/ 12 February 2024

No place for vendors in Nairobi’s freedom park

Kenya Ramps Up Security Over Christmas Period
Exclusion: Before Uhuru Park was closed for upgrading, Kenyans gathered there on weekends and holidays and vendors earned good money. Now only the prosperous go there. Photo: Donwilson Odhiambo/Getty Images

If Nairobi’s historic Uhuru Park fully reopens, it will be a “modern, orderly park” with two high-end restaurants, an amphitheatre, event spaces, exercise spaces and creature comforts for the city’s well-to-do.

It will also “accommodate very few vendors” because of its new design “and for control purposes”, according to Nairobi county’s chief environment officer, Ibrahim Otieno.

So far the park has re-opened for a handful of days for end-of-year festivities.

Before it was closed for refurbishment, more than 100 vendors worked in Uhuru and the nearby Central Park. Many now line the perimeter of the fenced-in park along Kenyatta Avenue, or are squeezed into Green Park, a nearby bus terminal. 

They struggle to pull the volume of business they once did, and now some have been forced out of Nairobi altogether.

Mary Wandungu found a spot for her drinks cart at the garbage-strewn Green Park bus terminal. 

In Uhuru Park, which flanks the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, parliament, Nyayo House and the National Health Insurance Fund, Wandungu made about 1  500 Kenya shillings ($9) a day but once she moved to Green Park, her income nosedived to about 400 shillings.

Eventually she could not afford the house she rented for 12  000 shillings a month in Umoja, a neighbourhood in Nairobi’s Eastlands. She now commutes 55km each way from Kenol in Murang’a County.

Wandungu is also no longer able to fully stock her cart even for the contracted customer base in Green Park. Most of her stock is water.

“Many things that should be here aren’t. No sweets, Tropicals, cigarettes. They’d sell if I bought them, but I don’t have the money,” she says. 

Only the fear of seeming irresponsible keeps her working.

“You can’t stay home with your children asking you, ‘What’s next mum?’ and then you tell them you have no work. It’s just that you can’t tell them that.”

Wandungu pulls out a sheaf of documents: a 2010 registration certificate for the Uhuru Park and Central Park vendors’ association, a black notebook with the minutes of the group’s first meeting, a list of the 128 vendors operating in the parks at the time of their closure and a 28 September 2023 letter from the group to Nairobi governor Sakaja Johnson. 

“We were promised [we could] return after the work is complete,” the letter reads.

Wandungu says the governor didn’t respond, but she has heard that each vendor will have to pay 14  000 shillings upfront for permission to trade there again. 

She says that given their struggles since leaving the park, demanding the money upfront may shorten the list of vendors who can return.

Philomena Wangari Kamau started selling soda in Uhuru Park in 2006 after leaving the hotel business. Her archive of trading licences and clearances to operate cover more than a decade.

“The oldest I could get,” she says, showing a document from 2007. It shows that she paid a licence fee of 2  000 shillings and a “clearance” of 1  000 shillings that year, when she traded by a tree near the boathouse.

Wangari was so upset by the 2021 eviction that she joined a protest. In a television news clip uploaded to YouTube, she gives an emotional interview, her voice shaking. 

She did try setting up in Green Park, as many others did, but found she could not make enough money to keep her daughter in college or buy medicine for her high blood pressure and diabetes.

She also could not keep up her rent of 10  000 shillings in Zimmerman, Nairobi, and now she lives in Thika with her daughter, 40km from Nairobi.

If Uhuru Park reopened to vendors, she would go back in a heartbeat. “If we are allowed to return, I’ll go there and earn some money so my daughter can finish college.”

In the meantime, she spends her days working on the cause of Mau Mau fighters (her father was one) who lost their land in that resistance.

Mike Njoki rents a few horses every day from a stable, and herds them to a park for children to ride. Whether he sells a ride or not, he has to pay the stable.

He used to offer rides in Uhuru Park but the eviction forced him to move to Green Park.

His operation is not just less profitable — Sunday, a good business day, now brings in as much as he made on a weekday in Uhuru Park — it’s also chaotic.

He has to keep a close eye on his horses to keep them from the rubbish dumped there. “If it eats garbage you have to call the vet, which is another cost.”

But the dump site just keeps growing.

“The waste from Uhuru Park is dumped here, even the grass that’s cut there.”

Many customers take one look at the commotion, judge it unfit for children and walk away. 

“It’s dusty and when it rains, it’s muddy. When it’s sunny, there’s no shade.

“The wind blows garbage everywhere. They won’t let their children play in the dirt.”

To entice them in, he often has to agree to half price even though his going offer is 100 shillings for a ride that goes for five times as much in better parts of Nairobi.

“All we earn here is bus fare,” he says.

Making matters worse, the government has built an exit off the Nairobi expressway into the bus terminus, cutting off space and adding to the commotion. On good business days such as Christmas, the chaos is overwhelming.

“You’re in charge of an animal that may react to the commotion. So you have to handle the commotion, the horse and the client, and make sure there’s no injury because you’re earning a living. It’s a hard time,” he says.

Njoki is frustrated that the city authorities won’t commit to when the vendors can return to the park. 

“We just hear it’s close.” 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read andshared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here