African Studies Nairobi
Neil Carrier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0211


Nairobi is one of the largest metropolises of Africa, with a current population of almost four million, and much larger with the wider metropolitan area taken into account. Its great contemporary size is hard to reconcile with its humble origins over a century ago as a campsite on a marshy plain, formed when building the Uganda Railway in the 1890s. This campsite grew quickly as a railway depot, taking its name from the Maasai enkare Nairobi, meaning “place of cold water,” and it was soon chosen as a provincial capital. It became a municipality in 1919, then designated a city in 1950. Despite initially being planned as a European town, Nairobi soon became highly cosmopolitan, with a large Indian population, many Africans from near and far, and others from as far afield as Somaliland and the Seychelles. Nairobi’s history is bound up with the wider story of colonial Kenya and East Africa, being a site of many of the tensions and contradictions of colonial rule, and this past still influences its current form. However, since Independence the city has grown into a vibrant political, commercial, touristic, artistic, and academic hub of East Africa. It hosts many international media and humanitarian organizations, as well as various branches of the United Nations. It is a city of great contrasts, with numerous slum settlements juxtaposed with estates of great wealth, and with its busy and often congested roads and streets contrasting with the nearby Nairobi National Park. Like many other cities in Africa, Nairobi faces great challenges in an era of rapid urbanization, and much of the academic literature reflects this, with work focusing on topics such as failing infrastructure, corruption, and violence. However, it is also a place where challenges are overcome, where much innovation takes place, and where many see brighter futures for themselves. In short, it is a compelling city that speaks to many of the ambiguities of contemporary urban life, and one deeply fascinating to scholars from a range of disciplines interested in urbanization in the 21st Century.


As with the literature on Kenya, articles relevant to Nairobi feature in many key academic journals focused on Africa: Africa, the journal of the International African Institute that has published much key work in the anthropology and history of Africa; African Affairs, the major area studies journal focused on the continent; the International Journal of African Historical Studies, which publishes work on wide-ranging historical themes that often are relevant for Nairobi and urban life more broadly; the Journal of African History; the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, an interdisciplinary journal with a political economy focus; and the Journal of Modern African Studies, a quarterly journal with a political focus that has published a number of articles relevant to Nairobi. More specific to East Africa are a number of journals in which Nairobi is frequently a focus: Azania, principally an archaeological journal; the Journal of Eastern African Studies, a key area studies journal of the region; and Kwani?, the publication of Kenya’s Kwani Trust. Articles about Nairobi are also published in urban studies journals, as well as core journals from a range of disciplines.

  • Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa. 1966–.

    A journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and first published in 1966, which usually has an archaeological focus, but has also included social history articles focused on urban East Africa, with a special issue in 2001 (issue 36–37) containing a number of key articles on Nairobi (see also citations under A Colonial City: People, Planning, and Politics).

  • Journal of African History. 1960–.

    The key journal of African historical research, which has published numerous articles relevant to the study of Nairobi.

  • Journal of Eastern African Studies. 2007–.

    Another journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, often with a more historical or anthropological focus.

  • Kwani?. 2003–.

    An important contemporary Kenyan publication of the literary network called the Kwani Trust that highlights the intellectual and cultural dynamism of Kenyan society. The journal publishes critical political and cultural commentary, as well as poetry, short stories, and other artistic pieces. While relevant for Kenya more broadly, the journal very much draws on and relates to urban life in Nairobi.

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