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Eastleigh: Kenya’s Little Mogadishu


Eastleigh is a Somali enclave in Kenya’s capital Nairobi otherwise known as ‘Little Mogadishu’. Its streets are filthy, filled with noise and congested with people.  Blocked drainage means sewage overflows to the pavements and the smell of rotting garbage fills the air. But make no mistake, Eastleigh is not a slum. It is a booming and dynamic commercial zone with gridlocked traffic and an estimated turnover of £30million a month. New buildings and shopping malls sporting grand titles such as Dubai Shopping Centre and Bangkok Mall seem to spring up overnight – people all over Nairobi flock to the area for the cheap imports stocked within. Indeed, it is the only place in Kenya where banks such as Barclays are open seven days a week to provide full service to the flourishing business community there.

The transformation of Eastleigh from a sleepy residential town to one of commercial vibrancy is testament to the entrepreneurship spirit of the Somali people who invest heavily in Africa and the Middle East for lack of stable government in our own country.  Unfortunately, despite the prosperity that many Somalis are now enjoying in Kenya and elsewhere, the same deadly issues that have torn Somalia apart for over 20 years seem to have followed us into exile. Kenya is a sovereign state but it is not an exaggeration to say that certain parts of the country such as Eastleigh are governed by narrow minded but deadly militants from Somalia.  

The rising presence of religious extremist in Eastleigh has resulted in social tension amongst the Somalis living there.  A line dividing the moderates and the extremists, the young who want more social freedom and the old who seek to maintain what they see as culture and tradition has been marked.  Walking around the area one will notice that the Taliban style burkas and veiled Abaya are the normal attire for women here-a clear indication that as it stands, it is the extremists who hold sway.  Like their conservatives counterparts across the Muslim world, hard line clerics in Eastleigh have focused on women and what they wear with an unnatural zeal.  Abaya’s and Burkas are the only attires that pass the litmus test of what constitutes as ‘modest clothing’s’ – you either wear it or risk a lynching by the religious mob.   

But not everyone living in Eastleigh is willing to conform to the Islamist’s narrow interpretation of religion and this has lead to deadly confrontations.  During my brief stay in Kenya, I met up with Wahaya Cusuub, a hip-hop band founded by young, music loving Somali refugees now living in Kenya. Wahaya Cusuub’s brand of music tackles thorny political issues, AIDS and Female Genital Mutilation – subjects normally considered taboo by mainstream Somali society.  The band’s music has given them local celebrity status but the politically provocative lyrics and western style music videos have angered conservatives in Eastleigh.

Many of Wahaya Cusuub’s 10 plus members, who once lived in the area that is fast becoming synonymous with Mogadishu have been forced out of their homes following vicious attacks. Singer and founding member of the band Shiine Ali was approached by people he suspects of being agents of al Shabaab and ordered to disband the band or ‘face the consequences’- four weeks later he was shot for failing to do so. ‘Eastleigh is no longer Kenyan district governed by the Kenyan government’ he said candidly. ‘It is being ruled by fatwa’s issued by al Shabaab in Somalia.  Those who are killing and terrorising people in Somalia are also here. How do I know? Because they tried to kill me’ he said, showing me bullets wounds that he says were treated in Nairobi hospital following the attack.

 Despite the dangers they face Wahaya Cuusub vow to continue with their message of peace and reconciliation in Somalia, “we will not allow anyone to silence us’ said Ali. ‘They (al Shabaab) hijack our religion and kill our people. They are cursed and we will not be cowered.’

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