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.

Click on link to listen

Nyumba cia Nairobi by Joseph Kamaru

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Kikuyu girl with karing’aring’a

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

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

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Cooking space in a single room – Mathare North Nairobi

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Inside a sigle room in Mathare Noth Nairobi

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All the external space there is

One thought on “City Living in a Single Room

  1. Uyu ni uhoro mwega muno. Kuririkanio uria andu maikariga na nginya uno umithi uyu, eastate icio no cituire na andu matiendaga cimomoruo tundu ni maiganirite na maundu mothe kumania na duka cia irio (nginya iro hiu ta githeri,ngwaci, nduma ona mbebe cia gucina) o hamwe na ikeno. Aria mari nja ya bururi, ni magiirire gucera na meyonere nyumba icio. Iria cia cokire (mwakaiini wa 1965) icio na ciakaragwo ni andu aria anene thirikarine ciitagwo outer ring estate. Ona irabu iria ciire outer ring shopping center citicinjetie. Irabu ciitagwo shop 1,2…7) Niugukora njohi ciothe ta tusker, philithina, summit na ingi nyingi. Ona hariingi itumakiagia muno tundu andu makimiitia maigaga “hee philithina mbarafu hiu”.

    Translation.
    These is very good news. To reminded on how people lived then and even today. These estates are still existing and people do not want to leave because everything is available including food ( cooked food like githeri, sweet potatoes,arrowroots ans also roast maize). There is plenty of happy life. For those in the diaspora, its important when you come back you should visit these areas and see the houses as they were. The ones which came later (1965) were residents for civil servants and are called civil servanrs in outer ring estate eastlands. The pubs in these area have not changed much (Seven in a row and were called shop1,2….7). You can get many varieties of beer like Tusker, Pilsner, Summit and many others. There one that is leaves us amazed for when people order it, they say “Give me a warm Pilsner Ice”

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