Nairobi’s potholed streets are getting a touch of “Obamacare” ahead of the US president’s visit

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Potholed, sidewalk-deficient Nairobi is getting an emergency facelift ahead of US president Barack Obama’s visit later this month.

Road crews in the Kenyan capital are filling in potholes, flicking on street lights, building sidewalks, painting guard rails and curbs, and planting medians with grass and flowers along the roads the presidential motorcade is expected to drive.

Kenyans are unimpressed. They’ve dubbed it “Obamacare.”

Nairobi City County Government insists most of these improvements are part of a strategic plan for the city created long before Obama’s visit was announced. But Kenyans aren’t buying it. Everything has clearly ramped up, exacerbating a long-held belief here that the government is rarely moved to action for Kenyans themselves, just visiting luminaries.

They’re voicing much of their frustration on Ma3route, the popular mobile communication platform that collects and disseminates traffic information, in a mix of English, Swahili, and Sheng.

Soon after insisting all the beautification was pre-planned, Leah Oyake-Ombis, the chief officer for environment and forestry with Nairobi City County Government and one of the officials overseeing city improvements, says, “For sure you would not want the American president come to Nairobi and then where he is passing through, there is a pothole. That will not auger well for our government and therefore those areas become our priority.”

Catching on to where improvements are happening, Nairobi residents are sarcastically requesting that Obama work in a visit to their neighborhoods, too, so that the nearest nightmare road might get some cement poured.

“The focus is on this corridor because that’s the corridor the visiting president will use,” says Oyake-Ombis, referring to Mombasa Road, Uhuru Highway, and Limuru Road, which together connect the international airport to the United Nations, where the Global Entrepreneurship Summit will be held July 25-26.

Residents just want Nairobi to work—for their sake, not Obama’s. During the visit itself, taxi drivers may be among the hardest hit. In a city where “Sorry, I was stuck in a jam” is an acceptable excuse any day of the week, at any time of day, things would have to be really bad for drivers to plan to stay home.

But many of them plan to do just that, says Evans Kathimbu, a taxi driver in Nairobi for six years. He says he’ll either stay home or take jobs outside Nairobi, rather than spend all his time bumper to bumper on Uhuru Highway. “People are proposing it be a public holiday,” he says. Lately he’s only been able to take two or three clients a day because of how long it takes to move around. When John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited in May, a 25-minute trip took Kathimbu three hours, he says.

The frustration about the surface-level improvements is building. Kenyans suspect the roads, rushed as they are, will fall apart in months. They know Obama won’t see neighborhoods like Eastleigh, the predominantly Somali neighborhood where trash collection sometimes doesn’t happen for weeks.

No one ever bothered to plant the medians before. The airport road, recently fixed, wasn’t touched in the past six years Kathimbu worked as a driver. He’s seen enough roads fall apart to not get excited about the newly smooth major thoroughfares.

“They are trying to cheat showing Kenya how it is,” says Kathimbu, who lives near Eastleigh. “That’s what they are trying to do.”

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