Nairobi past and present

Thursday June 13 2013

Aerial view of part of Nairobi City. Photo/EMMA NZIOKA

Nairobi is unique among East African capitals. At just over 100 years old, it’s the youngest big city in the region.

Dar es Salaam was a coastal fishing village known as Mzizima for centuries, and in the mid 19th century it attracted the attention of the then Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said, who developed it into a key trading centre on the mainland. Kampala was the thriving capital of the Buganda kingdom long before the British arrived in Uganda.

But Nairobi is different. It was a papyrus swamp that was a source of cool water, known as Enkare Nyorobi to the Maasai, which only became significant when the British camped there in 1899 as they were building the Kenya-Uganda railway.

They stopped briefly to gather their supplies and their strength before the arduous task of climbing the Rift Valley’s escarpments and dropping down its sheer cliffs. In the decades that followed, the city grew, but it never really belonged to anyone — it is Kenya’s Commons, belonging to everyone and no-one at the same time.

Many people — the Maasai pastoralists who grazed their cattle, the colonial settlers who passed through on their way to the Central Highlands, and the African labourers who went to the city to seek jobs — only stayed briefly, before moving to their “true homes.” As a result, Nairobi is viewed as a clearing house for people who pass through it.

Today, this lack of belonging persists in officialdom — if you are born in Nairobi, your identification documents will indicate “Place of Birth” as Nairobi, but list your ancestral home as where you really come from.


Addressing this rootlessness is a new campaign by the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, dubbed NaiNiWho (Who is Nairobi?), which attempts to bring a sense of belonging to Nairobians.

Part of the campaign is an exhibition titled Nyrobi: From A Papyrus Swamp To A Capital City launched last week at Alliance Francaise, which seeks to establish a link between Nairobi’s buildings and its people by cataloguing the city’s transformation, and identifying the various elements of culture that went into making the city what it is.

Put together by Lydia Muthuma, who has published the book Nairobi in Pictures(1899-2000), and Evelyne Wanjiku, who has co-written a guidebook to Nairobi’s architecture, the exhibition looks at Nairobi’s buildings and the influences and art movements that lie behind them. In order to truly live in Nairobi, one has to acknowledge its history, Dr Muthuma says.

The exhibition comprises old and recent photographs, maps and text, and is divided into six main periods. With photographs from each era, the exhibition charts the development of the papyrus swamp, through the social and political changes brought about in the 20th century, and ultimately how the city is still metamorphosing and taking on new roles.

Nairobi’s architecture is an interesting mix of neo-classical buildings such as the MacMillan Memorial Library made from locally quarried “blue stone,” art deco houses in Parklands, brutalism as exemplified by the Kenyatta National Hospital, skyscrapers such as the 40-year-old Kenyatta International Conference Centre, and modern eco-friendly architecture like the Coca-Cola headquarters in Upper Hill.

From the outset, Nairobi was a melting pot of cultures — the British overlords, Swahili porters and Indian coolies mixing with the locals, predominantly Kikuyu and Maasai. However, by the time it replaced Mombasa as the seat of the British East African Protectorate in 1905, Nairobi had already been burnt to the ground and rebuilt, its significance attributed to the railway line and a growing sport hunting industry.

Walking through the first section of the exhibition, one marvels at the fact that most structures were made of mabati (corrugated iron sheets), including the Bank of India, which stood where the Kenya National Archives currently stands. The multicultural aspect of Nairobi is captured in a photograph in this first section, aptly named Mabati Township. Dated 1899, the photograph features the advance party for the railway, with the British, Swahili and Asians, easily recognised by their dress.

The next section of the exhibition is titled Early Municipality and covers the era between the First and the end of the Second World Wars. Nairobi was already shedding its mabati image, the Bank of India was now a stone edifice; almost three decades after the first photograph in 1904, it is a sign of a growing economy.

This newer picture also bears evidence of a Nairobi with a growing social scene, featuring the Capitol Theatre, which was located where the Ambassadeur Hotel currently stands.

This is a Nairobi that is somewhat familiar; the Town Hall now City Hall, dating from 1935 is still at its present location on City Hall way, but the area where the KICC stands was just a vacant lot at that time. The city was on the move and more buildings came up, including the Railway headquarters that was opened in 1927. A photograph of this event is featured, and in it the police band has Africans in the brass section — which, albeit with a Caucasian band master, is a sign of increasing integration.

Religion appears to have been faring well, as many of Nairobi’s better known places of worship were constructed around this period. The Jamia Mosque features in a picture taken in 1925, with Khoja Mosque in the background. The Cathedral of the Highlands, now known as All Saints Cathedral, with the north and south towers complete, is seen in a shot dating from 1930.

The exhibition also addresses the issues that Africans faced while living in Nairobi. Whereas no obvious signs of segregation can be seen, the starkness that characterises the African residences in areas such as Shauri Moyo (meaning “console the heart”) cannot be overlooked.

In the third section, Inclusive Nairobi, the curators have put together a display of the housing that Africans occupied. Notable is the igloo house in Bahati, then known as Doonholm, and represented in parliament by former president of Kenya Mwai Kibaki from 1963 to 1974. Other estates featured are Pumwani, Majengo and Gorofani, better known as Jerusalem. The latter was a hotbed of the African struggle for liberation and was the residence of the first vice president of Kenya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Iconic Nairobi is the fourth section of this exhibition and covers Nairobi’s better known buildings. Each building chosen is a landmark in its own right.

For example, the CfC Stanbic building at the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street was started as Torr’s Hotel in 1926 by Col Ewart Grogan, after whom the area in downtown Nairobi called Grogan is named. The building’s brick façade was a landmark for tourists in Nairobi’s early years. Other buildings are Sheria House for its Moghul-inspired sun screen, and the Florida Night Club.

The fifth and sixth sections of the exhibition are titled Skyscraper City and Millennium Nairobi respectively, and feature the tallest and most modern buildings. The photos range from the Central Business District with Lonrho House and its sibling in design, the I&M Bank House as well as the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, to Upper Hill, which hosts the environmentally friendly Coca-Cola headquarters, and Victoria Bank House with its unique planes inspired by canoes on Lake Victoria.

Nairobi is always changing, with new buildings replacing old ones. As a result, a lot of the history that these buildings carry is lost. However, many new buildings incorporate elements of the buildings that they supplant. Lonrho House, for example, absorbed a restaurant and various shops.

Similarly, Kipande House, which was a centre for the issuing of documentation for locals in the colonial era, as well as the Torrs Hotel, which was a prominent structure on Delamere Avenue, now both house banks. The exterior of these buildings have been maintained, with only the interior undergoing reconstruction.

In addition to the exhibition, Dr Muthuma has organised walking tours. In conjunction with Joy Mboya of the GoDown Arts Centre, the walks will focus on buildings that have contributed to Nairobi’s history.

“The aim of the walks is for Nairobians to identify with Nairobi at a personal level, so that we can live with it better,” Ms Mboya said.

The Nyrobi Project is seeking to collect and share anecdotes on Nairobi’s buildings and architecture.

There is a need, according to Dr Muthuma, to factor in the history of Nairobi into future development. “Today is a product of history. If we ignore it, what results will be without roots, floating in mid-air, easily blown away,” she said.