Rediscovering the Sounds of Nairobi During a Global Pandemic
At peak travel times in Nairobi – pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, buses, and bicycles jostle for the same space – it is cacophonic. Nairobi, a town established on swampy Enkare nyrobi (place of cool waters) during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1899, is a city that is characterised by skyscrapers, traffic jams, and lots of people walking long distances across the city.
According to the Kenya Population and Housing Census 2019, Nairobi has a resident population of 4.4 million people. Nairobi also hosts parks and forest reserves teeming with minuscule and towering wildlife populations (nod to that overused image of giraffes against the backdrop of tall buildings) and diverse plant life whose sonic environments offer contrast to their built surroundings.
Early mornings often include rushing out to get a seat or standing room in commuter trains, rushing to beat the traffic jams, and crossing the city to work and school destinations. Sometimes, early morning sounds of birds seem amplified when the bird migratory paths lead them to Nairobi. During the day, vendors spill onto sidewalks and roads selling their wares: mechanical toys, clothing, food items and kitchen utensils, magazines and newspapers. Evenings and nights in Nairobi’s central business district, and many residential areas include raucous tunes from public transit vehicles, pubs and eateries with revellers, partying, eating, or cheering their favourite sports teams on big screens. And then a pandemic happens, what changes?
In 2019, Brian Muhia, Lorna Ng’eno, Sophia Bauer and Raphael Kariuki founded Sound of Nairobi, an open-access digital archive of Nairobi’s soundscapes or sonic environment. Raphael Kariuki, a sound artist, says “We hope to grow and maintain it over the long term by regularly collecting and creating a searchable inventory of sound samples several times every year. The idea is to create an accessible audio record of Nairobi’s history, available for free to researchers, artists, curious ears.” The core team now comprises three people who do the organising and related maintenance work.
Sound of Nairobi (SoN) organised a sound workshop in September 2019 introducing participants drawn from podcasters, sound artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and sound engineers to the idea of a sound archive. Thereafter, participants were equipped with binaural microphones to make city walks, and record in different locations at different times.
These were the first recordings for SoN’s archive which was showcased in a public exhibition at Goethe Institut, Nairobi. The recordings are housed on SoN’s open access website which allows users to listen to sounds catalogued by date, time and location of each short recording. This sound archive has recordings from forested areas, streets within the central business district and residential areas; public meeting areas such as theatres, bus stops, supermarkets and restaurants; indoor and outdoor workstations, and residential spaces.
Following the global Covid-19 pandemic – first reported in Nairobi on 13 March 2020 – SoN set out to make recordings for “Sounds like a Pandemic?”. This project explores the sonic traces of the Covid-19 virus in the soundscape of Nairobi. SoN’s intention is to see if the pandemic left any sonic traces, and if it would be possible to learn something of the pandemic experience through listening.
To date, there have been two rounds of recording; the first round in mid-April and May happened while the government’s lockdown measures included a dusk to dawn curfew, suspension of public gatherings, and restrictions on travel in and out of Nairobi’s metropolitan area. Nairobi residents were encouraged to work from home, while government offices put age and health related restrictions on those who could continue working in their offices.
During the second recording period in August, travel regulations had been eased though some are still in place. Notably the 7:00 p.m. curfew shifted to a 9:00 p.m. curfew. In both instances, different locations including those that were recorded in September 2019 were visited. SoN has worked with about a dozen sound enthusiasts primarily drawn from the pool who attended their sound workshop, and there will be a third round of recording in November to conclude this project.
As one of the writers participating in these recording sessions, my first observation of what stands out between 2019’s recording experience and this year’s recordings is that street vendors who chant their wares, now include masks and sanitisers in the list of items on offer. “Masks hamsini” masks for fifty shillings, is for now a fixture wherever there are hawkers. I wonder when and if this phrase will peter out. In April there was a sudden absence of loud music from busy shops and stalls at the start of the pandemic while at residential areas there was a surge of early returns from work because of the 7:00 p.m. curfew.
Though SoN are still sifting through the raw recordings, Raphael Kariuki says, “We did notice quite quickly that the city does not sound all that different during the time of the pandemic – except for the silent nights at the beginning when the curfew was strict, most recordings so far reveal a city going about its usual business without much fuss or restriction. But we haven’t got to the part of doing deeper analysis yet.”
Researcher and artist Sophia Bauer, adds that “There are a lot of children’s noises. Chatter, shouting, laughing, crying – you hear that in street scenes all over the city. Not only in residential parts also on Landhis Road in Jua Kali workshops for example. We can only speculate but as schools are closed children take more space in the city at any time of the day during the pandemic and their presence is reflected in the soundscape.”
Alacoque Ntome, a conceptual artist who works with light and sound, was one of the workshop participants involved in recording sounds of Nairobi. As his work involves creating past, present, and futuristic sounds and spaces, the importance of this project cannot be overstated. Alacoque Ntome notes the differences in the recordings from upmarket work and residential areas in comparison to the lower income areas. He says, “I recognise details such as talking and walking rhythms of people from different places. I am especially drawn to disorganised sounds of the Jua Kali sector which may seem disorderly but do have a distinct rhythm.”
SoN have been focused on building a solid base for content and a reliable user experience before publicising their work more vigorously. One of their goals is to work with music makers and sound artists to create works using the archive. This work has already started with plans to release these as a compilation and performances in 2021. In addition to working with two Nairobi artists Monrhea and KMRU, SoN has invited writers to interpret the archive and intend to share their works on the Sound of Nairobi blog. They hope to hold two exhibition events next year – the first one based on the sounds of the pandemic, the other one exploring different dimensions of sound art.
Listen to the recordings of Sound of Nairobi (so far) in their archive here.
Cover image: Nickson Mwikya/Unsplash
Writer | Lutivini Majanja
Lutivini Majanja is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her writing has appeared in Popula, The Elephant, McSweeney's, and the Nipe Story fiction podcast among other publications.