What about the house girl?

7. July 2023

Institutions like the World Bank have enthusiastically proclaimed the emergence of a new “international middle class” made up of people who have escaped poverty for good. The subproject A05 “Being home” takes a closer look at this phenomenon by investigating living spaces of the middle class in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Researchers Jochen Kibel and Makau Kitata have to go back to the colonial past to explain some of their first findings.

Brenda Strohmaier: What do you already know about the homes of the middle class in Nairobi?

Makau Kitata: First, they are not called homes but houses. Middle classness in Kenya often means social mobility in a literal sense, as people move from rural areas to the city for work. They will then say that having a house in the city and a home back in the countryside is an achievement. In Kenya everyone understands what that means, house and home, it’s like a natural way of looking at life.

Middle-income neighbourhood in Nyayo Highrise in close proximity to the Nairobi Damm and the informal settlement of Kibera.

B.S.: And then they spend all of their free time back in the countryside?

M.K.: Not necessarily. But they plan to retire there. And the rural home is where people invest a lot, where they show off their achievements. This is also where you invite friends to. City people, in contrast, would rather meet at a café; then everyone retreats to their own houses. When you drive around the middle class estates in Nairobi, you mostly see only the roofs of the houses, everything else is fenced in.

Jochen Kibel: It also appears that aesthetics in the city houses do not have such a high value of distinction as they do, for example, in Germany. Or maybe they’re important in a different way. That’s what we will have to find out.

M.K.: The interesting thing is that now a new generation of people who were born in these city houses call those places home.

J.K.: This nicely captures what the CRC1265 is mainly interested in, namely such conflicts between different spatial orientations. It’s the same place, but it’s entangled in very different and sometimes even conflicting spatial patterns of identification.

B.S.: You are visiting people in their homes for your research. What exactly do you want to find out there?

J.K.: We look at process of homemaking which in turn helps us to better understand self-making. We want to know which places are crucial for someone’s identity. The idea is not only to let people describe their living spaces but also to observe things that are obviously there but not mentioned.

M.K.: For example, if you ask someone in Nairobi how many people live in their house, you might be told, “It’s me, my husband and our children.” Who is not mentioned is the house girl, even if she lives with them.

B.S.: How come such an important person is just forgotten?

M.K.: That’s what we ask ourselves too. One reason may be that she does not have a room to herself, it’s not planned for. Most homes have a house girl but no particular space for her. In Nairobi there is a tradition of forgetting to plan for people. The city was designed in colonial times as a place for Whites and Asians. Black Africans were not supposed to live there. But then they were needed for work, particularly to build the railway. Bachelor quarters were constructed, huge spaces with single rooms. And these bachelors got married and they brought women to the city and to those places. And then, as the population continued to grow, these spaces became more and more cramped.

J.K.: So, that strong orientation of the black Nairobian population towards the countryside and towards their ancestral homes also comes from the sheer and brutal fact that they were not allowed to live and make a home in the city. Only after independence in 1963, it became possible to have a house in Nairobi. But still, the orientation was always towards Nairobi as a place for work. The place for living and retiring was still upcountry.

B.S.: Why do you use a Western category like middle class to investigate an African society that is characterized by different structures?

J.K.: You are right, this discourse, mainly propagated by the world bank, is a classical European narrative. It describes social development as a linear process, which is of course highly questionable and has been widely criticized. Our project, too, can be seen as a critical intervention into this discourse. We want to come up with a more differentiated picture instead of just saying, “Okay, they are catching up with us, and then eventually Nairobi will look like Berlin”.

B.S.: Makau, you are a lecturer of literature studies. What did you think when Jochen approached you with his project and all this spatial theory?

M.K.: It was exciting to connect literature with space. Suddenly fiction seemed so much more relevant to real life. And I realized that there is also a growing body of literature in Kenya about space. This is a sign that the places people call home contribute to the way they look at themselves, the way they define their stories. One of the most widely read contemporary Kenyan books is Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”. It is a middle class story about how he grew up as a son of a Kenyan father and a non-Kenyan mother trying to find his identity.

J.K.: What brings together spatial theory and literature studies is the fact that material changes go hand in hand with an entirely new cultural production of texts, films and television series that portray urbanized city dwellers and other middle class urban phenomena. We collaborate with the Afronovela project on this. It will be interesting for us to see how cultural products themselves mirror societal change in Nairobi and how they contribute to giving spaces new meanings.

B.S.: What about house girls in all these productions? Is there a Kenyan Mary Poppins?

M.K.: You will find that the house girl is not ever in the main story. Even if this young woman gets into a relationship with the middle class man in the house, this would be mentioned as something that affects the way this home functions in a peripheral way. Literature gives you a nuanced understanding of how some of these invisible things in the home actually affect the mainstream way of looking at our homes in Nairobi.

Author Information:
Dr. Jochen Kibel is a research associate at the CRC 1265 and leads the subproject A05 “Being Home”.
Dr. Makau Kitata is a lecturer at the department of literature at the university of Nairobi
Dr. Brenda Strohmaier is a journalist, urban sociologist, and currently works as a press officer for a Member of the European Parliament.