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Is the Urban Sojourn a Myth?

April 20, 2017

When I worked as an urban planner in Kenya in the 1990s, I would often despair over the state of the city—particularly the mounds of garbage that seemed to characterize Nairobi in that period. The Central Bank of Kenya compound neighboring my flat on State House Crescent always had a filthy pile at its gate bombarded by Pied Crows and Marbou Storks, which I walked by every day on my way to my Ministry of Local Government office on Koinange Street.



I’d ask my Kenyan colleagues why my neighbors didn’t care about the beauty of their city. Their answer was simple and consistent: Kenyans are not urbanites. Most people in Nairobi are here for their working life—they are not committed to the city. They would argue that rural property ownership was paramount. Nairobi residents didn’t want to own property here—they wanted ardhi (land) in ushambani (their rural or “home” area.) They needed a place to retire; they wanted land for their burial.


Some academic research seems to back that up—but it isn’t very deep and it is pretty old. Nelson (1975) made an early distinction between sojourners and permanent residents in cities of the developing world. For Kenya, Andreasen argued in his work on Thika (1989 and 1996) that low levels of home ownership and high levels of tenancy in the city were because of a strong attachment of urban inhabitants toward their rural homes. Others (Ross and Weisner (1977), Evans (1992)) have shown the importance of maintaining rural urban linkages for survival in both places.


But there are clear indications that being urban isn’t just a transitory phase any more.


Part of the evidence is cultural—we now have distinctly urban artistic expressions as in Kenyan hip hop, urban literature published by Kwani? Press, even an urban memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina in One Day I Will Write About this Place. Film and television is very urban—think Nairobi Half Life or the latest work by Tosh Gitonga, the series Nairobi Noir. We even have some emergent urban languages, Sheng and English (Kaviti, 2015). And as the flow to cities continues Governors of the new(ish) counties have the creation of hip, exciting and economically vibrant cities as an objective. Think Governor Matua of Machakos and his new Machakos City.



But this doesn’t mean that being urban means that urban Kenyans are getting a piece of the Kenyan dream—you know the single family owner occupied house (or really any piece of property).


To the contrary, Kenyan cities are full of tenants. In some forthcoming research with Sumila Gulyani of the World Bank and Debu Talukdar of the University of Buffalo, we analyzed a large data set representing the 15 largest cities in the country. Of the 15, all but one had levels of tenancy above 60%. In Nairobi, 91.2% of urban dwellers rent their accommodation.


So you ask, well maybe they own land elsewhere? But the answer to that is “probably not.” Our data shows that of all urban respondents—tenant or owner—only 2.0% had another house in the same city while 16.6% had another house in a different location. Land ownership was as low: 2.5% with land ownership in the same city, 23.2% with land in a different location.


Kenya’s land ownership has been and continues to be very unequal. For Kenyans to have a true “right to the city”, the concentration of urban land ownership in the hands of a very small elite needs to be addressed.


*Photographer: Ellen Bassett, September 2013





Andreasen, J., 1989. The poor don't squat: the case of Thika, Kenya. Environment and Urbanization, 1(2), pp.16-26.


Andreasen, J., 1990. “Urban-rural linkages and the impact on urban housing.”  Small town Africa: Studies in rural-urban interaction (Vol. 23). Edited by Baker, J.. Uddevalla:  Nordic Africa Institute, pp. 161-171.


Evans, H.E., 1992. A virtuous circle model of rural‐urban development: Evidence from a Kenyan small town and its Hinterland. The Journal of Development Studies, 28(4), pp.640-667.


Kaviti, L., 2015. From Stigma to Status-Sheng and Engsh in Kenya's Linguistic and Literary Space. Matatu, (46), p.223.


Nelson, J.M., 1976. Sojourners versus new urbanites: causes and consequences of temporary versus permanent cityward migration in developing countries. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 24(4), pp.721-757.


Ross, M.H. and Weisner, T.S., 1977. The rural‐urban migrant network in Kenya: some general implications. American Ethnologist, 4(2), pp.359-375.

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