City Living in a Single Room

Kamaru’s music of the 60s offers many snapshots of the life and times of first generation urbanites settling in Nairobi. Many of his songs of that era focused on the challenges and contradictions of the new urbanites.

One of the major challenges he describes in many of the songs have to do with the fact that at that time Nairobi was seen as a dormitory place where one is temporarily enduring as one reaps the benefits of a salaried worker. The man, for it was usually the man who worked in the city, was meant to repatriate as much of the income to his rural home. He was not meant to be too comfortable in the city and even the city planners then planned the workers’ estates as dormitories.

Eastlands, Nairobi has many of these former dormitory estates where the spartan life was the norm. Since the man did not have a family with him, a single room sufficed. The toilet and bath were shared amenities outside. With the wife and children so far away in the village and trips to the village limited to maybe once a year, it was inevitable that a new breed of women, commercial sex workers or cehura in Kikuyu would emerge in the cities. The cehura or turumba, plied their trade mainly in the Pumwani area of Nairobi.

By the 1960’s some women not wanting to loose their husbands to the cehura were living with their husbands in the single rooms. Since wives were still few and far between, young men who had no wives could take advantage of the married women rather than pay for a cehura. Kamaru records in this particular song of an instance where a big hullabaloo, gicanjama, arose in Makadara when a man came home and found his wife with another man. After the door was forced, the man was hauled from under the Vono bed and was almost knifed to death but for the headman who intervened and saved him. Even today, many families continue to live in a single rooms in the urban areas. It is estimated that as many as 60% of Nairobians live in single rooms.

The challenges are still enormous especially where children are involved. The problem of single room living in the urban area is that unlike in the village where the man had a separate abode, thingira, in the urban context the single room serves as the thingira, the woman’s house, Nyumba, the granary, and sometimes also as the external space. The loss of the external space is especially serious as most activities during the day happen there and the Nyumba is only used as a sleeping place.

In some of those dormitory estates like Bahati Makongenii, Makadara and others, it is today possible to find three families sharing a singe room. The social dynamics are extremely complex but one would have to experience the dynamics firsthand in order to even begin to comprehend them. The conjugal activities are particularly difficult but you would have to take my word for it that even those are harmoniously resolved.

This is one of the 60s Kamaru classics which he sang with his sister Celine. She had such a melodious voice and her absence is felt in the later music. Also dropped with Celina was the Fanta bottle whose grooves can be heard being scratched with a rod. I cannot hear the other popular instrument of the time that accompanied the box guitar, the Karing’aring’a. This was a circular metal with cogs reused from a motor part. What part was it anyway? The Karing’aring’a was also used as a school bell.

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Nyumba cia Nairobi by Joseph Kamaru


Kikuyu girl with karing'aring'a


Dormitory housing built for Nairobi workers by city authority in the 50s


Makongeni Estate - Dormitory housing built for railway workers in the 1940s Nairobi


Cooking space in a single room - Mathare North Nairobi


Inside a sigle room in Mathare Noth Nairobi


All the external space there is