Workshops and Projects » Mobility in Nairobi 2009 » Resilience: Interactions with barriers to mobility



Nairobi, Kenya
Louise Smith
Dancan Omondi Odhiambo

Initial Position

From an outsider’s perspective, barriers are a large and integral part of the culture of mobility in Nairobi. The abundance of barriers is imme- diately obvious through the poverty, incomplete infrastructure, and difficulties with inpidual transportation that are visible all over city.

Working from the starting point of “Getting To and From Work”, the research involved a wide scope of interpretation of what constitutes the barriers on the way to and from work. Barriers involved in transporta- tion to and from work, work itself, and daily rituals are indistinguishable from each other. Poverty, an example that takes center stage in our study, is influenced by the inpidual’s job, and at the same time influences the morning rituals, which in turn effects the preparation time in the morning, and the time that one leaves for their physical way to work. Irregular jobs, and suboptimal living conditions add even more difficulties, and complication into the mix.

The prominence of the informal economy in Nairobi also implied an unusual spectrum of interpretation of the word work. Since such a small percentage of the population engage in formal jobs, the term “work” was interpreted as changes or actions taken to fulfill fundamental and subsidiary needs, and barriers toward fulfilling fundamental needs were also included.


Taking the special working and living situations in Nairobi, and the wider spectrum of factors affecting the way to and from work in Nairobi into account, the research topic was refined into a cultural study of the barriers, and rituals on the way to work in Nairobi. The intention was to gain a deeper understanding of the culture of Mobility towards fulfilling needs in Nairobi through the inspection and interpretation of barriers.


The main part of this study was conducted through interaction with 7 cultural representatives, living in the same corridor in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. These respondents first answered introductory questions about their rituals and barriers on the way to work, and were then asked to document their daily rituals through use of a single-use camera. Following this, interviews were conducted with the respondents about the photographs they took, and with a detailed questionnaire. The focus of this part of the research was on barriers and rituals in the lives of these inpiduals.

Subsidiary research was conducted through experiences and observation on the streets of the city. This area was largely focused on human and vehicular traffic, and the barriers they face.


The research revealed a wide array of barriers on all different scales: inpidual to cultural, physical to emotional, poverty to wealth, infrastructure-wide to inpidual cases. At the same time, it revealed a close interaction between the different scales of barriers.

However, the research also revealed the resilience of the people of Nairobi to many barriers to mobility. This was shown in numerous examples found in the research. In the way the cultural representa- tives interpreted and spoke about their barriers, where overarching barriers were omitted or barely mentioned, but subsidiary, and infre- quent barriers composed the main portion of their responses. Lack of water, an example that is visible in the photo essays of all of our respondents, was hardly mentioned in our interaction with them. Physical barriers on the streets are dealt with so directly and proac- tively that the almost become invisible to the residents of the city.


The interpretation and interaction with barriers present a strength of resilience that seems to be unique to developing societies, and informal economies. The harvesting of these resilience techniques opens a wide array of opportunities for change, and development. Application of the harvested results within the local culture could save time, and energy, therefore increasing productivity and devel- opment. In a developed society, such as Germany, it could revive and reteach a resilient spirit that has long been forgotten.


TED: Stewart Brand Proclaims 4 environmental ‘Heresies’

Manfred A. Max-Neef with Antonio Elizalde, Martin Hopenhayn. (1991). Human scale development: conception, application and further reflections. New York: Apex. Chpt. 2. “Development and Human Needs”.

Comhabitat: Briefing paper produced for the Commonwealth Civil Society Consultation, Marlborough House, London, Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Slums of the World UN-HABITAT report.

“Men and Women in the Informal Economy”. International Labour Organisation. 2002. Retrieved on 2006-12-18. 

A.H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4) (1943):370-96.

Item Overview

#52 Flooding in the streets

A man wearing rubber boots walks straight through a 10 cm deep flood of rainwater which has taken over a whole intersection. Sidewalks

on the left hand side of the street are completely flooded over. Cars are waiting on the right side, driving straight through the



Bad drainage of the streets, and non-absorbant soil are obvious culprits in this situation. The water that has collected here would... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#53 Crossing the street in a traffic jam

A young man (most likely a student) jumps out of the way of a slowly moving oncoming car in a traffic jam. One can also see the gridlocked stream of traffic and the people weaving between cars. This specific traffic jam recurrs daily near the University Roundabout at the Junction of State House Road and Nyerere Road. Because of it’s proximity to the University (a steady stream of foot traffic), and lack... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#54 Crossing the street in Nairobi

A woman stands on the center island of Kenyatte Avenue between six lanes of fast-moving traffic. She has stopped in the middle on her

way across the road, and is waiting for a break in the traffic in order to cross the other half.


As a general rule vehicles in Nairobi do not yield for pedestrians crossing the road. When traffic is thick and quick-moving a pedestrian

can wait for 5 minutes until the... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#55 Conflicting streams of traffic

Two streams of vehicular traffic cross eachother in a clear, but somehow illogical way. People on the sides of the streets watch, and avoid

the situation, as cars go and come from all possible directions, clashing in th middle.


This incoherent mixing or streams is partially due to the odd street planning in the downtown district of Nairobi, and partially due to the

non-yielding, aggressive way that... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#56 Traffic Jam on Uhuru Highway

A wide array of automotive vehicles are stuck in traffic on Uhuru Highway, waiting to get through the Kenyatta Avenue roundabout, including better maintained and newer personal vehicles, a matatu in the second lane on the right edge of the photo, what appears to be a military or police type vehicle in the center, an older, and more run-down lorry, and a moving truck (just a simple pick-up truck full of... more

27 Sep 2009 by Dancan Omondi Odhiambo

#57 Walking along the railway

Cultural representative Washington, walks to work through the garbage covered active railway that crosses through the Kibera slum. He takes this path because it is the shortest way to work, despite the security of walking on an active railway, and the aesthetics, and hygenic conditions of walking through such an area. more

27 Sep 2009 by Dancan Omondi Odhiambo

#58 Pedestrian traffic

Thousands of people create human traffic jams early every morning on the path out of the Kibera slum into the city center and industrial districts of Nairobi. Pedestrian traffic is an important component of individual transportation within the city, however, pedestrian pathways are frequently unkempt, and are generally not figured into the planning of the transportation infrastructure in the city. more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#59 Walking home from work through Kibera

Cultural representative, Mohamed, walks through the main streets of Kibera on his way home to work. Although this is the shortest path, he sometimes needs to take a different path, depending on the criminality, and riots that frequently occur in Kibera, also based on the time of day, which affects the security of such areas. more

27 Sep 2009 by Dancan Omondi Odhiambo

#60 Visiting with friends on the way home from work

On his way home from work, cultural representative, Mohamed, visits with his neighbors on his way home from work. Every day on his way home from work he meets with friends and family. more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#61 Jane Eating Breakfast

Cultural represnetative, Jane, eats a simple breakfast of tea and bread with jam, with her family in the morning. Living in Kibera, a simple breakfast is comprised of many steps to put together such a breakfast. Fetching water from the community spigot, cooking the water with a gas stove. Because of the time that such simple activities consume, she spends around 4 hours every morning preparing her home and... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

#62 Matatu Transportation

A Crowd of tightly packed strangers sit together in a matatu. Riding a matatu is a ritual that comes with many positive and negative aspects. Matatu are the fastest way to get around, and since they are run by private owners, they are competitive, cheaply priced and quickly responsive to the needs of the customers, but at the same

time, are frequently in disrepair, overcrowded, sometimes focussed on the... more

27 Sep 2009 by Louise Smith

01 Jan 1970 by Louise Smith