Temple district: Where men rode zebras, camels - The East African

Temple district: Where men rode zebras, camels

Friday July 26 2013

Surat District Association headquarters along Uyoma Road. Photo/Phoebe Okall

Surat District Association headquarters along Uyoma Road. Photo/Phoebe Okall Nation Media Group


I went on the first walking tour of Haile Selassie Avenue and surrounding streets in Nairobi organised by NaiNiWho, a local campaign to get Nairobians better acquainted with their city.

Today, the area in downtown Nairobi is noisy, crowded and chaotic, dominated by hooting matatus going to and from Nairobi’s main bus terminus simply called “Bus Station.” But I was soon to be amazed by the history that this area holds.

During the colonial era, the rough triangle that is formed by Racecourse Road, Mfangano, Uyoma and Ronald Ngala streets was informally known as the “Temple District” due to the heavy presence of Hindu and Sikh places of worship in that area. There are also a number of schools in this part of Nairobi that have Indian names. Most of the buildings in this area date from the 1920s when Indians and other South Asians outnumbered Europeans two to one.

The tour stopped at various points of interest, such as the Khalsa Girls’ School, which was opened in 1936, and the adjoining Siri Guru Sabha Temple, which is still used as a place of worship.

The dome of the temple dominates the entry road into Nairobi’s main bus terminus, but few know about it. The yellow walls of the temple were meant to evoke the Golden Temple at Amritsar, one of the holiest sites for Sikhs. The temple is open to people of all faiths in accordance with the tenets of Sikhism.

Ronald Ngala Street, then known as Duke Street, had a Goan community club, founded in 1906. Its members were known for their unconventional means of transport. Dr Rosendo Ribeiro, the first president of the club, occasionally rode a zebra down the street. He also used a zebra when doing his medical rounds. Other members of the club rode camels, and would tie them outside when in the club.

Also on Ronald Ngala Street is a row of buildings, some bearing names like India House and the 1918 Building. These housed various businesses, including doctors’ practices and general shops. They were among the first stone buildings in Nairobi, and were both workplace and home for the Asian families who lived in the Temple District. These buildings have facades with detailing, including mock columns and decorations around the year of completion, which is prominently displayed.

On Uyoma Street, there are a number of schools that were started for members of the Asian community such as the Cutchi Gujarati Hindu Union (CGHU) Primary School and the Shree Sanatan Dharam (SSD) Primary School. The schools were girls’ primary and secondary schools, with the boys sent to colonial government schools.

There was a perception that colonial schools were unsuitable for Asian girls due to cultural differences. With time, the schools became more integrated, and were ultimately taken over by the Nairobi City Council after Independence.

Temple Road High School, which has an entrance on Uyoma Street, also has a number of relief sculptures depicting the various Sikh gurus, as well as two statues of turbaned Sikh soldiers. Also on Uyoma Street is the Surat District Association’s headquarters, a small, grey building. The building’s stones, which were hand-hewn by members of the association — mainly carpenters and stonemasons — show an artistic and architectural ability.

Further west, there is Gill House, a prominent Nairobi landmark due to the public service vehicles that use it as a terminus. The building is linked to Kenya’s Asian community.

Built in 1945, it was initially known as Kelwyn House, but its name was changed to honour Indar Singh Gill, an Indian businessman, philanthropist and benefactor of the community in Nairobi. The building was among the tallest on Victoria Street, now Tom Mboya Street, and it housed a number of offices and shops.

Another man who left his mark on the area is Ismail Rahimtulla, a wealthy Indian businessman and philanthropist. Named after him is the Rahimtulla Trust Library, built to improve lives through the study of philosophy. Built on what was Jevanjee Street, now Mfangano Street, the library has Greco-Roman columns.

With time, as the Asian community relocated to other parts of Nairobi, the buildings left behind deteriorated. Many have been demolished. The lack of regular members at the Surat District Association led to its closure, and the building is dilapidated. The history of the Temple District could soon be lost.