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Under the historian’s radar: Local water supply practices in Nairobi, 1940-1980

Jethron Ayumbah Akallah
Department of History and Archaeology, Maseno University, Maseno, Kenya; ayumbajetty@yahoo.com

Mikael Hård
Department of History, Technical University of Darmstadt (TU Darmstadt), Darmstadt, Germany; hard@ifs.tu-darmstadt.de

ABSTRACT: By presenting oral history material from two informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, the article illustrates how inhabitants during the period 1940 to 1980 acquired and used water on a daily basis. The authors’ observations challenge established paradigms in the history of technology as well as Science and Technology Studies (STS), most notably the Large Technological System (LTS) model. To understand the realities of the supply situation in cities in both the Global North and Global South, we must look beyond such systems; historians must complement material from official archives, utilities, ministries and other authorities with further sources. Interviews with urban inhabitants can help us to modify standard LTS perspectives, and the experiences of ordinary citizens can enable us to develop an alternative view of 'urban resilience' as a concept. Rather than passively being supplied with the necessities of daily life by public or private providers, inhabitants themselves successfully acquired those necessities. Interviews indicate that, compared to customers with access to the centralised water system, so-called slum dwellers exhibited a relatively high level of resilience in terms of water provision.

KEYWORDS: Water provision, large technological system, history of technology, Nairobi, urban resilience