Nairobi street cafe. Photo by Seamus Grimes

Neomalthusian prophets of population doom are all around us and their favourite target is sub-Saharan Africa where birth rates remain high by world standards. Having just returned from a three-week lecturing trip to Nairobi, during which I sought to critique the reductionist view that population growth in developing countries = economic disaster, I was encouraged to discover that Wolfgang Fengler, lead economist in the Nairobi office of the World Bank, is on my side.

In noting that Kenya adds one million people to its population each year, Fengler argues that population growth is good for Africa since birth rates are gradually falling, health is improving and the growth results increasingly from people living longer rather than from large family size. He sees many reasons why the economy in Kenya, and in Africa more generally, should take off.

Despite the growing optimism among economists, however, Kenya’s policymakers appear to be more pessimistic, having recently adopted a policy seeking to promote a two-child family ideal. It is suspected, however, that much of the thinking behind this policy — and a great deal of financial support, which is openly acknowledged — comes from international organisations such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

An overall impression from my visit to Nairobi is that improvements in many areas are under way. Yet the insider-outsider nature of this society persists because of huge income gaps and related security issues. Those inside the security gates are protected from many outside who are often living in great hardship. Life is often characterised by various forms of disorder and lawlessness, with daily newspaper reports of criminality ranging from petty theft to frequent murder. Traffic jams are a normal part of life with considerable disorder on the roads. Few non-local people feel safe to venture into the streets alone after dark, which comes rather early in Kenya.

Various forms of violence are widespread in the country. At the most extreme is Al Shabaab, the Somali-based cell of al-Qaeda, whose impact is spilling across Kenya’s border, with a number of recent grenade attacks on churches. On November 10th, an estimated 42 police officers were gunned down by a cattle rustling gang at Baragoi in the pastoral region of northern Kenya. Police everywhere carry Kalashnikov sub-machine guns, which creates a menacing presence on the streets and roadways. Security forces in this part of the world face an unenviable task, and to some extent their role is not made easier by a lack of complete trust by the public in how they carry out their job.

The security issues are but one component of the evolving nature of politics and governance in postcolonial Kenya, where the legitimacy of the state itself can be somewhat open to question. The current electioneering period for the coming election next Spring reflects the chaotic nature of Kenyan politics. The rush for power by individuals involves all kinds of horse-trading above and beyond party lines, with so-called presidential “aspirants” being prepared to switch parties in order to garner more support. Such practices can be found in many countries, but this appears to be a more extreme form of political opportunism. Along with the jockeying for position, there is widespread concern about the possible repetition of the post-election violence in 2008. Much of the previous violence related to the tribalistic nature of Kenya’s political system, which continues to be an entrenched feature of social organisation and is likely to take a number of generations to change significantly. 

In addition to major violence, the daily news here reports many violent incidents at the individual level which are quite shocking to outsiders. Among those recently reported were the following: the beheading of a bodaboda (motorbike taxi) operator suspected of stealing motorbikes, the killing of a child by his mother for stealing 50 shillings, and the burning of another child by his mother for the same reason. Little respect for human life is also reflected by the drivers of Nairobi’s infamous matatus (minibuses), many of which are not roadworthy, and have regular fatal accidents.

Yet amidst the chaos of an emerging economy, there are many signs of significant progress, particularly in real estate and infrastructure, although many city roadways are works in progress. There is also a palpable dynamism as people make their way to and from work each day, a huge number of them on foot, many in matatus and buses and an increasing number in cars, some of which are top of the range four wheel drive SUVs. With a preponderance of very old vehicles, however, the belching fumes create a very unhealthy environment for the many pedestrians.

Despite the many challenges, Nairobi has emerged as a significant regional servicing centres for East Africa and beyond, having a wide range of higher quality medical and other services than is found in neighbouring countries, and being the acknowledged NGO capital of the world. It’s not surprising, therefore, in a city in which as much as two-thirds of the population may live in slums and where primary school enrolment is among the lowest in the country, that many spanking new shopping malls are appearing in middle-class suburbs.

There is a confusing melange of obvious progress and significant investment alongside deeply entrenched levels of impoverishment, which is being added to each year by considerable in-migration of unemployed young adults from rural regions. In a country where few have pensions or social welfare entitlements, the estimated Gini index of family income for 2008 was 42.5, much higher than Sweden’s figure of 23, but also lower than that of the US at 45. (The index is a measure of income distribution in which 0 equals perfect equality and 100 equals perfect inequality.) In Kenya the extended family and tribe constitute the safety net, with relations under obligation to provide for each other.

A number of demographic indicators reveal the progress made by Kenya in recent years, and also the long road ahead before anything approaching western standards in terms of health and life expectancy will be reached. Currently life expectancy is around 60 years, having increased from 35 years in 1948. As in many other African countries, the AIDS epidemic resulted in some regression with life expectancy falling to 57 years in 1999. Around two million Kenyans have died from AIDS, leaving behind 1.2 million orphans. On a positive note UNAIDS recently revised downwards the prevalence rate from 15 percent to 6.7 percent.

Both maternal and infant mortality rates have improved in recent years, but, again, much remains to be done. Maternal mortality (measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 live births) is currently 360, which shows little difference from 1994 when it was 365. The rate, however, peaked in 1999 at 590, reflecting the effect of AIDS among other problems, particularly the lack of provision of neonatal units in poor communities. Apart from a rise in 1999 to 77.3, infant mortality fell from 188 deaths per 100 live births in 1948 to 47 in 2012. Taking into account the regression in many of these indicators in the 1990s, much progress has been recorded in more recent years, reflecting improvements in government accountability. A major improvement in infant mortality levels in Kenya is partly explained by very significant progress in the use of bed nets in Kenya’s malaria zone, which has grown from 8.0 percent of households in 2003 to 60 percent in 2008.

Many of Nairobi’s poorer neighbourhoods reflect woeful unhygienic standards, with the poorest of the poor earning a few shillings cleaning out blocked filthy roadside drains with their bare hands, and exposing themselves to all forms of disease. People with resources are there to be plundered, with apartments being broken into and cars hijacked. Even some of the security personnel are suspect as they abuse their authority to prey on citizens. Everywhere the “processing fee” is expected in order to obtain what one is entitled to in the first place.

Some are inclined to rationalise the widespread corruption, suggesting that it is to be expected in such an unequal society. Yet this is a society where exceptional generosity is shown by many people seeking to help their neighbours, particularly the impoverished and marginalised. There are a huge number of social projects established by nuns and other groups on the edge of slum areas to help local people take their first steps towards a better future.

While many of the challenges which Kenya faces are likely to take a considerable period to resolve, one should not underestimate the rapidity with which the country can move forward once it establishes the right direction. A major immediate challenge will be the elections next spring, which must move Kenya beyond the strong linkages between tribal background and political support. Even among well-educated Kenyans the tribe remains significant in day-today life, but a recent statement from Kenya’s Catholic bishops strongly warned voters not to support aspirants who had been associated with the inter-ethnic post-election violence in 2008.

Many groups and individuals within Kenya are working hard to move Kenya beyond these limitations. While many other societies face similar challenges, the extremes of wealth and poverty in Nairobi suggests that political leaders must transition from the traditional model of tribal leader, swanning around in top of the range Mercedes, to one which is more focused on tackling the scandalous conditions in which so many of their electorates are forced to live. Improvements in demographic indicators such as infant and maternal mortality are reasons for believing that significant efforts are beginning to yield fruit. As progress accelerates, this will provide confidence that political leaders are beginning to look beyond their own narrow agendas.

Seamus Grimes is Emeritus Professor at the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change, National University of Ireland, Galway.