How Nairobi’s Geography Shapes Our Lives

By Galimo Askumo

A little over a hundred years ago, the bustling city that we call home was little more than an uninhabited swamp littered with wild animals. The city of Nairobi came to be when the British took advantage of the last flat area they encountered before beginning their ascent up the escarpment wall while constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway. Where Nairobi stands today, the British pitched camps where they could pause for a breather before embarking on the grueling attempt to ascend the rail track over the escarpment, into the Rift Valley and beyond.

The decision to pitch camp at Enkare Nyirobi, as it was known then, and the resultant growth of the camp into the capital city has shaped and continues to shape the lives of its residents to date.

Before proceeding, it’s best to understand the position of Nairobi relative to its surroundings for this piece to make sense. Nairobi lies a few kilometers to the East of the Rift Valley, with the closest distance being the 30 Kilometers to Ngong’ Hills, which forms part of the escarpment.  The map below shows the position of Nairobi relative to the escarpment. The red line is roughly where the escarpment runs.

Image

Nairobi’s proximity to the Rift Valley has lent it a unique geography with the city roughly divided into two halves of varying elevations. That the city is quite limited in terms of acreage only serves to better highlight the striking difference in altitude between its Eastern and Western halves. As you approach Nairobi’s Eastern boundaries from Athi River, you are in a relatively flat area: the Athi plains. This flat area stretches North-South from Ruiru, across Eastlands, Industrial Area, the Nairobi National Park all the way to Rongai in the South.

The city experiences a sudden rise on its western side as the ascent up the escarpment wall begins. This ascent sees Nairobi areas such as Karen, Langata, Ngong’ road, Westlands, Parklands, Gigiri all the way to Kiambu being higher than the aforementioned areas on the eastern side.

The difference in height manifests itself clearly along the low-high divide that cuts across the city, a feature that sees sudden steep ascents/descents in various parts of Nairobi. The slope that marks this divide runs from Rongai cutting across Magadi road near Multimedia University and extends all the way across the National park. You will notice the descent if you’ve been to a game drive at the National Park where you drive from a high area where the offices are located (with lots of trees) to a low flat grassland. The low-high divide is shown in the map below with the black line roughly indicating where the slope is located across the city.

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The slope extends past the National Park and cuts across Langata road near Uhuru gardens, hence the elevation as you approach Langata. The cliff face extends beyond Nairobi Dam and manifests itself on Mbagathi road where it cuts across the road near Highrise and extends all the way to Upper hill behind Kenyatta Hospital, KASNEB and Madaraka estate. Along this particular stretch, the railway runs adjacent to the slope. The slope approaches the CBD and can be clearly seen on Bunyala road near NIC Bank and the Railway Golf Club. Uhuru Park is perhaps the most famous stretch of this slope that continues its division of the city along State House road and Kileleshwa to resurface clearly on Waiyaki Way near Chiromo. Along this entire stretch, the average height above sea level increases by up to 100M. Beyond Westlands, the slope is seen in Parklands and runs adjacent to Thika road in Muthaiga past Garden estate and beyond.

The difference in height between the eastern and western side of Nairobi has determined the zoning of the city (hence delineating the affluent and working class areas), the drainage pattern, weather and vegetation in Nairobi.

The higher areas to the West of Nairobi are relatively ‘richer’ than the Eastern half of the city. Thika road and Langata road roughly divide the city into an Eastern-Western half while the Northern corridor – Mombasa Road and Waiyaki Way – divides the city to have a Northern and Southern half. The intersection of these roads near the City center divides the city into four quadrants.

Image

The upper Western quadrant bordered by Thika road and Waiyaki way (quadrant 1) is home to the super rich of Nairobi, Kenya and the region in general. This quadrant contains suburbs like Gigiri, Nyari, Runda, Kitisuru as well as the UN headquarters and high end shopping malls.

The lower Western quadrant bordered by Langata road and Waiyaki way (quadrant 2) houses the upper middle class and includes estates like Kileleshwa, Lavington, Hurlingham and Adams Arcade. The periphery of this quadrant has working class estates like Kawangware while the affluent Karen that borders the escarpment at Ngong’ is also situated at the southern tip of this quadrant.

The lower Eastern quadrant bordered by Langata road and Mombasa road (quadrant 3) is largely comprised of the Nairobi National Park with estates like Rongai, South C and Nairobi West being on its edges. The upper Eastern quadrant bordered by Mombasa road and Thika road (quadrant 4) is largely a working class area and an industrial zone. This includes estates adjacent to Thika road like Mathare and Kasarani, estates along Outer Ring and Jogoo roads as well Embakasi and areas near the JKIA. It is also worth noting that the City’s two airports are situated in the relatively flat Eastern half of the city.

The aforementioned slope also affects the drainage of Nairobi. The law of gravity dictates that water flows downhill and with a flat area bordering an elevated one, it is no coincidence that Nairobi was described as a swamp by the British when setting up the city. Water flows rapidly eastwards whenever it rains and upon reaching the Eastern plains, the water spreads out forming a flood plain that is best seen in the National Park. This explains why certain areas of the city experience flooding whenever it rains. The areas that lie adjacent to the slope (indicated in blue in the second map) including Rongai, South C, TMall, Nairobi West, Bunyala road roundabout and Thika road at Pangani experience the worst of the flooding. South C residents will attest to the peculiar phenomenon where it floods in the estate despite no rain falling in the area. Run-off water from Langata, Karen and Ngong finds its way to South C and the National Park causing floods in this flood plain. Indeed, South C has earned the infamous ‘South Sea’ tag due to the frequent floods. The above phenomenon also partly explains the images seen when flash floods caused parts of Thika road to look like a river a few months back. (These areas need enhanced storm drainage, something the British didn’t set up when settling on a flood plain and the Kenyan authorities have done little to address).

While Nairobi’s climate is relatively standard across the city, there are times when the weather fluctuates from one part of the city to another. This ‘micro climate’ phenomenon is influenced by the difference in altitude. Apart from the example of Langata, Karen and South C above, you find situations where it rains in Hurlingham, Kilimani and Kenyatta Hospital but it becomes sunny as you descend to the other end of Mbagathi road at TMall.  The weather is also cooler in the Western side of Nairobi than the Eastern side especially in the morning, typified by the fog along Waiyaki way in the morning.

There’s a similar distinction in the soil and vegetation in the Eastern and Western side of Nairobi. As this map below shows, the higher Western side is ‘greener’ with more fertile soils. This explains why the early settlers had coffee farms especially in the areas adjacent to Kiambu road. This particular area lies at the foot slopes of the Aberdares which forms part of the escarpment.  The large coffee farms were later subdivided towards independence to form the affluent suburbs of Nairobi. Karen estate was also a farm made famous by Karen Blixen’s memoir ‘Out of Africa’.

 NBO 2

Beyond Nairobi towards the Rift, there is a steady increase in height with dramatic change of weather as you approach the peak of the escarpment. This includes areas like Limuru which have an average height of 2200m above sea level with the neighbouring Nairobi being 1800m above sea level. Kinale forest situated 20kms from Naivasha is the peak of the escarpment along the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway before the dramatic descent to Naivasha.

Dip slope .

The distinct diversity in altitude over a small, compact area has given rise to a unique city that has the distinction of being the only major city with a game park in the world. Rivers, valleys, flood plains, hills, forests, dry areas and views of the Great Rift valley co-exist in this thriving city that is the biggest between Cape and Cairo. We’ll end this piece by giving you all a heads up. While it took three years of observation and deduction, with a couple of months researching to draft this blog piece, it will take you a trip to the KICC helipad and information from this blog post to appreciate the unique geography of this city we call home and how it affects our everyday life as Nairobians.

About the Author

Galimo Askumo
An explorer, an infomaniac and a hippie. I got tired of wanting to read detailed, long form articles on various topics that interest me so I decided to write about them. My username is an ode to the last two known members of my family tree which goes back 11 generations.

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40 Comments

  1. Ayub Kimani Ibn Daud

    man!! no words…this is mindblowing.how long it take for you to do this..?didnt know you had a love for geography?

    • panoramicdon

      Glad you enjoyed the piece, Job. Love geography. I try to be a polymath 😛

      As indicated, took me three years + to observe and connect the dots. Been researching for a few months but procrastination meant the post had to wait till now.

  2. Sean

    It was worth the wait! Brill!

    Yeah, patience paid out in this instance.
    Very well written, carefully reasearched and full of relevance.

    Cheers Fella.

    • panoramicdon

      Thanks for the kind words Sean. And thank you for pressurizing me to write when procrastination had the best of me. Happy to know you enjoyed the piece. Cheers

  3. Mwas G

    All the major rivers flow from Kikuyu, Ngong area eastwards joining Athi near Ruai on the Eastern most point of the city, In the early 1900’s to clear the swampy waters the Brits planted lots of eucalyptus trees known for their high water consumption some can still be seen today as you head towards Upper Hill from Haile Selasie and at the Kenya National theatre

    • panoramicdon

      Thanks Albo for bringing that up. Was having that convo with Richie on twitter earlier. Those giant eucalyptus trees outside the Railway golf course right? Yeah, valid point about Athi river as well. Some of it flows from Ngong via the park to join the other tributary in Ruai.

      Thanks for the comment, knew you’d relate most with this piece.

  4. Manyala

    Great piece! This is how geography was supposed to be taught in schools, I’d still remember the subject up to today.

    One thought that couldn’t escape me as I read the article; it answers a question in one of Juliani’s lyrics. Something to do with if the poor lack food and oft sleep hungry, how come sewers are always flowing in our neighborhood. I now know that the overfed rich let gravity convey their sh!t down to our doorsteps (Excuse my language)

    • panoramicdon

      You cracked me up with that one Manyala, hahaha. Even sewage can’t defy gravity.

      Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. Stay around for more blog posts. Cheers

      • Andrea Wolfe

        I loved the article, and the comment – Ill remember both.

  5. sportskenya

    Perhaps you should start engaging in Geographical tutorials for Nairobi County as they seek to enrich the visiting or guided tours of this our City in the Sun!

    • panoramicdon

      Haha sportskenya, I’d quite enjoy that. May be I should have a word with Bwana Governor.

  6. Emily

    Moha,

    This is very impressive and refreshing. Thumbs up

    • panoramicdon

      Thanks Emily. Good to know you enjoyed.

    • panoramicdon

      Thanks @mbuguanjihia for reading and commenting. That KICC helipad is a must visit for Nairobians. KICC should advertise it more.

  7. Bob A

    Great post. It’s an interesting “phenomenon” that within most cities, the higher the elevation, the more well-to-do the residents. (I’m not saying it’s a good phenomenon or that it’s coincidental.) In addition to the Nairobi area, look at who lives on the hills and and who lives in the valleys of Kampala. In Josie (Johannesburg), who lives on the hills?

    • panoramicdon

      Thanks for your comment Bob. I guess affluence follows altitude. Apart from the obvious advantage of exclusivity living up the hills, small inconveniences like flooding are avoided. In Latin America however, the reverse is true. Most favelas (slums) are in the hills and are quite close to the affluent areas.

  8. Yusuf

    This is a masterpiece. Your patience, resilience, effort and time you took to make this observations is exemplary. Keep it up.

    • panoramicdon

      Shukran Yusuf, far too kind. I’ll try keep it up.

  9. Arnold

    I have learnt so much from this article than from the so called experts. Brilliant
    the South C flooding well expalined

    • panoramicdon

      Happy to know you learned something from the piece Arno. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. SupremeGREAM (@SupremeGREAM)

    I think this kind of explains why Industrial Area, all the way to Embakasi get’s so hot and by the time you get to Kenyatta Hospital the weather gets cool.

    This is a well written piece and one can tell a lot of work was put to it. Rarely get to read such pieces. Will definitely keep coming back for more.

    • panoramicdon

      Exactly, @SupremeGREAM. The higher you go, the cooler it becomes and all.

      Well, observing and connecting the dots took most of the time but yes, a lot of effort went into it. Please do come back, I’ll try to churn the pieces more often. Thanks a lot for reading and the feedback.

  11. khalif

    the birds-eye view is spot on, I can visualize this and the way you’ve observed class division along ascending slopes is..is really significant, yaani estlando tuko chini literally! big ups buda. Khalif

  12. Dave

    Great piece.

    One small error in the last paragraph: Nairobi is not “the only city with a park in the world”… it’s the only major city with a park within its boundaries.

  13. solo

    Great read moha. Ive always wondered where south c got that name from.makes perfect sense. Keep the good work

  14. NjokiChege

    Hi, kindly give me your e-mail address…

  15. Asterix

    It’s quite interesting that I read this first on Nation Sat today then stumbled it on twitter. DN writer – Mohamed Boru- pays no credit to you. A complimentary 3D animation would be very nice.

    • panoramicdon

      Asterix, Mohamed is my official name. As for the 3D animation, watch this space. Thanks for reading

  16. constantcap

    good writeup. One thing you notice on a day to day basis is the difference in climate and vegetation on one side of the Mbagathi River (the river that passes through Nairobi Dam) and the other…. your writeup on the slope clarifies a lot.
    The original railway that went along Uhuru highway and it is said that the locomotives had problems pulling loads up the slope at either Chiromo or Kabete after which the Railway company (EAR) decided to have the railway line run along the slope – upper hill – kibera through to dagoretti.

  17. Mwalimu Pedro

    Very enlightening. I’ve passed through all these places before and never gave them a second thought. This gives me a whole new perspective of Nairobi. Great work!

    • panoramicdon

      Interesting city we live in Mwalimu, huh? Thanks for your kind words

  18. Teddy Kinyanjui

    Excellent article – where is the highest and lowest point of Nairobi county?

    • Don Pablo

      Thank you. Lowest point(s) is the area around JKIA and the highest should be along Waiyaki way on the outskirts of the city.

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