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The Misrepresentation of a Migrant Success Story

While its future is shadowed by security concerns, Nairobi’s Eastleigh powers on as one of the commercial engines of Kenya’s economy. We speak to Oxford University’s Neil Carrier about low-end globalization and the economic value of migrant hubs.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Kenya demonstration
Demonstrators hold signs during an anti-terror demonstration in Eastleigh, Nairobi. AFP/AHMED MOHAMED

There are many stories told about Nairobi’s Eastleigh. For the Kenyan Asian nostalgics, it was a quiet residential estate where you could hear birdsong. For Western journalists and, more recently Hollywood filmmakers, it has been an exotic and fearful place to locate stories of pirates and Islamic terrorists.

For most people who live in the Kenyan capital, the Somali-dominated district is a shopping center – a place to work, trade and bargain hunt. Its transformation over the last two decades into a commercial hub with links to the Somali diaspora and global trade networks has been documented by Neil Carrier in his new book, “Little Mogadishu.”

A lecturer at the University of Oxford, Carrier’s interest in Eastleigh was stirred while he was researching the khat trade — a plant whose leaves are a mild but popular stimulant and a Somali staple.

The anthropologist became determined to write a biography of this mythologized but misunderstood place that has been shaped by its role as a place of urban refuge for the relentlessly commercial Somalis. Eastleigh’s story has much to add to our understanding of the economic benefits of migrant hubs and their ambivalent relationship with host countries in a world increasingly dominated by security concerns.

Refugees Deeply: Why is Eastleigh, a neighborhood in Nairobi known as “Little Mogadishu” for its Somali population, relevant to the rest of the world right now?

Neil Carrier: Eastleigh is a remarkable place: home to one of the most vibrant economies in East Africa where goods from all over the world are sold in over 40 shopping malls. It is also somewhere often portrayed negatively, whose population – many of them refugees and many Muslim – have been subject to much suspicion and ill treatment.

This combination makes it highly relevant in our contemporary era where new forms of trade and commerce are gaining importance, and where migrants and refugees are ever more misrepresented. This misrepresentation comes to apply also to those places that are most associated with such communities, and Eastleigh has suffered much in this regard. Indeed, the recent Hollywood film “Eye in the Sky” – which struck a chord with some in its treatment of the ethics of drone strikes – was partially set in a fictionalized Eastleigh, and portrayed the place as a no-go area for Kenyans, teeming with Islamist militia, a portrayal that bore no relation to reality. By demystifying Eastleigh and its economy, and countering negative portrayals of the place and its people, I hope it can encourage more informed portrayals of similar places throughout the world.

Refugees Deeply: What does Eastleigh have to tell us about the economic life of refugees and migrants?

Carrier: I think it can tell us much about how migrants and refugees can bring new ideas, innovations and networks that often breathe new life into places like Eastleigh. While it should be emphasized that the story of Eastleigh is not exclusively the story of refugees, as Kenyan Somalis and other Kenyans have played a huge part in its development, it was certainly the arrival of thousands of refugees in the early 1990s that catalyzed its transformation from a place of residence to a place of commerce.

Indeed, the origins of Eastleigh as a trading hub go back to a hotel called the Garissa Lodge. This was a place where refugees stayed who had trading experience from the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu. Some of these were Reer Xamar, a group with much trading experience in the Indian Ocean region, including links to Dubai. They thus had connections and know-how they could put to use, and they helped reorientate pre-existing trade networks.

Initially, a lot of trade goods (electronics and clothes) came to the estate through Mandera, on the border with Somalia, to avoid high tariffs at the main port in Mombasa. But soon Somali migrant businesspeople were well positioned to take advantage of a liberalizing Kenyan economy, importing goods into Kenya from the manufacturing hubs of the East.

All this commerce was supported by demand for such goods in Kenyan society, and by the support that Somalis in the diaspora were able to provide relatives in Eastleigh, in terms of capitalizing businesses and other forms of investment in the estate.

Refugees Deeply: Can Eastleigh teach us something about what economic development looks like at the ground level in developing countries?

Carrier: There are 40-odd shopping malls but they don’t look like Western shopping malls. Part of the reason for this is the use of space that Somalis devised in Eastleigh. The original mall was Garissa Lodge, a hotel with small rooms where goods were sold, rather than a purpose-built mall. This use of space – big buildings crammed with small shops – became the blueprint for Eastleigh. Just as the malls are rather unlike those of the West, so too are the goods sold, many of which are the products of what authors like Gordon Matthews in China refer to as “low-end globalization.” Eastleigh has been based on a form of globalization unrelated to high-end products. For many people around the world, globalization is cheap goods coming from Chinese factories. People might ask how a place that sells “Panasoanic,” not Panasonic, can be economically successful. But this is exactly how most people in the world access the fruits of globalization.

There’s a popular phrase you hear in reference to Eastleigh: “If you look up, it looks like Dubai, but if you look down, it’s dirt.” It’s a place that’s been developed by outsiders while the Kenyan state has badly neglected public infrastructure. However, Eastleigh also shows how economies can grow into something more formal and interconnected with the state – and the freshly laid roads in Eastleigh show that the Kenyan government is treating it seriously as a business hub.

Refugees Deeply: Does the story of Eastleigh amount to a hard and fast economic case that proves refugees can be a benefit rather than a burden to host societies?

Carrier: If you look at the multiplier effects in [regional Kenyan towns such as] Marsabit, Meru and elsewhere in Kenya, there are secondary markets selling goods from Eastleigh. Since the rise of Eastleigh, there are many more non-Somali Kenyans than before involved in international trade.

You get a wide labor pool from the rest of Nairobi working in Eastleigh in its shops, hotels and restaurants. It’s something I wish there were harder figures for – Eastleigh traders emphasize that the estate makes one of the biggest contribution to city budgets, though hard data is hard to come by on this. But we can say that in terms of business rates, tax and permits, traders from Eastleigh are paying significant amounts into the economy.

This is economic development, although the malls of Eastleigh don’t fit everyone’s idea of what it looks like (either the avowed capitalists or the anti-capitalists). Eastleigh should be seen as a powerful example of diasporas’ and migrants’ ability to create economic growth, but it is not presented as such.

Refugees Deeply Is Eastleigh poorly represented in Kenyan and international media, and if so, why? Why are so many people scared of Little Mogadishu?

Carrier: This is a decades-old issue related to how Somalis are seen in Kenya. Somalis are still dogged by perceptions of them as a fifth column who might split the country. After independence, there was a war fought in northern Kenya with secessionist Somalis [named “Shifta,” after the Somali word for bandit]. That history is very live and present today.

Eastleigh has become to be seen as emblematic of suspicions of not only Somalia but northern Kenya as well. More recently [the al-Qaida affiliate] al-Shabab has replaced Shifta as the new representative of this threat from the north.

To add to all of this, you had the surge in interest in piracy [off the Horn of Africa] that came into it, and it is a sexy and sensational subject. But people were trying to work out where this money from piracy goes and were jumping to conclusions. In the place itself, people would tell you that the main development predates the height of the piracy crisis, and as I show in the book, you can explain Eastleigh’s development with no mention of pirates. But while such representations abound, for your average Kenyan, it’s a place where you do your shopping or look for opportunities.

Refugees Deeply: What does the future hold for Eastleigh, and how does that relate to refugee host countries more widely?

Before the Kenyan intervention in the conflict in Somalia, a friendlier urban refugees policy started to be visible. From 2000 onwards, Kenyan ministers and the government made some moves to see Eastleigh as a hub and an actual part of Kenya – as something to be nurtured. But after the Kenyan Defense Force went into Somalia in 2012, this really changed the dynamic. We had the attacks from al-Shabab, and we saw all of the reprisals from Kenyan police against the population in Eastleigh.

But the more optimistic story of Eastleigh is still there, there’s signs of it being a bit more integrated, and the Eastleigh business community, especially, is really active. They are generally doing more to deal with Kenyan media and Kenyan politics. There has been a push from people like this to change Eastleigh perceptions and even some signs of what might be called gentrification – or at least moving away from lower-end shopping malls and goods into a 24-hour place of business with mainstream supermarkets.

The trouble with Somali history within Kenya is that it’s cyclical, and we could return to violence and arrests. Eastleigh is a place of commerce, and for most Kenyans that is its meaning. My hope is that this will become what it’s known for more widely. Whether or not that happens depends on the politics of refugee hosting and how that develops in the future.

This interview was conducted by phone and email and has been edited for length and clarity.

Completed with the support of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, “Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub by Neil Carrier is published by Hurst.

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