I’ve been renting in Nairobi for nine years now, and in that time I have lived in nine different houses. My first was a bedsitter at Alsopps on Thika Road, so new the window caulking was not fully set and you could still smell the fresh paint, and so small that once your feet left the bed you were already in the kitchen. I loved it. It was perched at the very top of a fourth floor building meaning the lone window let in light, not just dust, and I had a nice view of the neighbouring building’s laundry hanging lines. I couldn’t see the highway but I could hear it, at all times of the day and especially at night when the sounds of construction left with the sun. I think my rent was Ksh10,000.
After that I lived in a spacious one bedroom house in Mathare North for which I paid the princely sum of Ksh12,000 and had the privilege of being the upstairs neighbour to the local maternity clinic. I remember hurrying my then-boyfriend out of there before he could hear the women screaming as they laboured. He was bougie, living in the posh part of Kilimani in a duplex whose rent was 20 times mine. He wouldn’t understand that yes, thin walls meant I had been witness to many babies making their way into this world and that I now knew the process is never as quick as they depict it in movies. Also, most babies are born at night.
After that there was the shabby two bedroom flat in Ngumba whose only redeeming quality was that it was right opposite a pork and chips shop, and then the short-lived stay in a detached water-scarce servants quarters in Nairobi West where I made the landlady cry. In my defense she made me cry first. Then many happy months in Pangani, followed by a brief stint on Ngong Road before heading on over to Karen because I really wanted to live in a cottage and plant a garden and adopt a cat to frolick in it.
I never became a gardener (I realised that I hated the feeling of wet soil on my hands) but I did get the cat- the sweetest little tuxedo baby called Mint, the actual sunshine of my life. Until she died (on this very day last year), and that, among other things, made me abandon Karen for my current house. No, I am not about to disclose where I currently live.
Anyway, I am moving again soon, to what will be my tenth house. The reason for this latest move is that I am ready to parent a cat again (grief might be forever but it will not control my life) and my current place has a strict no-pets policy. That, and the fact that the landlord seems to think tenants should pay for regular wear and tear repairs to the house. Surely, why should I be the one to replace a tap because it got so old it lost its grip on the sink?
Moving oddly excites me. I see it as an opportunity to start my life all over again. My favourite genre of movies is where the protagonist moves to a new city or country and builds a new life afresh, unencumbered by the mistakes and realities of their former existence. So as the main character of my life, every move into a new house is a reinvention of myself. An opportunity to leave behind what didn’t work and create something that does.
The admin of it doesn’t bother me much either. I like real estate agents, they know everyone’s business. And I tend to get pretty lucky with the houses I land. I love the hunt for the perfect house, the rent negotiations, and even moving day itself doesn’t suck so much if you get good movers and let them do their work. And then the thrill of discovering a new neighbourhood, charting new walking routes, and identifying a new favourite neighbourhood bar? Ah, what’s not to like?
For most people of my generation, buying a house remains a pipe dream given the state of Nairobi’s housing market. So we rent, and buy cars instead, because that’s what we can afford. I tried explaining this to my mom but she doesn’t quite get it. A lot of us will be lifelong renters and you know what, it’s not the worst thing in the world. If only landlords would treat us a bit better.