Nairobi’s Eastleigh, dubbed “little Mogadishu” for its large Somali population, doesn’t make many “must-visit” lists. But perhaps it should. With its thriving marketplaces, miraa kiosks, and frenetic gold souk, it is the side to Nairobi that you rarely see.
St Teresa’s Catholic Church
A popular meeting spot, St Teresa’s is a sanctuary from the chaotic environs of Eastleigh. It is here I meet my guide, Clive, an Italian-Kenyan, and a Catholic priest turned Muslim. He invites me to photograph the church, an act that has surprising repercussions.
When we return here after a two-hour walk around the neighbourhood, the priest has called in extra security in response to the threat potentially posed by the lone white woman taking photographs. But a quick grilling later, we are allowed to continue on our way.
It’s mid-morning, and the miraa and mbere traders are out, spreading out their produce, and fanning it to speed the drying process. A few customers idly wait. By mid-afternoon, this area will be crowded with men – it’s usually men – chewing.
This natural stimulant, also known as qat in the Middle East, is popular among Somali communities across the world, with the men chewing for much of the afternoon.
It has proved so destructive to family life that it is banned in some parts of the world. Residents here, not all of them Somali, gravitate towards mbere, which comes from Embu because it is cheaper and more potent.
This little fish and chip shop, with its low-key dining room with formica table tops, is one of the most popular cafes in Eastleigh. Jamil, a Kenyan Indian, has been running Sunset for 36 years.
During that time, Eastleigh has moved from being a gentrified suburb of Nairobi, popular with the Italian community, into one of the most run-down areas of the city.
He has kept his standards and prices high, however, to ensure a classier kind of clientele. He proudly states that the chicken he sells come from his farm, and he changes the chip oil every day.
Shopping in Eastleigh
Forget Biashara Street, Eastleigh’s where it’s at. If you’re in the market for curtains, textiles of any kind, or discount clothing, this is where you’ll find the cheapest bargains in Nairobi.
The market area, known as Garissa Lodge, is loosely organised by product. Curtain sellers – and makers – crowd together, while it takes some dodging to navigate through the textiles, where great piles of material are scattered all over the shopping hall.
Traders assure me that what you buy in Biashara Street came first from Eastleigh, and is simply marked up.
Gold, gold, gold…
From the outside, the gold souk looks nondescript. Inside, however, dozens of shrouded Somali women, hissing and clacking to potential customers, cluster behind glass display cases of gold bangles, necklaces, earrings, and pendants. Money changers buzz around us, waving calculators.
A man offers to check my gold wedding ring for authenticity. I watch nervously as he rubs it against a black stone, and pours acid over the mark left. He smiles: It’s real.
At the silver shop, the shopkeeper points again to my fingers, and I start to pull off my ring. But no, it’s my pen he’s interested in. “Is it a hidden camera?” He wonders, peering at the lid.
With so much gold, silver and cash on site, it’s little surprise that traders here are twitchy.
Camel milk for sale
A few hundred yards further on, I see a group of women gathered around yellow drums. What is it, I wonder. Camel milk, Clive tells me. It is shipped in every morning from the northeast of Kenya. Go on, try some, he says.
I reluctantly take the proffered cup, and take a sip. It tastes smoky — thanks to the charcoal the vendors use to keep it fresh — but not unpleasant. Clive takes the cup from me and polishes it off. It’s like a laxative, he says. It cleans your system out. A short while later, he is looking distinctly queasy.
Kilimajaro Food Court
We dive into KFC. No, not Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the Kilimanjaro Food Court.
Somalis gravitate towards this very popular dining area for Somali dishes, such as tender young goat meat, camel stew, and the ubiquitous pizza. Women are encouraged to eat in the family area to the back of the restaurant.
As we leave the restaurant, Clive points out a building across the road, where I glimpse a cauldron-like vessel belching out steam. It’s a home brew, he says. Shall we take a look, I ask. Better not, he warns. It would be inviting trouble. There’s quite a lot of dubious business down here, I suggest. “Illegality,” says Clive, “is just a way for the police to get more money.”
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