Nanjing Peace Forum

Downtown on the highway, Kenya's small-town version of "building roads to get rich"

The "Real Stories from Africa - China-Africa Youth Digital Training Camp" is a digital skills training program jointly developed by the Nanjing Peace Forum and The Youth Cafe, the most influential youth organization in Africa. By inviting young people in Africa to publish their own stories on the Chinese Internet, the program aims to empower young Africans and promote cooperation and people-to-people exchanges on peace issues.


Otieno Florence Achieng

A 21 year old female university student who grew up in the 45 area of Giturai, Kenya. She was born into a middle class family of five siblings to a trader mother and a welder father. Her family is the fourth largest ethnic minority in Kenya, the Luo, and she speaks three languages including English, Kiswahili and her mother tongue, Dholuo.

Githurai is a mixed area of hawkers and slums on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, about 260 kilometers from the center of Nairobi, where people from all over the country gather. Half of Githurai is located in Nairobi and is named Githurai 44, while the other half belongs to Kiambu County and is named Githurai 45, which is where I live now. There is a clear line of demarcation between Githurai 44 and Githurai 45, which is a highway built by a Chinese construction company ten years ago, the Thika Highway.


Benefiting from China's experience in building a well-connected high-speed transportation network, Chinese construction companies have strong infrastructure strength, which is not possible for local Kenyan engineers, so the Kenyan government has handed over most of the infrastructure projects, such as the Sikka Expressway, the Nairobi City Underground Bus Rapid Transit (NUBRT) Road, as well as a number of railroads and rural roads, to Chinese construction companies.

The construction of the Sikka Expressway has brought many benefits to everyone, the most direct is to shorten the time from Kiturai to Nairobi city center, which used to take 2 hours, but now it only takes 30-45 minutes. It has also boosted the commercial value of the Giturai area, placing it among Nairobi's pan-suburbs and attracting many businessmen to the area to invest in supermarkets and hotels, thus boosting the economy.

Downtown on the highway

As far as I know, most Chinese highways are closed and do not allow hawkers to do business around them. But in Kenya, there are many areas like Giturai where there are tons of vendors peddling their wares along the highway.

Giturai is a commercial center where most of the people are roadside vendors whose jobs include selling food, vegetables, second-hand clothes, etc. These vendors are known locally as "mitumba", and some of them go to the offices of some of the local companies to get a job as a messenger or cleaner. Some people also do manual work on the streets such as carpentry, welding or masonry, which is known locally as "juakali". "Juakali" in Swahili means working under the hot sun. These artisans usually place their goods on a wooden or metal stand, while vendors selling other things place their goods on mats on the ground.There are also itinerant vendors who carry their goods on their shoulders or heads, repeatedly shouting the names or prices of their goods. If business doesn't come to them, they go looking for it themselves. Sometimes, if a car on the road is driving slowly or is parked, these vendors will go directly to the car with their goods and ask the driver or passengers if they need the goods; if they cannot get in the car, they knock on the window and wave their goods to the passengers inside.


If you are unfortunate enough to be stuck in a traffic jam on one of these roads, then you will be lucky enough to see a scene where, in addition to the large number of vehicles jammed on the road, there are countless vendors traveling through these stopped vehicles, who seize this perfect opportunity, knowing that these vehicles will be stranded for a long time, and with their goods in hand, begin to peddle them to each and every vehicle he walks past.


Swollen markets

These vendors usually buy their needs wholesale from a wholesale market in Nairobi called "Gikomba". They mainly sell second-hand clothes or small items from China, but also wholesale food such as fish and vegetables. Sometimes they also buy from wholesalers in rural areas, where many farmers also sell large quantities of cheap vegetables.

At 6am every day, these vendors have long since found their stronghold and started doing business, and if you come late, all the good locations will have been taken by now. When business is good, they can even earn 3,000 shillings a day (note: the exchange rate was 0.068 shillings to the Chinese yuan), but since it is an open-air business, they have to depend on the weather, and if there is a rainy season, their business will be very difficult, and they will have no income for a long time.

In Kiturai, the market expands rapidly each morning, and as more vendors flood into the market, the space available to each operator shrinks drastically and competition becomes greater. The worst traffic jams usually occur in the mornings and evenings around 6-11 p.m. This is mainly the peak commuting time, when people doing business or working in Nairobi need to commute to and from Nairobi on a daily basis.

Traffic jams are easy to get into during the morning rush hour, and bus fares are higher during this time because bus operators believe that this guarantees that they will get customers who have jobs, and having jobs means that they can afford the prices, and they have no other choice but to get to work on time.


Overcrowding makes it difficult for people to move around in the market, in addition, if there are more vendors setting up stalls on the side of the road, it can make it difficult for you to move around in the market as they leave only a very narrow lane for pedestrians. The traffic police have a headache with this kind of thing and try to stop vendors, motorcycles and local bus operators from doing business on the roadside and service lanes, but their efforts are always in vain. The reason all these vendors crowd here is that it reaches more customers and those commuters have to pass through this highway.

Order and life

The police used to arrest hawkers who were on the highway and these people would spend 24 hours in jail and then each had to pay a bail of 500 shillings (note: the exchange rate of the shilling to the Chinese yuan at the time was 0.068) to get out. If you got in on a weekend, the police station wouldn't release you on the weekend, you had to wait until Monday, and then if you got out, you'd probably have been fired long ago.

I remember one day I was walking near the market and the city council officials came to evict these street vendors and out of fear of being arrested all the vendors picked up their belongings and took off running. This caused a lot of commotion, however, many police officers took advantage of this situation to collect protection money from the vendors and those who did not pay were taken to the cells.

Even after repeated arrests, these hawkers would still look for another place to continue such business after their release because they have to feed their families, but business elsewhere is never as good as at the highway junction, forcing most of them to return to their original places and repeat the tragedy. The government authorities could not do anything about the situation, so they later started charging these hawkers 50 shillings per day (note: the exchange rate of shillings to Chinese Yuan was 0.068 at that time) for being close to the highway as well.

Also thanks to the Chinese company, the Githurai commuter train station in Area 45 has been modernized. It used to take about an hour to travel to the center of Nairobi by this train, but now it takes only half an hour. The modernization of the train station led to the blocking of the surrounding fields that were previously occupied by hawkers, and the hawkers in the area received a two-day eviction notice from the government. The government broke the news to the head traders in the area and asked them to help spread the news to the various traders, but the news was not taken seriously at all by the traders, who continued their business there as if nothing had happened.


Until one morning in August 2020, when the government suddenly brought in a bulldozer and started demolishing the vendor stalls there. A woman had a restaurant in the area and everyone here knew her because she cooked delicious food. That morning, she went to open her business, but to her surprise, everything was destroyed, which devastated her so much that she was even rushed to the nearest clinic. 

This series of government operations has thrown the traders on the original area into chaos and despair, all of them have suffered huge losses, and they can't find any other better place to start afresh. The government has fenced off this field to prevent these people from running in again. Some vendors still haven't given up and have resumed their business across the street from the train station, there's no way around it, you have to feed a family.

If there is a lack of job opportunities in a place, those who are unemployed will inevitably fall into poverty. In addition, a large number of young people may consequently do something illegal like robbing, stealing or even taking drugs, which the growth of business and the increase in employment opportunities help to prevent. All people need a steady income to support the basic expenses of their families, and they also need the market to provide an opportunity for them to flex their muscles and show their creativity.

Over time, the arrival of the highway has proven to be a good thing. Most intuitively, the economy of Kithurai has improved significantly since 2012, with GDP lifting by 4.6%-5.0% per year. More and more business projects are coming to the area, and they are also creating more jobs for the local unemployed youth, easing some of the social tensions. The people of Jiturai have now learned how to face the obstacles ahead of them and turn them into survival opportunities. The construction of the Sikar highway has not blocked their way of life, despite the difficulties and conflicts. They still persist in running their small businesses along this roadside.

Xiao Chengxue


Majoring in Communication Studies at Donghua University, Nanjing Peace Forum compiler and journalist, she has interned in media companies such as Caixin and Punch News, and is now engaged in cultural communication work in Kenya.

2024-03-13 04:36:17

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Nanjing China