Through this automotive battleground dart the daring members of the Kenyan city’s inline skating community, deftly weaving between moving vehicles, holding on to buses for speed and jumping over potholes.
Usually dressed in stylish apparel and rarely wearing safety gear, these street skaters relish the risks of their sport and the accompanying swagger it gives them.
Lenny Alvin and Allan Ayigah gain speed before turning on to the highway.
Inline skating, better known as rollerblading after the Rollerblade brand of skates, peaked in popularity in most western countries over 20 years ago. When the fad faded, most skates were either hidden in cupboards or donated to charity.
In recent years, along with bundles of used clothes and shoes, some of them have been steadily making their way to east Africa – fuelling a skating craze.
Racing around a turn and on to Nairobi’s Thika superhighway, Allan Ayigah and his friends seem calm and determined. As they draft behind each other for speed, it is apparent the three skaters are accustomed to this, holding their own while vehicles zoom by at speeds over 70mph (110km an hour).
Left: Nairobi’s central business district during afternoon rush hour. Right: a lone skater makes the most of some relatively light afternoon traffic.
Skating on major roadways may be risky, but lack of facilities and poorly maintained streets mean Kenyan skaters have to make do, and the best places to skate are almost always the busiest.
“It’s perceived as a young person’s sport – older guys tend to see it as risky,” says Ayigah, a skater since 2007. Like most of his peers he’s self-taught, having learned via Google and YouTube videos. Along the way he has had to deal with injuries and arrests for breaking unspecified traffic laws – but shows no sign of stopping.
He and his friends give many reasons for why they continue skating despite the perils: the adrenaline rush, income from skate lessons and the chance to meet girls. But one thing everyone agrees on is the sense of community the sport provides.
Nelson Mbusyei and Angela Martha practise the move known as the footgun.
“You can meet up to 20 guys in a day,” says Ayigah. “You exchange contacts and it grows into something else. It’s a uniting sport.”
He adds: “In skating we don’t have the ethnic groups. In almost every clique you find guys from different tribes.” In a country where tribal ties affect all facets of life, from business to politics, and can even lead to violence, the pluralism of inline skating is unique.
It is still a male-dominated pursuit, however. Among a group of four freestyle skaters out on a Sunday afternoon in the central business district, 20-year-old Angela Martha is the only female. “Yeah, it’s mainly guys out there,” says Martha. “But in this generation girls are growing as skaters. It’s more about how you skate than who you are.”
Left: kids take part in a Sunday afternoon skating lesson. Right: Lenny Alvin drafts behind Allan Ayigah on Nairobi’s Thika superhighway.
The inclusive culture of skating in Kenya has helped it increase in popularity. An increasing number of clubs travel around the country to compete with each other. And with a strong performance by team Kenya in the 2018 African speed skating championship, many hope the government will finally take the sport seriously.
A beneficiary of this rapid growth is Kenneth Wanjohi, who runs Skate Station Nairobi in the city’s CBD. Squeezed in a stall between a hair salon and a used shoe vendor, Wanjohi’s store is overflowing with skates.
By his own reckoning 90% of the products he sells are secondhand, imported from Australia or the UK in large bundles. This is all part of the burgeoning secondhand clothing business, known as “mitumba” or literally “bundles” in Swahili, that brings used products from wealthier countries to Africa.
Wanjohi makes a serious return on these imports, usually collecting double what he paid for the wholesale bundle of skates. For now, this growth shows no sign of stopping. “Four years I’ve been in the business,” he says. “Every year it gets better and better.”
Every Sunday afternoon, in an empty lot in the CBD known as the Sunken Park, the expanding popularity of skating in Kenya is on display. Removed from the busy streets, it is a downtown safe haven, shaded by trees and free of cars. Small children take skate lessons while speed and freestyle skaters finesse their skills. It is apparent that this is no longer just a renegade sport.
A freestyle skater practises his moves in then Sunken Park. Once a week the parking lot is opened to the skating public, becoming a refuge from the car-congested streets.
And while still primarily a youth sport, skating has emerged as more than just a fad in Nairobi. The same risk-takers who dodge cars in rush hour are now training the next generation of skaters.