We have a new neighbour at house number 44 in Hekima Estate. Her name is Mali. She is a laboratory technician and her husband is a doctor at St Kizito Hospital in Nairobi. He was recently transferred from St Kizito in Kisumu hence the move to Hekima Estate.
Mali is a very sociable person and quickly joined the Hekima Women’s Association, a social group that engages in community activities around the estate. Mali and I became fast friends and she narrated to me her encounter with house-hunting in Nairobi. With her permission, I will share her story.
Mali was born in Mombasa but grew up in Busia when her father was posted there as an immigration officer. She then moved to Kisumu after marriage. She had never lived in Nairobi and her house-hunting experience was nightmarish. In between jobs at the time her husband got the transfer, Mali took it upon herself to undertake the house-hunting. While in Nairobi, she stayed at a cousin’s house and the cousin’s wife helped her get a good property agent.
They had a meeting with the agent and Mali explained what she wanted in a house – three bedrooms, master ensuite, around the neighbourhood of St Kizito Hospital with access to a shopping centre, a good school and other social amenities. The housing agent took the brief and returned the next day with three options.
The first was a town house at Kizito Gated Community. This was the most ideal and fit the bill perfectly, being a walking distance from the hospital and a stone throw away from St Kizito Academy. Mali and her cousin’s wife went and viewed the house and fell in love with it. The agent arranged for her to meet with the owner the following day.
On the appointed day and time, Mali was bright and early at the agent’s office. She waited and waited and waited but the owner of the house did not show up. Disappointed, Mali rose to leave.
“I will go ahead and look at the other listings,” she told the agent.
Mali walked to the bus stop and while waiting for a matatu, she reached for her phone to apprise her husband of the house-hunting progress. She could not find the phone in her purse. She realized that she may have left it in the agent’s office and rushed back to look for it.
It was lunch time and the receptionist had left her station. Mali therefore took a chance and walked towards the agent’s office. His door was slightly ajar and he was talking to somebody.
“The lady was really interested in the house,” the agent’s voice carried to her.
“Too bad but she doesn’t fit the bill,” Mali heard a woman speak.
“How do you know and you didn’t even bother to come and meet her?” the agent asked. “You know that your house has been vacant for two months now and with every month it remains vacant, the agency loses money. You ought to take this seriously.”
“I will find another agency if you don’t want to list it,” the woman’s said. “I will just not have an ordinary nobody living in my house.”
“But it is a rental property,” the agent argued. “If you continue treating it like your house, you will never get a tenant.”
There was a pause and then the agent said, “That lady’s husband is a doctor at St Kizito. That is why she wanted a house in that location.”
“Lies,” the woman said. “Which doctor’s wife wears ngoma rubber shoes like that and travels around by matatu? She just said that to get the house. I know such people. They are struggling middle class wannabes and never make the rent.”
“Surely, you cannot judge somebody in that way Mrs Molewa,” the agent said. “You don’t even know that she came here by matatu.”
“I know,” the woman said. “I packed across the street before the appointed time to see what sort of so-called tenant this was and what I saw was enough for me to decide that I did not want her in my house. Moreover, her skin tone shows that she is not from my tribe.”
“What?” the agent asked.
“She is too dark skinned to be from my tribe,” the woman said. “Maybe she is even an illegal immigrant. Kenyan women are not that dark skinned. I cannot have such in my house. Perhaps she wants a house to launch her illegal human trafficking or prostitution ring. I won’t have it.”
“You have gone too far Mrs Molewa,” the agent said. “I don’t believe you can say such things about a potential tenant!”
“I have a choice about who lives in my house,” Mrs Molewa said. “If you disagree with me, I will withdraw my business. You know that you manage eight of my properties. My business is a big deal to you.”
“Mrs Molewa,” the agent’s voice had a plea in it.
“Enough,” the woman said. “I have a lunch date. You know my brief. I want a tenant who is at least upper middle class and whom you have confirmed is actually a doctor at St Kizito. The tenant must also be from my tribe.”
Mali rushed and sat at the reception, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. What she had heard had shaken her to the core. People discriminated against potential tenants? This was new to her. Busia, being a border town, was very multi-cultural. People from different tribes and nationalities co-existed with no conflict. She expected the same from a cosmopolitan city like Nairobi but evidently, things were different here.
After Mrs Molewa left, Mali retrieved her phone without letting the agent know that she had overheard their conversation. She braced herself for the uphill task of continuing with her house-hunt.
The agent called a few days later to inform her that the second house was ready for viewing. This one was located at Sun Hill Estate. It was a three bedroom bungalow in a gated community that was a fifteen minute drive away from St Kizito Hospital. This was not so bad. Children from Sun Hill also attended St Kizito Academy and there was a van to ferry them to and from school.
The agent did the usual walk through the house. Mali loved it, especially the kitchen garden at the back and the tiny front lawn. The house at St Kizito only had a concrete parking lot at the front and no garden at the back. This was therefore a better option, considering that the rent in the two estates was comparable.
The agent arranged a meeting with the landlady at lunch time the next day and this time, Mali was prepared. She borrowed her cousin’s Toyota Prado and dressed up to the nines. One would think she was going for a job interview.
At the appointed time, Mali arrived at the restaurant and met with a pleasant Mrs Karamu. They immediately struck a rapport.
“Most of the people looking for housing in this estate are in the medical field,” Mrs Karamu said proudly. “This is because of the proximity to all the big hospitals in this area. Are you also a doctor?”
“No,” Mali said, expecting the question. “But my husband is.”
“And he must be doing well,” Mrs Karamu said looking her up and down approvingly. “I love your car by the way.”
“Thank you,” Mali said smiling but inwardly cringing at the deception.
“Well,” said Mrs Karamu. “You will find that this place is very convenient for you. You viewed the house, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and I loved it,” Mali confirmed.
“I am glad you did,” Mrs Karamu said.
There was slight pause and then Mrs Karamu lamented, “It has been vacant these past few months when the previous occupant was transferred to some other town. Every three or so years, doctors in public hospitals are shuffled around and we have many tenants moving out. This year, for some reason, the in-coming doctors are those people from the other side of Kenya. I have had about six of them inquiring about the house but I cannot let them stay in my house.”
“What?” Mali asked in shock. “Why does the tribe of a tenant matter?”
“I hate those people and don’t trust their strange cultures and traditions,” Mrs Karamu continued. “But I see from your name that we must be from the same tribe. A nice family like yours deserves a good house at Sun Hill Estate. We need to look out for our own, you know.”
Mrs Karamu winked.
Mali did not believe her ears! So, Mrs Molewa’s remarks had not been random. The tribe of a tenant really was an issue in this city. Mali had heard about tribalism in Kenya but thought that it only related to politics. She did not know that it extended to such things as housing.
Mrs Karamu smiled and drawing a document form her bag, placed it on the table and asked, “Are you ready to sign the lease?”
“No,” Mali said, disgusted. She wondered why she had been ready to deceive Mrs Karamu with flashy clothes and a fuel guzzler. What it all essentially boiled down to was tribe, and that she could not change.
“Why,” Mrs Karamu asked concerned. “What happened? You did not like the house.”
“I did,” Mali said. “It would have been great to stay there with my family. But the problem is that I am not from the same tribe as you.”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs Karamu said. “Your name?”
“Yes, my name,” Mali said. “I share a name with my maternal grandmother who is from your tribe. But I am from the other side of Kenya and have lived there most of my life. My husband is also from the other side of Kenya.”
Mrs Karamu looked at Mali surprised, and then feigning anger, gathered up her papers and her handbag and rose to leave. “Thanks, but no thanks for wasting my time,” she said.
Mali watched her retreating figure in shock. Mrs Karamu was not apologetic about her tribal prejudices! In fact, she felt that Mali had wasted her time by not immediately disclosing her tribal background! It all felt surreal to Mali and she leaned back in her chair as numerous questions raced through her mind. Is this how life would be for her children? Discriminated because of their tribe?