Gikomba Market

Last week, on 16th May, two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were detonated in Gikomba market, Nairobi killing 12 people and injuring almost 80 (read more here). The latest in a string of terror attacks in Kenya, widely associated with the Somali-based Islamic militant group Al-Shebaab.


(Aftermath of one of the explosions. Photo from Capitalfm)

Gikomba is huge. It’s the largest open-air market in East Africa, mostly known for selling second-hand clothes as well as fruit and vegetables. Market-stall vendors come to Gikomba from all over Nairobi as early as 4am to get their produce to sell at their little kiosks around the city.

Here is a little bit about my experiences of Gikomba market:

Gikomba is noisy. It’s hectic. There are too many people. People shouting at you, grabbing you. People pushing past you or whistling at you from behind, warning you of their presence as their mikokoteni (handcarts) uncontrollably speed towards you at full pelt laden with sacks of second-hand clothes, shoes, vegetables, potatoes or other such things. And the place is a maze of narrow alleyways intersecting the stalls and it’s so easy to get lost or loose a friend as they blend into a mass of other people fighting their way through the crowds. It’s overwhelming and it leaves me exhausted.


(Men pulling a mkokoteni in Gikomba. Photo from Nairobi News)

In the dry season it’s dusty. The gentlest breath of wind whips up the dust that gets into your mouth and ingrained in your skin. And in the wet season that dust turns to thick, sticky mud that’s churned by the hundreds of people trampling throw the narrow pathways. But people, entrepreneurs, make the most of this and all along Digo Road you can find men set up with rickety wooden stools, buckets of dirty, soapy water and a pot of kiwi shoe polish. They call out to you as you pass: ‘Eh, mzungu! Look, your feet are so dirty! Come! Let me wash your shoes! 20 bob only!’ And some days they make me laugh with their enthusiasm, but normally I’d be too caught up in watching my bag for pick-pockets, avoiding the drunk mad-man in-front, watching for vehicles beeping at me from behind and dodging the overly-zealous man trying to grasp my arm as he implores me to see his stall: ‘Looking is free!’

I’d normally try to avoid the craziness of Gikomba market, but sometimes it wasn’t possible. I’d need to walk through or past it on my way, maybe, to visiting a child’s home or parents. Or maybe I myself would need to go there for shopping: the cheapest place in town. Or sometimes I’d head there to catch a matatu to Kiambiu. And talking of matatus, for two years, due to roadworks, the matatus from town to SJ. would divert through Gikomba market. And although you’d be safely enclosed from the mass of people outside when seated in this overheated, stuffy tin container, the hustle of the place couldn’t escape you. The matatu would lurch forward as it tried to force it’s way through the jam that was caused by a chaos of appalling roads, other frustrated drivers, people pulling heavily-loaded mikokoteni desperately trying to navigate their way, shoppers lingering at market-stalls that spill over from pavements onto the roads themselves. A maze of chaos.


(Business of Gikomba. Photo credit to John Tyman)

But I say I ‘normally’ dread heading to Gikomba. Not always. Because there would be the odd occasional day when with little else to do, I’d call a friend and we’d go for lunch at a small ‘hotel’ (cafe) hidden away in the depths of the market. They serve the best fish. So we’d sit there eating fish and ugali laughing about the small things in life and filling out stomachs.

Or on other days I’d head down to the market and sit at my friend’s stall. He’d call someone over and buy me incredibly sweet black coffee sold by one of these business woman who walks round the market with a thermos flask selling the syrupy-liquid, 10 bob a cup. And I’d sit there at this market-stall, set back a bit from the main street and I’d sip my coffee and my friend would continue his business in trying to draw in customers and make a sale, and I’d watch life go by. And in those moments, the world would be well and my soul content. And on those days, Gikomba market wasn’t all bad.


(Eating fish in Gikomba)

So yes, I guess you could say I have a slight love-hate relationship with Gikomba market.

But regardless of my personal impressions of the place, I know the importance of the market. I’ve worked with kids whose parents sole income is based on the small profits they might make from polishing shoes, selling porridge in blue thermos flasks, or heaving mikokoteni through the mud. The small income is too little: it may not be enough to cover the rent, or to pay school fees or the likes, but it might just put a meal on the table that night – enough to mean little stomachs don’t sleep hungry that night.

It was these kids and these families I thought of when the explosions happened Gikomba last week. And I fight my anger that these attacks have targeted the poor who may not be able to pay the hospital fees to treat their wounds, or to struggle to bring the money together to bury their dead with the cultural dignity they deserve, or recover the capital costs lost from the destruction caused to their businesses. And I hate the fear these terror attacks bring. That my colleagues at SJ now fear going to work each day as they pass the market, questioning where the next attack will be.

And meanwhile the leaders of the Kenya, rather than finding ways of making people feel secure again, are busy marginalising a whole community (read more here), banning tinted window on cars (read more here), and criticising the West for issuing travel advisories to Kenya (read more here).

And so belief, faith, hope in our leaders decreases, while anger and fear increases.

Which is why, as the song goes, ‘my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness’. Somewhere along the line Kenya, we need to know that our days are in Jesus hands and our protection in Him only. And we need to place our trust in Him, even – or maybe especially – when terrorists threaten our nation and our leaders let us down. God bless Kenya.

More photos from Gikomba:




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