In the early 90s, I had my first encounter with the unique private taxis of Kisumu known as Kondelez. The name is derived from Kondele which is Kisumu’s version of Soweto township in Johannesburg during the struggle for liberation, the epi-centre of the country’s socio political unrest, second only to Kibera in Nairobi. The taxis would ply from the town centre to Kondele-Carwash and back.
The Kakamega road was potholed and narrow. The taxis, were beat up Peugeot 404 saloons, commonly referred to as “opija”. Passengers would be squashed into them like potatoes in a sack. Five passengers in the back seat plus a tout who practically had his upper torso sticking out of the window. Oddly, looking out for more passengers. Four people would occupy the front seats and the driver usually had only enough leg room to work the pedal. The passenger seated next to him would sometimes be charged with making the gear shift. “Omera!, Rwak ane namba ariyo kanyo” ( My man, engage the second gear).
Kisumu then, had a perennial water shortage despite sitting literally on the shores of the world’s largest fresh water lake. Compounded by daytime and night-time temperatures that could only have been useful for solar panels and drying clothes. Unlike Mombasa, Kisumu homes were not designed to handle the heat. You bore the sweltering heat bravely. Nights could be compared to a lock down in a sauna.
I changed schools from Nairobi to Kisumu eager to learn the town’s rhythms. It appeared that Kisumu residents had refused to take the necessary adjustments to make the weather bearable. People largely wore stuffy clothing because they had to look formal and smart, in total denial of the weather condition. Heat was something to be tolerated and taking the suffering personally was discouraged. It didn’t help that Kondele had no tree cover worth talking about. The few dusty trees stood out like aliens against a mishmash of buildings jostling for a view of the highway.
The high temperatures escalated the frantic nature of the dusty Kondele neighbourhood pushing the buttons of its short tempered residents. Ordinary working class men largely surviving in the informal sector but politically astute lost their cool regularly over perceived party-political machinations directed at opposition kingpin Raila Odinga. At the slightest hint of national political discord, Kondele begun to twitch.
For most of March, sitting in Nairobi traffic conjured up memories of the stifling interior of a Kondele taxi. Nairobi used to be a city known for its cool temperatures and greenery. When folks from Kisumu came to Nairobi they would complain about the cold nights. A cousin who lived in Sweden, had a long running joke of our Kisumu relatives getting cranky in anticipation of a frost bite when the temperatures dropped to a cool 15 degrees Celsius. Folks from Kisumu would consider anything under 20 degrees Celsius as wintery, making them susceptible to homa (a cold).
Nairobi lost its cool experiencing daytime temperatures of 30 degrees (going on 40) regularly. The heat has exacerbated stress levels of residents stuffed in houses designed to keep out the cold. In cramped high rise estates encased in cement with no cross ventilation, Nairobians have turned English, always talking about the weather. Nights are stifling. Where is June when you need her? Cold weather is easy to deal with. One can layer up and drink whisky. But heat follows you indoors like a mosquito, bugging one persistently to submission. Conveniently, taps have run dry and water tankers are crisscrossing middle class estates in brisk business filling storage tanks.
Nairobians are generally hopelessly inept at dealing with the vagaries of the weather. Optimum Nairobi weather can leave one feeling entitled. When the hot season arrives everyone complains, behaving like farmers peering at the sky in search of rain clouds. Yet as soon as the rains fall, the frustrations return as Nairobians resort to what they do best. Mourning, caught between a heat wave and a wet mess. The moods of city residents fluctuate like mourners at a funeral ceremony in Nyanza. Suppressing the rising irritation of a hot day, under a smothering plastic canopy with nothing more than bottle of mineral water as speakers engage in long tributes about a dead person they never bothered to visit while in hospital. At the same time, worried that the late afternoon rains would catch them in the wrong footwear.
The high temperatures experienced lately have left Nairobians distressed. Many have started hallucinating and basic common sense about coping with scorching heat has evaporated.
It does not help that Nairobi’s developers are on a relentless mission to leave no tree standing. In most parts of the country, tree cover is vital armour against harsh weather. But in Nairobi, trees stand in the way of development. The city has risen into an elaborate concrete maze like wild mushrooms popping out in unruly fashion in an open field. Our development model has turned rogue and we remain in denial of the consequences.
Climate change is real and Nairobi is a microcosm of the environmental carnage that is visiting the country. The gobbling up of natural resources such as the Mau water tower for short term profit has given birth to a zero tolerance approach to trees. The tragedy of our unconscious hankering for development as Nobel Laurette, the late Wangari Maathai pointed out is this.
“The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price”.