Photo by Brendan Bannon

A little over a century ago, there was nothing here but Masai herdsmen, wild animals and space. Then, late in 1899, English engineers carving a railroad inland from the Indian Ocean coast were forced to pause, to figure out how to drop train tracks down the sheer cliffs of the Rift Valley escarpment.

What started as a railhead named after the Masai for ‘place of cool waters’ by the handful of colonial officers who first pitched their tents here has grown to a cosmopolitan city of four million people.

Some luxuriate in wide-open suburbs, some live cramped in crowded and chaotic shanties. Most exist somewhere in between.

Today, Nairobi drives 52% of Kenya’s economy, houses a tenth of its population in a space designed for a quarter of that, and still struggles to shake off an ageing reputation as one of Africa’s most dangerous cities.

For the booming population – Nairobi is among the world’s ten fastest-growing urban areas – the challenges and opportunities here are legion.

Education is free, but schools are crowded. There are many hospitals and doctors, but few people have insurance and bills are steep. Earnings lag behind soaring costs, and decent affordable housing is scarce.

The traffic moving millions each day is squeezed onto streets laid out half-a-century ago, electricity supply (if you’re connected) struggles in the rains, and getting the right piece of paper from the city council can take an age.

At the same time, there is work to be had. Ingenuity and innovation rewards the committed, the commercially-minded and the crafty. Technological leapfrogs laboured over in the West are adopted and adapted at light-speed here.

A mish-mash of Kenya’s peoples and religions, and host to tens of thousands of expatriates from Africa and beyond, Nairobi is a forge for fresh thinking in commerce and culture.

Its rulers – the city authorities and the national government – are widely derided by a population used to being courted at election time and then forgotten until the ballots are next due.

The inhabitants of this capitalistic, mercantile city survive, succeed, flourish or fail in the near-vacuum left by a lack of central control. Amid apparent chaos, individual networks crafted by necessity and opportunity cement new paths to progress.

Nairobians succeed not because someone tells them what to do, but because no-one does, and it is perhaps this good-natured bustle, this grab-the-quick-buck hustle, that most defines this archetype of a 21st century African city.