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.


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.


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.


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’.

 NBO 2

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.

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

For the fear of coming across as an arrogant pseudo-intellect, I have shied away from expressing such opinion. Glad someone else did it. All you people listening to crap music, throw that shit out.

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2011-2012: Let’s make it 20

Nine months of football are with us again.With it comes excitement,sadness anxiety and the whole range of feelings that most fans experience as the new season is about to start. As a Manchester United fan I am excited at the way the team has completed the pre-season tour of America. While marketing the team, the tour was also a chance to brood in the youngsters and new signings while more importantly an opportunity for the players to get some match fitness. The highlights invloved beating the likes of MLS All Stars featuring the best of the American league 4-0, getting a small measure of revenge over Barcelona ,while we also bid farewell to the ginger prince Paul Scholes by annihilating the reborn New York Cosmos 6-0. The goal difference table read Scored 26 conceded just 3 though there isn’t much to read into pre-season.To top it off, we completed a comeback against bitter city rivals at the traditional curtain raiser to the season, the Community Shield.The show on Sunday at Wembley showed England that we won’t surrender our EPL crown so easily.


We begin the season at the Hawthorns against West Brom, a tricky fixture considering we luckily won there 2-1 last season.The big test for the month of August is Arsenal and Tottenham both at home on 22nd and 28th respectively.

September presents trips away to Bolton and Stoke, two fierce opponents who will surely give us tough tough games. The standout fixture of the month sees Chelsea visit the Theatre of Dreams on the 18th.

In October we welcome newboys Norwich to Old trafford in the first fxture. Our next two games are both derbies which will see us face our hated rivals Liverpool and Man City. The visit to Anfield will be of particular delight to the away fans as we rub in our newly acquired status as the topdogs of English football with 19 titles. The annual chance to put our ‘noisy neighbours’ in their place comes when City visit Old Trafford on the 23rd.The month ends with a tough return trip to Merseyside when we play away at Everton.

November is a simpler month with an away trip to Swansea sandwiched between home fixtures against Newcastle & Sunderland.

The bumper month of December sees us visit Astonvilla, QPR & Fulham as we welcome to the Theatre of dreams Wolves ,Wigan,and Blackburn.

January traditonally sees a surge from United and the opportunity presents itself with with an away trip to St.James Park to face Newcastle with home games against Bolton and Stoke. A pivotal away game against gunners awaits on 21st. The FA Cup also begins during this month.

February sees us take on Chelsea and Liverpool back to back on 4th and 11th respectively before we finish up with a trip to Norwich. With the return of the knock out stages of the Champions league coupled with such high profile fixtures, this will prove a pivotal month in the title race.

March sees the title race hot up with stern away tests in form of Tottenham, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn.Westbrom and Fulham visit Old Trafford complete the round of fixtures as we enter April.

Home comforts outnumber the away trips here with QPR, Astonvilla and Everton all visiting while away days await at Wigan before a possible title clash against Man city at Etihad stadium on the 29th.We wrap up the season in May with Swansea at home and Sunderland away.Believe we can make it 20.


By Guest blogger,
Loso Blue

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Debut Blog

Self perception can seem quite skewed if you take for face value what other people’s  views of you are. With a shrug of the shoulder suggesting inherent self-doubt, the reaction to being encouraged to start a blog (based on my admittedly limited literary skill) has been that of someone having the masses blow smoke up my ass. I am no Lawrence Sanders but then again I have plenty of ‘informed’ opinion on an array of subjects that can be jotted down without coming across as inane rumblings. Expect blogs on society, football, travel, photography and alot else that will muster enough interest to get me off my procrastinating ass and in front of a screen. Feedback will be appreciated as I make my bow into blogosphere. Obrigado

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