For more than 40 years, 73-years-old Mzee David Waweru traded at the recently demolished Westlands Curio Market, selling African curios, carvings and Maasai jewellery, like hundreds of other traders who worked there. It takes him a minute to recall when it all started. He tells me, “I came here around 1976 to start my business. I found this Market here. There were traders here already. Back then, we didn’t have structures but we would lay our stuff on the ground. Later, we started building structures and I remember building my shop right there …” He points to the rubble, a few steps behind us. He is dressed in a dungaree and a worn out hat. His hands are dirty and dusty from digging into the remains, of stone and iron sheets – to salvage anything from what used to be his store. He is searching and the only remains he can find are broken wood, that he arranges neatly in the wheelbarrow.
To see reports that the market was no more, to me, meant the death of a cultural structure and our heritage. A majority of the market’s traders were selling cultural paraphernalia. Other mabati booths next to the market sold secondhand clothing or fast food like Nyam Chom – this was a cultural experience for us Kenyans and many tourists/visitors, passing by Westlands. I wonder if he’s going to start afresh. “So what next?” I ask. “What next? I am now waiting to die. This was my life and now it has been taken away from me. I am an old man – how could I ever start again? My wife died, so now I am just waiting from a miracle from God. Until then, I don’t know,” adding, “It’s not fair at all. We were paying rent and paid for City Council licenses on time …”
Kenya Urban Roads Authority demolished Westlands’ famed Curio Market and all the shanties surrounding it, to facilitate road expansion. Many reports claim that the traders are being relocated, and were compensated. Mzee Waweru confirms that several other traders either got 30,000 KSH for landlords or 15,000 KSH for tenants. But the investment for setting shop only cost him approximately 100,000 KSH. Moreover, he was among traders not compensated. Mzee’s life investment has been thwarted by the demolition for no gain or better option. He says, “We know about that market that they have been building for ages but no one told us of how to get there,” adding, “I didn’t receive anything.” He was among traders not compensated.
On the morning of the demolition, he says they were held off from reaching on to salvage any of their wares. It must have been difficult to watch your life investment taken down by bulldozers. Mzee says that street people ended up stealing most of their leftovers. “Do you have family like children to support you?” I wonder. He says, “I can’t depend on my children, like they can’t depend on me. If they want to help me, they can do so but I can’t go crying to them as if I was a baby,” before a pensive gleam: “But my three girls are amazing! Girls know how to take care of their parents. Every time they come to visit me, they bring me a lot of shopping and they also plan well to leave me with some money. Sometimes, I get up to ngiri tano (5,000 KSH) from each one.”
It’s a busy Friday and I am on my usual crazy schedule running media tours for several artistes, and I am taking a short break running over to The Alchemist to have yummiest of Mama Rocks burgers: TIA. The recently demolished Westlands Curio Market is on my way. On the first night I passed here, I literally found myself in tears, for the destruction of culture and people’s livelihood. It infuriated me. Why do I need wider roads while authorities can’t maintain or even repair what’s available? Every single street and corner of Westlands, town and pretty much most Nairobi areas are becoming nastier and crooked by the day.
There are still a couple of people and traders here, digging at leftovers at the grounds that used to be the curio market – now a field of destruction, like vultures. Just as I am leaving, a chokora tries to steal some iron sheets by the side. A lady trader comes running, yelling at him. “Stop! That’s mine!” Mzee scolds him then points out close to what used to be his shop at what the chokora can pick up. In a setting where everyone is busy hoarding rubble, this gesture make me smile. It gives me hope that even though the traders have lost so much, they can probably let go of everything lost, to start over.