Why Umoja is the new Buru Buru

5 minutes

My friend knew there was nothing she could do or say to have the loud music in the matatu brought down. So she wore a long face throughout the 30-minute commute from Nairobi’s CBD to Umoja Estate as a defense mechanism.

When we arrived at the Ronald Ngala bus stop at around 11 pm last Friday, we were welcomed by a hubbub of hoots. The flamboyant matatus with grafittis of popular musicians, known as ‘nganyas’ in street parlance, were the only ones operating at these ungodly hours. The plain, less noisy mini buses on this route preferred by the oldies close business by 10 pm.

Though we had both been drinking and having fun, we suddenly looked like the only party poopers once we got into the matatu

Our uptight mien contrasted sharply with the vitality of youthfulness that reigned supreme in the matatu. For most of the young passengers, the blare of the Afro beats seemed to extend the carnival mood from where they had left it in the various entertainment joints they had been.

The gangster-like matatu culture is a reflection of life in Umoja Estate—an enclave of hedonism notorious for having arguably the most drinking joints per square kilometre in Nairobi.

Next to Umoja Estate, across Outer Ring Road, is Buru Buru Estate. With its gracefully-ageing townhouses, Buru Buru is an admirably laid-back middle class neighbourhood that looks unbothered by the bombastic lifestyle of its neighbour.

And on the other side of town is Westlands, a part of the so-called leafy-suburbs. Should you move away from its commercial nerve with its shopping malls that tend to attract well-heeled shoppers, towards the residential section, you will find a largely calm neighbourhood whose old money, as they say, abhors noise. 

There are still nightclubs—and nightlife—in Westlands. But the boisterous Westlands of yore that satisfied our teenage curiosities has all but faded away.

Yet if you grew up in Nairobi in the 1990s (Kama wewe si wa kukam), you probably recall the vivacity and youthful energy in Buru Buru and Westlands estates. It is not just the nightclubs that made these estates lively, the matatus also had their role.

There was Drama on the Buru Buru route and Nasty in Westlands. The two nganyas were the rulers of Jogoo Road and Waiyaki Way respectively.

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko was once reported to own quite a number of matatus on the Buru Buru route, or route 58. As writer Isaac Otidi noted, Sonko is famous for pioneering the installation of big-screen TVs at the front of the passenger cabins of his 32-seater matatus. His matatus included names like Brown Sugar, Convict, Ferrari, Lakers and Ruff Cuts.

Other routes with these flamboyant PSVs were South B, East Leigh and Ngong Road.

Started in the 1970s to give home ownership to both the low-income and aspirational middle class in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, Umoja Estate, barely had a third of the wines and spirits shops that it boasts of today when I was growing up in the early 1990s. It was a nice and austere neighbourhood. Its homes consisted of families headed by full time employees.

And yes, community facilities included nursery, primary and secondary schools. There were also health clinics and community centres, playgrounds, markets, small industry facilities, post offices, and a police station.

The matatus on the route to Umoja were ramshackle mini-buses which Umoja dudes that we went with to school avoided like a house full of lice. Umoja guys preferred to use the trendy Buru Buru’s Number 58.

Embakasi and Ongata Rongai routes were also bereft of these loud, over-speeding, graffiti-adorned PSVs.

Then in the mid-2000s things suddenly began to change. Nganyas disappeared from the Westlands, Buru Buru, South B and East Leigh routes.

They popped up on the routes to Umoja, Ongata Rongai and Embakasi.

What exactly happened?

I think gentrification happened.

These estates—Buru Buru and Westlands— became more refined. They became politer. With their children gone, the ‘para rira’ of the nganyas also went mute. The old folks left behind preferred driving their own cars. And when they wanted to use PSVs, they generally gave nganyas wide berths. 

Thus, these estates were now being served with the rickety mini buses common on the routes to Kileleshwa Estate and Lunga Lunga slums—in both routes, these matatus tend to serve the poor.

Of course, these kids would have loved to stick around their childhood middle class neighbourhoods. But there were no affordable houses for those who were just starting out.

Cheap rental apartments were barely being erected in these estates, so they colonised new territories such as Umoja, Fedha, Roysambu and Ongata Rongai where they carved new entertainment havens.

Meanwhile, the low-rise one-to-three bedroom houses in Umoja Estate, have kept giving way to high-rise apartments with bedsitters and one bedrooms, attracting droves of young people eager pouring into a tough labour market whose measly wages can barely afford them a decent house.

The allure of the many social amenities, non-existent in most of the new estates, have been stained by night clubs and whorehouses.

But, it does not matter how long my friend’s face gets, a lot of Nairobians will keep pouring into these estates.

And unless she buys her own car (hoping that the cost of acquiring a car and fueling will allow her) she will just have to let down her hair, wear a broad smile and then join the festivity in the nganya. 

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