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A city that’s lost its neighbourliness

It starts as a pulsating thud in the evening and gets progressively louder as the night goes on, often going into the early hours of the morning. Many, many Nairobians lie on their beds wide awake because of this noise, wondering what happened to good neighbourliness.

The noise I refer to is the music being played by clubs and entertainment joints right in the middle of residential areas, sometimes loud enough to be heard a kilometre away. This is done with impunity and utter disdain. The proprietors stick a finger up at their neighbours. They tear up the requirement to sound-proof their premises. They seem to know they cannot be shut down.

It isn’t just businesses doing this. Individuals seem to periodically decide to hold a wild party, hire a large music system and blast the hell out of the neighbourhood deep into the night. Once upon a time you would alert your neighbours, keep the decibels decent and close the music down early. Not any more. Who gives a damn about other people?

It’s not just about loud music. Nairobians are imposing on one another’s rights with scorn and contempt every day now. Folks turn their homes into noisy businesses with no concern for their residential neighbours. They build and encroach on public areas. They burn toxic refuse and send clouds of dark smoke into everyone’s faces. They pull down trees that are in the way of their personal enterprises. They park trucks and tankers on roads and pavements. They build dangerous petrol stations right next to apartments. They refuse to institute safeguards in construction projects, exposing their neighbours to noise, dust and danger.

Why are we like this? Mainly because we have worked out that we can be, without consequences. What will happen to us if we behave badly? Nothing that a brown envelope in the right hands won’t sort out. Too many of our regulatory authorities are either fast asleep in protecting ordinary rights; or wide awake in embracing extortion. We may have appointed many and given them clear mandates to prevent abuses of the person or the environment; but the state of the city says it all.

And so we continue to suffer everything from sleepless nights to collapsing buildings; ridiculous traffic to dangerous pollution; rampant crime to land grabbing. Because those paid salaries to protect us refuse to do their jobs; or turn their regulatory powers into instruments of extortion.

In addition to regulatory collapse we have also seen the decline of collective spirit. Too many of us have simply stopped giving a damn about anyone else. It’s now OK if someone else suffers from our activities, as long as we make a profit or enjoy ourselves. Some of our slums seem to demonstrate more neighbourly concern than our apartment blocks or gated communities. People with money are fixated on making more money, and to hell with those of you on the other side of the wall.

The human being is a creature of the collective. We gather in communities and cities of necessity – for kinship, support, safety and joint endeavour. We share our environment and atmosphere, our roads and public areas. We can’t buy our own clean air or silent nights or traffic-free roads. We must share them and respect the rights of others to partake in them. It’s part of being human.

If you love your city, you must protect it from this decline. You must use your vote and your voice carefully. You must form your own collectives to give you a louder voice. You must raise that voice until it is heard, and it must say: we will not coexist like boors and beasts; we will run our collective affairs with maturity and mutual concern.

Will we do this?

Have you heard the sound of the nightjar? It is a bird that comes to life at sundown, and it has a beautiful repetitive call. We are still blessed with nightjars in Nairobi, and they are nature’s gift to us: the most calming sound to hear as you drift off into slumber. They won’t be with us for much longer if we continue to poison their air or pull down their shelter. Then we can all listen to the nightmare sounds of selfishness every night.

(Sunday Nation, 17 July 2016)

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