope that continues its division of the city along State House road and Kileleshwa to resurface clearly on Waiyaki Way near Chiromo. Along this entire stretch, the average height above sea level increases by up to 100M. Beyond Westlands, the slope is seen in Parklands and runs adjacent to Thika road in Muthaiga past Garden estate and beyond.

The difference in height between the eastern and western side of Nairobi has determined the zoning of the city (hence delineating the affluent and working class areas), the drainage pattern, weather and vegetation in Nairobi.

The higher areas to the West of Nairobi are relatively ‘richer’ than the Eastern half of the city. Thika road and Langata road roughly divide the city into an Eastern-Western half while the Northern corridor – Mombasa Road and Waiyaki Way – divides the city to have a Northern and Southern half. The intersection of these roads near the City center divides the city into four quadrants.

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The upper Western quadrant bordered by Thika road and Waiyaki way (quadrant 1) is home to the super rich of Nairobi, Kenya and the region in general. This quadrant contains suburbs like Gigiri, Nyari, Runda, Kitisuru as well as the UN headquarters and high end shopping malls.

The lower Western quadrant bordered by Langata road and Waiyaki way (quadrant 2) houses the upper middle class and includes estates like Kileleshwa, Lavington, Hurlingham and Adams Arcade. The periphery of this quadrant has working class estates like Kawangware while the affluent Karen that borders the escarpment at Ngong’ is also situated at the southern tip of this quadrant.

The lower Eastern quadrant bordered by Langata road and Mombasa road (quadrant 3) is largely filled by the Nairobi National Park with estates like Rongai, South C and Nairobi West being on its edges. The upper Eastern quadrant bordered by Mombasa road and Thika road (quadrant 4) is largely a working class area and an industrial zone. This includes estates adjacent to Thika road like Mathare and Kasarani, estates along Outer Ring and Jogoo roads as well Embakasi and areas near the JKIA. It is also worth noting that the City’s two airports are situated in the relatively flat Eastern half of the city.

The aforementioned slope also affects the drainage of Nairobi. The law of gravity dictates that water flows downhill and with a flat area bordering an elevated one, it is no coincidence that Nairobi was described as a swamp by the British when setting up the city. Water flows rapidly eastwards whenever it rains and upon reaching the Eastern plains, the water spreads out forming a flood plain that is best seen in the National Park. This explains why certain areas of the city experience flooding whenever it rains. The areas that lie adjacent to the slope (indicated in blue in the second map) including Rongai, South C, TMall, Nairobi West, Bunyala road roundabout and Thika road at Pangani experience the worst of the flooding. South C residents will attest to the peculiar phenomenon where it floods in the estate despite no rain falling in the area. Run-off water from Langata, Karen and Ngong finds its way to South C and the National Park causing floods in this flood plain. Indeed, South C has earned the infamous ‘South Sea’ tag due to the frequent floods. The above phenomenon also partly explains the images seen when flash floods caused parts of Thika road to look like a river a few months back. (These areas need enhanced storm drainage, something the British were oblivious to when settling on a flood plain and the Kenyan authorities have done little to address).

While Nairobi’s climate is relatively standard across the city, there are times when the weather fluctuates from one part of the city to another. This ‘micro climate’ phenomenon is influenced by the difference in altitude. Apart from the example of Langata, Karen and South C above, you find situations where it rains in Hurlingham, Kilimani and Kenyatta Hospital but it becomes sunny as you descend to the other end of Mbagathi road at TMall.  The weather is also cooler in the Western side of Nairobi than the Eastern side especially in the morning, typified by the fog along Waiyaki way in the morning.

There’s a similar distinction in the soil and vegetation in the Eastern and Western side of Nairobi. As this map below shows, the higher Western side is ‘greener’ with more fertile soils. This explains why the early settlers had coffee farms especially in the areas adjacent to Kiambu road. This particular area lies at the foot slopes of the Aberdares which forms part of the escarpment.  The large coffee farms were later subdivided towards independence to form the affluent suburbs of Nairobi. Karen estate was also a farm made famous by Karen Blixen’s memoir ‘Out of Africa’.

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Beyond Nairobi towards the Rift, there is a steady increase in height with dramatic change of weather as you approach the peak of the escarpment. This includes areas like Limuru which have an average height of 2200m above sea level with the neighbouring Nairobi being 1800m above sea level. Kinale forest situated 20kms from Naivasha is the peak of the escarpment along the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway before the dramatic descent to Naivasha.

Dip slope .

The distinct diversity in altitude over a small, compact area has given rise to a unique city that has the distinction of being the only city with a park in the world. Rivers, valleys, flood plains, hills, forests, dry areas and views of the Great Rift valley co-exist in this thriving city that is the biggest between Cape and Cairo. I’ll end this piece by giving you all a heads up. While it took me the better part of three years to observation and deduction with a couple of months researching and drafting this blog piece, it will take you a trip to the KICC helipad and information from this blog post to appreciate the unique geography of this city we call home and how it affects our everyday life as Nairobians.

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Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 36 Comments

So long, Godfather

Godfather

Yesterday, the greatest chapter yet in the best story of my life came to an end. The legendary Sir. Alex Ferguson walked into a football tunnel never to come out again as the manager of Manchester United United Football Club. His was a chapter in the United story that is unlikely to be matched in longevity and success and he’s been rightly lauded to the high heavens over the past fortnight for his achievements.

My tribute to the old man who gave us most of our lives’ best moments won’t focus on his incredible achievements but rather how he managed the club so successfully. In many ways, Sir Alex managed United with the ruthless efficiency a Don would run a mafia organization. (If we put aside our prejudices, we’ll realize that accomplished mobsters are just like leaders in any other industry in life, be it business or sports).

In particular, the story of Sir Alex shared many similarities with the greatest mafia story ever told and its central character, Don Vito Corleone, better known by his reverential moniker ‘The Godfather’. For starters, both men demanded unquestionable loyalty. Considering the many competitors seeking to usurp their ‘organizations’ at the top of their respective games, both leaders considered loyalty a must if they were to maintain their status at the summit.

Sir Alex and The Godfather also shared the same cruelty to adversaries, real or perceived. The media, the F.A, opposing managers, referees and even our own players and fans have faced the wrath of the boss throughout his tenure if he felt they were out to undermine his team. This compares with how the Don would go after enemies and foes who posed a threat including his own lieutenants and capos.

At the same time, both men are also famed for their kindness and generosity, going out of their way to ensure they are there for those who need them. The Godfather by Mario Puzo starts off with incidences where people come to Don Corleone to seek favors of all kinds. The Don didn’t discriminate, helping anyone who came to him regardless of social standing. This kind streak was also exhibited by the Don of the football world Sir Alex Ferguson, helping managers across the different leagues in football and offering his support during difficult moments. He’s written hundreds of letters of support and gratitude to United fans over the years while also attending weddings, funerals and other social events of importance in the lives of United fans. Don Corleone in much the same way attended as many funerals, weddings and baptisms as he could. Such gestures of friendship and loyalty gave a human touch to these larger than life characters and endeared them more to those who loved them.

The outreach that so characterized these two men contrasted sharply with their code of silence that was vigorously enforced during their respective tenures. The mafia is famed for its code of silence, Omerta, that forbids leaking of information to outsiders. Omerta is so central a pillar in the mob that those who break it pay the ultimate price for their betrayal. At United, there is an unwritten rule that club business should strictly remain as such with no info leaked out at any cost. In my fifteen years of supporting United, never have I seen newspaper articles or exclusives generated on the back of dressing room snitches or moles as happens with other clubs. In the one instance where Jaap Stam alluded to Fergie tapping him up when he was at PSV, the boss got rid in no time despite Stam being one of our best players at the time. With many people seeking to chip away at their position at the top of the game, the two leaders ensured they didn’t give them any extra ammo to help bring them down.

Family meant everything to both men and they did everything they could to protect them. Sir Alex infamously boycotted the BBC for eight years due to a 2004 documentary that portrayed his son in bad light. He also treated his players like family and was viciously protective of them. The media got a mouthful when they constantly questioned Veron’s worth to the team. “On you go. I’m no fucking talking to you. He’s a fucking great player. You are all fucking idiots,” said Sir Alex to the media gathered that day.

The characters in ‘The Godfather’ also share a resemblance with characters in Fergie’s United story. Sir Alex being the Don has got his own consiglieri, Ryan Giggs. Like the adopted son Tom Hagen, Giggs has been by Fergie’s side for the better part of his reign. Giggs has grown into a wise and respected figure within the team and was increasingly consulted by the boss on team affairs. It is telling that the new manager met Sir Alex and Giggs together last week presumably to plan for the future. Giggs will be central in the new regime, maintaining the culture and traditions of the club and ensuring the winning mentality is sustained.

David Moyes plays the role of Michael Corleone, the unfancied heir who most resembles the master in character and ends up taking over from him eventually. Moyes, like Michael takes over from the boss ahead of more fancied and flamboyant if abrasive characters. Many expected Mourinho to take over at United much like Sonny was expected to take over from the Don but their abrasive, combative nature proved their undoing and both men suffered as a result. The deceptively ruthless, obsessive Moyes assumes the leadership post and is likely to maintain the traditions and culture of prioritizing youth and attacking football that is ingrained in the club’s DNA.

Both Ferguson and the Don were visionary men who planned for life long after they are gone. The need to maintain their legacy and success saw both men planning for the next phase. Fergie built a youthful team that has its best days ahead and scouted for the best successor in his mould to sustain his empire. The Don, sensing turmoil in New York, built up his enterprise in Las Vegas as he planned for withdrawal. He also had a successor in his mould installed and when the time was right, the New York empire was abandoned with vanquished opponents in its wake and the empire shifted to Vegas with its new head.

In the end, both the stories of Sir Alex and Don Corleone are legendary narratives in their own rights. Where Fergie trumps his counterpart is that his is a real story of epic achievements while ‘The Godfather’ is a fictional account of a successful mob boss. Considering how surreal Sir Alex’s achievements at United are, his story could as well be fictional given how incredible it has been. The story will be barely believable to those who weren’t lucky enough to witness it unfold.

The great Scot has also done it for a longer time and has maintained his empire’s position at the top for the better part of three decades. And that is not the end of it. The stability, mentality and aura that Fergie has instilled at the club will long outlast him ensuring that the great story goes on.

Manchester United is an endless book that forever keeps giving. It has given us many tales of the master doing his thing, inducing the full spectrum of human emotions from frequent joy, madness, hysteria, nostalgia and the odd incidences of sadness and bile. And there is more yet to come. No sooner had Fergie time come to an end than we started anticipating the David Moyes chapter. We are already speculating on its main characters, the plot twists that lie ahead and the inevitable success. Will Rooney stay? Will we re-sign Ronaldo? Bale? How many trophies will we win over the next few years?

Sir Alex, the strong, brave and principled character stood tall against adversaries and challenges, defying critics and succeeding in a way that no one has or likely will in football history. In short, he is the kind of man we all wish to be in whatever industry we are in.

So for all the memories, joy, inspiration and the wonderful story that we’ll all tell our kids and grandkids, we thank you Sir Alex. Here’s us collectively kissing your pinky ring and wishing you the best in your retirement. So long, Godfather.

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Sports | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

Photo Blog: Ngong Hills 4/20

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So it’s been a while since I did a photo blog. Last week I had the chance to go hiking up Ngong Hills. The hills are the most predominant physical feature around Nairobi, rising to a height of over 2400m above sea level, a cool 500m above the average height of Nairobi.

The Eastern slope of the hills overlooks Ngong town, Rongai, Nairobi National Park and the city of Nairobi. On the western slope is a steep descent into the Great rift valley. My visit coincided with the peak of the rainy season and the lush, green expanse that stretched to every horizon was magical. My body was complaining the whole way up the hill but the sensory delight made it worth the hustle.  The massive windmills, watching the rain fall on the rift valley side and the colourful iridescent clouds all added to the delightful experience.

Hope you enjoyed the photos and if you can, go and experience for yourself the beauty of nature from a vantage point so easily accessible. Cheers

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | Tags: | 7 Comments

Access to football news, then and now.

I was following the trial of John Terry on twitter recently and a tweet I came across made me pause to think of how access to football news has evolved since the days I started following the English Premier League. In the race to break the news first, certain journos and wanna-be journos had logged into twitter through two separate devices with each device having a tweet ready to be sent. One phone or PC would have the words “John Terry: Not Guilty” and another “John Terry: Guilty” with thumbs ready to click on ‘Tweet’. The race to break the news was on.

Compare this with the late nineties when the most up to date way of accessing such news would have been through Sky News through their sports bulletin every twenty past the hour.  Sky News used to be televised through the now defunct STV/ TvAfrica which would be on during the day and late at night. If your team had made a signing or had a player injured, you either had to stay up late to catch Sky news (which was a problem considering we were in primary school and had a bedtime to abide to) or wait for the sports news on local news which was brief and useless. I remember the disgust when you would wait for KTN sports news and after two or three news pieces, Tony Gachukia or Robert Soi would inform that that was it for sports news without giving you the news you were waiting for.

Charlie Thomas, the face of Sky news sports. (c/o skynews.com)

Lack of internet meant that the local dailies would carry a sports piece two days after the news broke. This was due to the fact that they would not have accessed the piece from Associated Press meaning that the piece would be forwarded to the next day.

The internet started to become available intermittently at the turn of the millennium. The wait for ‘news’ was getting more and more excruciating with each passing season. Finally, something had to give. In the summer of 2002 after the Japorea World Cup, rumours were abound that Sir Alex wanted to sign English defender Rio Ferdinand from rivals Leeds United. Leeds had only signed Rio two seasons before, breaking the transfer record for a defender in the process but financial difficulties meant they had to sell their assets. If United were to sign him, they would have to cough up quite an amount. I longed for the deal to be completed as he would have added to our defensive ranks which wasn’t the strongest at the time. The tension was getting to me and when I heard (belatedly as was the case back then) that Rio had undergone a medical at United, the excitement got the better of me. It was this sequence of events that led to me to breaking my online virginity.  I quickly rushed to the nearest cyber, Naitel at my friend Arnold’s place and despite the prohibitive fee of five bob per minute (five times the current average rate), nothing was gonna stop this moment of destiny.

With help from Arnold’s brother Steve, I typed in the magical words in the address field.. ‘www.manutd.com.’ The red and black background on the website was contrasted with a picture of Rio in a white suit being unveiled at Old Trafford by the manager. Alas, he had arrived.

The eagle has landed. Rio Ferdinand on signing for Man United. (Image c/o Reuters)

The joy I experienced at that moment and the significance of it all is understood better in hindsight. Yesterday marked ten years to the day this happened and what an experience it has been. In his time at United, Rio has won five Premier League titles, one FA cup, the Champions League and numerous other trophies in the most successful period the club has had in its long history. On a personal note, access to news has gone from being a tedious process to being bombarded with news as it happens. To that extent, I have gone from consuming news and analysis on the net to this, providing content on the net through a blog. The wheel has indeed come full circle.

As the Terry verdict was announced to a flurry of ‘Not Guilty’ tweets, one couldn’t help but help but crack a wistfully nostalgic smile at how technology has evolved and with it, the speed with which we access the news. The mind boggles at the thought of writing a similar article ten years from now and how things will be by then. So here’s to another decade of technological evolution and continued success by the greatest team of them all. Cheers.

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Sports | 17 Comments

Rio in Pictures

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | 20 Comments

From Brazil, with love.

From the comfort of a sofa and a screen, I have ‘traveled’ the world over, ‘discovering’ corners of the world that would leave many a great explorer of centuries gone by green with envy. Satisfying as it may be knowing the geography, history and culture of a region in Nepal or a city in Bolivia, the yearning to feel the experience in actuality never escapes an armchair traveler. I recently got the opportunity to get this monkey off my back when a trip to Brazil with my friends materialized. It’s true what they say about travel being an eye opener and the trip to South America was quite an enriching experience. Among the many observations, the following stood out:

  1. Being away from home makes you appreciate your roots – The default outward looking mentality of appreciating anything foreign and exotic makes someone not fully appreciate their own. We have seen it with the post-humorous discussions of Wangari Maathai’s life. A foray outside our borders sharpens our ability to observe another culture, enabling us to apply that level of perception and appreciation to our own roots. This got us to understand how big Kenyan athletes are in the worlds eyes. Every time you told a Brazilian you are from Kenya, they asked you about running or whether you are there for a marathon. As far as ambassadors go, you can’t beat that. The same way we associate Brazilians with football is how the world associates us with running. No offence to our East African neighbors but I’m certain we would have been given a puzzling look if for instance we stated our nationality as Ugandan or Tanzanian. Nor would a Brazilian know anything about Moldova, Oman, maybe even Euro countries like Latvia, Montenegro and such. But they know about Kenya. Which gives you a rush of nationalistic pride. It’s incredible to think that I had to be 20,000km from home to realize how much of a big deal our runners are and the extent to which they have put our country on the world map.
  2. Travel challenges you to get you out of your comfort zone – In many ways, our lives are a set of routines repeated ad infinitum and the measure of success and personal achievement becomes equally limited. As long as our bank accounts are regularly replenished or our transcripts favorably graded, most will feel contented without further introspection or an urge to self-improve. Chatting with an uneducated hawker or a Brazilian hooker in English when their native language is Portuguese leaves you red-faced and feeling quite limited as a person. Knowing a foreign language became a goal of ours as we left Brazil, if not for anything to get rid of that bugging feeling of inadequacy and foster that common bond of humanity.
  3. Brazilians love their football- Yes, everyone knows that Brazil is a football mad country but you don’t realize the extent to which the game permeates every aspect of their society till you set foot in the country. From floodlit mini-pitches in the city center where tournaments go on way past midnight to the beach pitches, football facilities are everywhere. And they are not afraid to nail their colors to the mast as almost all shops will have a flag of the team the owner supports. A waiter will politely tell you the jersey you are wearing is ‘shit’ if he supports a rival team. The height of their passion was evident when you see a group of friends playing beach football at Copacabana at 3:30 am. At the stadium, football attendance isn’t limited to the lower class and a section of the middle class male population as happens locally; from chain smoking old men to incredibly beautiful and scantily clad ladies, the crowd was as diverse as it could get. (For the football fans, you will be surprised to find out that Mane Garrincha and not Pele is regarded as the best player of all time).

    For the love of the game. Brazilian drummer chica leading the chants at Fluminense vs Avai match, Egenhao stadium.

  4. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness – In a world where stereotypes are taken for facts, getting to see people in their natural setting and interacting with them changes how you see them. Yes there was that white woman who clutched her bag tighter upon seeing you but that was an exception rather than the norm. At the end of the day, all human beings are essentially that; humans. People are curious to know your story, where you come from, how people live where you come from as they warmly welcome you to their country. The fears you had about a certain place quickly dissipates as you realize the innate friendliness of people. As Maya Angelou put it, travel is the one hope we have to recognize “that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die.” And just like that, the artificial divisions we put upon ourselves goes away. Essentially, we are all just people trying to get the best out of life.
  5. Brazil is no 3rd world country – The perception among most people is that Brazil is a third world country when it’s anything but. Rio is Brazil’s second largest city and the standards set there are extraordinarily high. From ethanol-fueled cars, to elaborate subway systems, exemplary public amenities to general public hygiene, Rio reeks of a highly developed city. As per Mercer’s city rankings of cost of living for expatriate employees, Rio de Janeiro ranks 12th among the most expensive cities in the world in 2011 ahead of London, Paris, Milan, and New York City. Rio also has expensive hotel rates with the daily rate of its five star hotels the second most expensive in the world after New York City. With these rates set to increase during major events, those planning to attend the 2014 world cup best save up quite some amount if the trip is to become a reality.
  6. 6.The beauty of Art- If done in a coordinated way between the artists and authority, street art adds real beauty to a city.  Words don’t do justice to art so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | 36 Comments

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