In the last two decades, a diaspora-fuelled economic boom has transformed Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate into a major East African commercial zone associated primarily with its large Somali population. In Eastleigh, new shopping precincts, hotels and restaurants mushroom in an enclave economy seemingly little connected to the Kenyan state. National and transnational networks attract investment, and its economy is booming, luring shoppers keen to invest in its bargains, and refugees keen to find haven amongst fellow Somalis or Oromo.
This study provided rich ethnographic material on the historical, cultural and linguistic underpinnings of this vibrant estate. It approached Eastleigh not just as an enclave of the Somali diaspora, but as a confluence of three separate diasporas: Somalis dominate culturally and economically – so leading to Eastleigh’s nickname of ‘Little Mogadishu’ – but there is also a thriving Oromo community from Ethiopia, while the number of Meru drawn to Eastleigh by trade in khat (a stimulant grown in their region of Kenya) constitute what could be termed a sub-national diasporic community.
The project examined in detail the interactions between the different diaspora communities, the national and transnational networks they maintain, the support provided by such networks to vulnerable refugee families resident there, and the relationship between Eastleigh and wider Kenyan society. As well as examining the implications of this diaspora-fuelled economy, the project developed major themes in the field of economic anthropology, especially concerning the role of trust within diaspora trade networks and between them and their host society, as well as exploring issues of ethnicity, identity and nationality in contemporary East Africa.
Key research questions
- What are the historical and cultural processes that have led to this confluence of diasporas in Eastleigh?
- What role do ethnicity, nationality, clan, lineage, language and religion play in generating trust within Eastleigh and the wider networks that sustain it?
- How are these networks interwoven with local political and cultural processes within Nairobi and Kenya?
- How does the contested history of Somali and Oromo identity and nationality within East Africa affect these networks and life in Eastleigh?
- How is ‘home’ conceived of by Eastleigh’s inhabitants, and what relations do they maintain with their ‘homelands’?
The project approached these questions through the connected themes of trust, mobility and migration, and diaspora and identity.
The project included two phases of fieldwork and archival research in Nairobi, with a final period of dissemination and write-up in the UK. Survey interviews were conducted with Eastleigh residents and traders, documenting their experiences of life and trade in Nairobi. A sub-set of informants were selected as case studies for further in-depth interviews. The project identified and examined a range of business and trade networks as case studies. Participant observation was used to directly experience trade and other aspects of life in the estate, while a number of visual anthropological techniques (including participant photography) were also applied.