The digital media journalist and She Shapes the City podcast host on Nairobi’s development boom, and the women behind the city’s rapidly changing identity.
In 1926, E.A.T. Dutton (a writer even Wikipedia seems to have forgotten) passed through Nairobi en route to Mount Kenya. He wrote of the city, “Maybe one day Nairobi will be laid out with tarred roads, with avenues of flowering trees, flanked by noble buildings; with open spaces and stately squares; a cathedral worthy of faith and country; museums and of art; theaters and public offices.” Founded in 1899 as a depot on the Ugandan Railway, Nairobi had replaced Mombasa as the capital of British East Africa in 1905, and what the writer Dutton no doubt meant—what the English always mean when they say things like this about places that aren’t theirs—was that the Kenyan city might, if lucky, someday pass for part of England. Until then, according to Dutton, Nairobi would be a “slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country.”
As with all struggles for freedom from colonialist rule, women played a vital role in the fight to obtain Kenya’s independence from the British Empire. And, as with most retellings of these struggles, the women essential to Kenya’s independence have largely gone unnamed, when they are mentioned at all. But Kenyan journalist Cynara Vetch is working to ensure that the female forces behind an independent Nairobi’s metropolitan dynamism are not forgotten. Co-founded by Vetch and Mia Collis, a documentary photographer, the digital media campaign She Shapes the City features multimedia portraits of the influential women who are rebuilding Nairobi in their image. Paired with Collis’s celebratory portraits, Vetch’s profiles tell the stories of engineers, pilots, doctors, politicians, and artists—and their relationship with Nairobi—in each of these women’s own words.
Since Kenya’s liberation in 1963, and in the last fifteen years especially, Nairobi has seen a boom in business and development, and the number of people living in the capital has increased by more than half in the last decade, reaching 3.7 million in 2014. Meanwhile, in the midst of the Kenyan capital’s fast-developing concrete jungle, there remains actual jungle. “We still have a national game park inside our capital city, which is pretty incredible,” says Vetch, and recently, Karura—an urban forest where one might bump into colobus monkeys, porcupines, and African antelope—“was cleaned up and opened to the public.” Nairobi is, as Vetch puts it, a green city—and one of Africa’s most dynamic. As a result, the city’s identity is changing just as rapidly as its literal and cultural terrain. Via She Shapes the City, the momentum behind Nairobi’s cosmopolitan evolution has forty-three names, and counting, and a new chapter of the campaign, launched on June 6, considers women in the fast-expanding solar energy sector. Says Vetch, “Right now in Kenya only  percent of the population has access to electricity and in some counties it’s as low as 2 percent, but [we are] really blessed with the amount of sun we get.”
Formerly a new media specialist for CCTV Africa and mobile analyst for Al Jazeera, Vetch has spent much of the last decade investigating the potential of mobile phones to facilitate news delivery and citizen reporting, as during Kenya’s elections, and increase interaction among offline communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. She has also worked on documentaries, soap operas, and radio programs that inform African audiences of issues related to HIV and AIDS. She Shapes the City, then, is a fantastic blend of career interests for Vetch, a white Kenyan and British citizen who grew up in Nairobi.
Calling via Skype from Java House, one of Kenya’s fastest-growing chain cafés, Vetch talked about the changes that have come to her hometown and the need to feature African women’s “winning” narratives around women in lieu of typical (and stereotypical) noble martyr stories.
—Gemma de Choisy for Guernica
Guernica: She Shapes the City is a podcast and website that features profiles of women who are “changing the face” of Nairobi. What does it mean to change the face of a city?
Cynara Vetch: Literally that—to take something that was and change it in your way, in any way. It could be changing legislation, it could be changing perceptions through a book. It’s very connected with the women who, in the area that they find themselves, are having an impact and are shaping what they see around them into something they think should be. Whether that’s a stylist like Annabel Onyango who’s working with some of the biggest brands, or someone like Margery Kabuya, who’s spent her whole career working to keep young girls in education. They’re all coming into a situation, working on it, and changing it for the better.
If you’re doing incredible things in Nairobi, it is felt in a really significant way. Nairobi is still a relatively small place.
Guernica: Are they changing Nairobi’s identity in the process?
Cynara Vetch: Yes. Nairobi is changing really fast. You can see it in the skyline, the change. In the last five years it’s become a different place, and it’s up for grabs as to what it will be. No one’s worked that out yet. Everyone talks about the “buzz,” and the “energy,” the “dynamism,” but the city has a very shifting identity. Apart from that energy it’s very hard to put your finger on. The thing is, individuals can have a huge impact. You’re not lost like you would be somewhere like New York, where one person’s impact feels so small. If you’re doing incredible things in Nairobi, it is felt in a really significant way. Nairobi is still a relatively small place.
Guernica: It hasn’t been long since Kenya gained independence from Britain. Can you still feel the lingering effects of colonialism in Nairobi?
Cynara Vetch: I think it really depends on what and where. One of the women we featured, she’s a very big radio personality. She mentioned, when she started, how stiff and formal radio shows were. They were very British. She remarked on how they changed the longer she worked in them. So there’s things like that. But elsewhere? Not really. I think Kenya’s got an energy of its own. Some of the old [colonial] buildings are still around. English is spoken a lot. But no, I think it’s evolved its own identity.
Guernica: You’re based in Nairobi now, and you grew up in Kenya. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
Cynara Vetch: I think it goes back to that kind of intangible energy. When I was growing up in Nairobi, things were very different. It was sleepy. It was safe. It had incredible weather and not too many imported goods. I remember we got so excited about this Ceres fruit juice, it was the first imported thing we’d ever seen on the shelves. Life was pretty simple. We [took] some kind of perverse pleasure in potholed roads and how down-to-earth everything was. There was a choice of three restaurants. It was not very cosmopolitan—people were either Kenyan or expatriates who tended to be journalists or aid workers. That was pretty much it.
Nowadays, you really feel you’re at the center of things in Kenya. You’ve got some of the brightest, most idealistic people coming from all corners of the world. They either want to make an impact here, or they see a huge opportunity here that they’re not finding in London or New York. Everyone from every kind of sector, they’re just flocking here. You can see it becoming more and more varied year after year after year.
But there are bad changes as well. The traffic’s insane. You can’t move. Nairobi’s lost some of that sleepiness and charm—and green! The green areas of Nairobi are disappearing. It’s still kind of amazingly green when you go up to a top-floor building and look out over Nairobi; you realize what a green city Nairobi still is. But when you’re on pavement level it just feels like a concrete jungle. And there’s a huge gold rush for property. Where there were once little bungalows there are now huge apartment blocks. The speed of development is insane because there aren’t many development rules in place. It’s kind of a free-for-all. If you have a plot of land and you want to build, you just do it, which means the area’s changed so quickly in the last five years. But in the last ten to fifteen years? It’s become unrecognizable.
Guernica: What made you decide to stay?
Cynara Vetch: Even though it is all the things I’ve said, Nairobi is still the city I grew up in. I tend to come back for two years, and then I leave, and then I come back again. I was in Qatar for two years and I was desperate to get back. Now I’ve been back for about three years and I’m getting itchy feet again. It’s so exciting to be here—you feel like you can do and achieve so much. But then it has all the growing pains of a fast-developing city, and those tend to drive me away when I can’t deal with the traffic or I can’t deal with the crime. It’s very push and pull.
Yvonne Adhiambo, one of the women we featured on the first She Shapes the City campaign, had incredible words to say about Nairobi. She saw it as this kind of jealous woman whom you’re really in awe of and have gotten really wrapped up in, but who is very cruel, someone you could never 100 percent trust. It’s a very conflicted relationship that she had with the city. She felt she could never quite escape it but she was also often pushed back by it.
Guernica: How did you and Mia Collis come up with the idea for She Shapes the City?
Cynara Vetch: Mia is a photographer. She was approached by a local dress designer who said, “Could you photograph my latest collection pro bono?” And Mia said, “Mmm, not really. I’m a professional photographer and I’m not a fashion photographer.” But then she thought about it and said, “If you can find me twelve amazing women in Nairobi who are doing fantastic work, then that would be interesting for me. I would photograph them for free, wearing your clothes, and it could be a new challenge for me.” And then she thought about it a bit more, and she figured that if she was photographing these women, then she needed their stories. At that point she brought me in and asked me to interview the women to find out how they got where they were. I’m a journalist who’s been working on ways to engage with African audiences and tell African stories; I’ve been doing that for about the last nine years. And when I was brought on I thought there was no point in us just photographing the women and getting their stories if no one sees them. We needed to do a campaign around it. We needed to set up a website, and we needed to push it out onto social media so people engaged with the content. So we did that, and it exploded.
Guernica: Why do you think the campaign was so well-received, so quickly?
Cynara Vetch: It was content that people weren’t really seeing. There tends to be a lot of very similar stories about rural African women doing so well despite great hardships. Or more recently there’s “Top Ten Women in Tech” or “Top Ten Women in Business” articles. But there aren’t a lot of spaces where you can hear and see women who are coming up with solutions to challenges they face in African cities, and doing so in creative and exciting ways—especially not in a multimedia format. The presentation can often be quite dry, even if the stories are quite inspirational. She Shapes had a very powerful format because we hadn’t decided to just have women from this sector or stories with this angle. We had women who were reaching very different audiences for very different reasons. Onyango is a celebrity stylist, Adhiambo is a writer who’s won the Caine Prize, Wanjiru Gichaga is an airline pilot, and each had their own passionate followers. Then, suddenly, each woman’s fans were being introduced to different women with different skill sets, who’d come from different worlds.
Guernica: How did you proceed after that first campaign?
Cynara Vetch: We were blown away by the potential of it, so we said, “Okay. Let’s do it again.” And in the second chapter—we call them “chapters”—we had even more greatly varied women—just incredible people. Everyone from Wambui Waithaka, a doctor who’d taken on the government for corruption in the health sector, to Charlotte Campbell-Stephen, who campaigned against sexual abuse in the slums, to humanitarian lawyers like Anne Mitaru, to conservationists like Dr. Paula Kahumbu. And they had an even bigger following and there was an even bigger response. At that stage I began thinking, “We’re onto something here, and this is something I’m very passionate about.” So in September last year I said, “I’m going to give this a full run.” I was working at CCTV Africa at the time, setting up their digital strategy and their digital department, and I was trying to balance She Shapes with that. To really give She Shapes a go, I needed to give it my full attention. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Guernica: What’s happened since then?
Cynara Vetch: We’ve done a third chapter, where I experimented a lot more with audio, and we launched a new campaign on June 6. If we’re telling these women’s stories, it seems a bit crazy to translate what they’ve said into my text. I’m between them and the audience, getting people to listen to their voices. People want to tell stories about empowered women, but it’s usually done in very standard formats.
A lot of these women wow me with what they have to say, and I’d like people to hear that directly rather than have me rehash it for them.
Guernica: Do you feel like using audio and digital media is more honest?
Cynara Vetch: Yeah, but that’s very idealistic. I think a lot of it was just that the women are incredibly eloquent. If someone can’t express themselves but I understand what they’re trying to say, then my job as a journalist is to make that meaningful and exciting. But if someone speaks beautifully and has an incredible turn of phrase, it seems a bit crazy that I’d then go and interpret that for an audience. A lot of these women wow me with what they have to say, and I’d like people to hear that directly rather than have me rehash it for them. With other women, it’s trickier. One of the women in our new chapter, she only spoke in Swahili, so it’s a lot of interpretation by me.
I’m also a huge fan of audio. I think it’s incredibly powerful. I don’t think it’s used enough. It’s got a huge potential in Kenya and in Africa where there’s this big divide—you know, everyone gets excited about Nairobians on Twitter, but the biggest form of media is still radio. Radio is still completely king. So how do you take that audio listenership, who are already sold on radio, and get them listening to audio digitally? And the podcast explosion in the States—what can that mean in Africa, and how will it be different? I’m really excited about the potential.
Guernica: How do you decide which women to feature?
Cynara Vetch: The model that we’re trying to use is that the women are nominated by their communities. We don’t want to go off and say, “Well, we’ve decided that these are the ten most inspirational woman in Lagos.” If we hear of someone incredible we’ll probably feature them, but as much as possible we want [nominations] to come from other people.
Guernica: How has the campaign affected the women you’ve profiled?
Cynara Vetch: It’s quite early days. Very tangible results haven’t really manifested. The most tangible thing is that the women we feature have been very excited to meet each other. It’s kind of created this network where people from different areas have met and spoken about collaboration. And it’s exciting just to be aware of each other, because I think many of the women are battling alone a lot of the time.
Guernica: So it’s helping to establish a kind of community, then.
Cynara Vetch: I think there’s a lot of ways this can go. A community, yes, that’s one—like a kind of network I can see as we go from city to city. If you’re an artist based in Nairobi and you link with a business woman in Addis Ababa, you could collaborate together. So the network aspect is one aspect. Another is role models. We’ve been talking with an organization called Zana Africa—they work on keeping girls in education. They’re very linked up with the sanitary towel issue, which is something that prevents a lot of girls from going to school a lot of days of the year. Sanitary towels are pretty expensive and it’s kind of assumed that everyone has access to them when actually in [many] areas and schools it’s an issue. If girls do have access to sanitary towels, often the facilities in the schools, such as the toilets, aren’t adequate, so the girls just stay at home when it’s that time of the month. That obviously has a big effect over months and years on how much schooling they miss. So organizations like Zana Africa have come up with cheaper sanitary towels and various projects to make this a non-issue. Tied up in that, [Zana Africa is] starting a teen magazine that’s all about inspiration—options and ideas for young girls. So we’ve been talking to them about featuring one of the She Shapes women in every [issue] so these girls can see what these women have done and what options are out there. And then there’s just the media content, the different ways we can celebrate women and in what formats. [Telling women’s stories] is only now really fashionable in places like the States. There’s a huge thirst for it elsewhere, but no one quite knows how to find these stories. The hope is that you don’t even have to care about women’s stories [to find] the content so compelling that you’re still engaging with it.
I think there are a lot of women whose nobility has nothing to do with suffering.
Guernica: But you are telling women’s stories, specifically. Why is that?
Cynara Vetch: Because they’re not told. There’s this whole “Africa Rising” narrative that has become a bit lazy, and it cites the same kinds of people and the same instances again and again. “This woman is so inspirational; she travels miles to get water and look after her family.” That narrative is told with very noble intentions, but is it that inspiring? Are you like, “Wow! I’d like to be her, I’d like to talk to her, I’d like to meet her”? I think there are a lot of women whose nobility has nothing to do with suffering. They’re winning. That’s the thing about the She Shapes the City platform: all the women featured are winning. They’ve picked up a challenge and they’ve decided they want to tackle it, and they’re winning. I’m sure there are a lot of amazing, selfless, incredible women who are dealing with a lot, that the odds are stacked against them, and they’re not winning. But these women, the women featured on She Shapes, are winning. That’s a story that’s not told enough.
Guernica: Do you see similarities in economic class or levels of education among the women you’ve profiled so far?
Cynara Vetch: The first couple of chapters [featured] very middle-class, affluent women, but it didn’t really worry us and we don’t apologize [for it]. Their class makes their stories no less inspirational or exciting. She Shapes is not a rags-to-riches platform, it’s an inspiring-women platform. This latest chapter is hugely varied, though. We want to tell as many different stories and [look at] as many different spectrums of life as possible.
Guernica: Tell me a bit about this new chapter.
Cynara Vetch: We launched our new campaign, She Shapes Solar, in the first week of June. This is the first campaign that we’ve done in collaboration with another organization, as well as the first that’s been funded. This campaign is with GIZ, basically the German USAID. We’re working with a program that’s looking at assisting the rollout of solar energy in Kenya and in East Africa. GIZ is also really interested in women’s involvement in solar, and how that could be boosted. So we’re featuring women in the solar sector and trying to cover every facet that we can think of through these women and their stories. Two of the women we’re featuring live in villages that don’t have access to electricity. One was a smallholder farmer who decided that she was going to start selling solar and has created a business. She started with very, very little. The other lives in a rural area that isn’t connected to the mains; they’ve just had a solar power grid put in. The other women are academics, engineers, government officials, even a radio celebrity here who’s just passionate about solar and uses it in her own home. We’re capturing what solar means and could mean for Kenya, the women who are building it out, and how more women could get involved. Right now in Kenya only 65 percent of the population has access to electricity and in some counties it’s as low as 2 percent, but [we are] really blessed with the amount of sun we get.
Guernica: Certainly success means quite different things for women living in rural areas versus urban zones—that’s true in every country, on every continent. What are some of the factors that hinder women’s success in Kenya’s metropolitan areas?
Cynara Vetch: What’s interesting about this project is that even in celebrating women and their successes you still hear about the trials and tribulations they go through. There’s still, for instance, blatant sexism, and it’s not the kind of casual sexism that you might get in the States. It’s quite overt here.
One of the women in the most recent She Shapes campaign is a solar engineer. What she found is that groups wanted to set up solar systems but electrical engineers had not been trained in solar, so they didn’t know what they were doing. Of 300 solar power systems something like 10 percent were still working one year on. So this woman was put in charge of training technicians. She found it amusing because…class after class she’d see these faces of supremely confused, skeptical men.
She also told us that no women were coming to these trainings, so she pushed her partners—Arizona State University was partnering with her university, Strathmore University—to do women’s trainings. First there was a huge doubt that there would be skilled women to come to the classes. Then, when there were women with master’s degrees and PhDs in engineering [showing up], she found that there was a huge appetite for the training, but all the women said they had to do it with women trainers. They felt they couldn’t say anything with male instructors and in mixed-sex classes. So there’s still a lot of overt sexism that Kenyan women have to face, and they do that in different ways. Some find it very difficult. Others, like this woman, just find it very amusing and brush it off.
Guernica: Being able to think of sexism as funny seems like an empowered reaction. That’s something that might seem alien to an American audience.
Cynara Vetch: Yeah, we can laugh it off. All these women are incredibly strong and feisty. I think it’s fashionable to be seen as a feminist in the States and in the UK. I’m not sure that that’s the case here yet. And because there’s not such a broad movement, people are coming up with their own ways of dealing with these things. There’s no big groundswell through social media about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable—[no] rules about how sexism should be treated and what women should be doing to empower themselves. It’s much more individual, the interpretation of sexism, how one manages it.
Guernica: It also sounds like—if, as you say, they’re “winning” in their respective fields—the women you feature on She Shapes might be more keen to discuss the task at hand than any ideology that drives them.
Cynara Vetch: Totally! They’re very practical. There’s not a lot of righteous anger. It’s a super pragmatic attitude.
All the women we’ve featured, they’re survivors.
Guernica: Is that pragmatism part of why the women profiled on She Shapes the City have been as successful as they have been, why they’ve made the impact they have?
Cynara Vetch: Maybe, but I also think it’s a very Kenyan thing. I remember coming back from studying in London, and one of the things I loved was that when we went for lunch the chat wasn’t about celebrity gossip, it was about politics. But it was very un-angry politics. All the scandals or things going wrong in the country, people were just laughing it off. It was like, “It’s hilarious, have you heard what’s happened? Can you believe it?” I suppose it’s a survivor thing. You can be all idealistic and angry, but if you’re a survivor maybe you use that energy in a different way and just say, “Okay, I want this to be done.” All the women we’ve featured, they’re survivors.
Guernica: She Shapes the City is presented as a campaign about Nairobian women, but you’ve also featured women shaping other areas in Kenya and Africa. When did that start?
Cynara Vetch: A lot of the women we have featured are so influential that it goes beyond Nairobi, even if they’re based here. Paula Kahumbu is working on conserving elephants throughout the region. They have a huge footprint, these women. But in this latest chapter, because it’s She Shapes Solar rather than She Shapes the City, it is very national. Everything they’re doing cuts right across the country, and also hits a lot of rural areas because solar is most needed there.
Guernica: Predictions are that Nairobi will keep growing, and certainly development will continue to expand. What kind of effect does that have on the rural areas most immediately outside the city?
Cynara Vetch: A lot of women in the upcoming chapter have spoken to that. There’s been a process of devolution where the government is really trying to build up different counties because, historically, if you wanted to get anywhere or do anything Nairobi was your place. The rest of the country was left to get on with itself. If you come to Kenya and only see Nairobi, you get a very unrealistic idea of what is going on in the country and what access people have to things and how much development there is. I did a hackathon project with the BBC that was trying to find the best way to reach young Kenyans through mobiles with BBC content. [It organized] a lot of focus groups for the project and the overwhelming message was that you needed to come up with one solution for Nairobi and [one] for the rest of Kenya. Those are two different things—two different Kenyas—with two different sets of needs. One of the women featured for the solar campaign is in the local county government for Marsabit, which is one of the biggest counties in the country geographically, and also one of the poorest. Her county had one of the highest illiteracy rates about three years ago when she joined. And still they have no access to the mains power. In the whole county. But they’re right in the north, so they have access to the mains power from Ethiopia. And they have generators. But Marsabit is not connected to Kenya’s national power grid at all. So you’ve got “Silicon Savanna,” and you’ve got people doing great things with tech in Nairobi, but you also have a county that has had to come up with their own electricity plan.
Guernica: What would you like to see Nairobi become as it continues to grow?
Cynara Vetch: I’d like to see more thought [given] to the development, and more of an identity. Right now there’s not a lot of city planning or thought about public spaces. There’s this huge energy that could be harnessed into something incredible, and there are creative hubs that are getting built up. People are thinking about these things, but the rate of development is so fast that I don’t know if creative people can get in quick enough to make an impact. To build character and inclusion and all those exciting things that the best cities have, people need to [move] pretty fast. Now.
To contact Guernica or Gemma de Choisy, please write here.