The hallowed ground that Kenya’s founding fathers chose to celebrate Independence day in 1963 and the republic status in 1964 is now a splendid space for celebrating and reflecting on the country’s struggle for freedom and post-Independence achievements.
The Uhuru Gardens is now a National Monument and Museum with a public arena on the sprawling 68 acres piece of land in Lang’ata, 15 minutes from Nairobi city centre. The Gardens, under the management of the Kenya Defence Forces who developed it from scratch in a record 21 months, recently hosted an air show and the 59th Madaraka Day celebrations on June 1, attended by over 30,000 people, offering the public a first glimpse into the grounds and museum, but only the presidential dias and public sitting area were open to the public. The monuments and museum are not yet open to the public.
The museum stands where one of the largest concentration camps in colonial Africa sat, then holding up to 10,000 freedom fighters at any one given time, infamous for its torture cells where many Africans were maimed and killed.
Today, many Kenyans associate Uhuru Gardens with celebrations that saw the British Union Jack flag brought down on December 12, 1963 and the Kenya national flag hoisted, and the national anthem played for the first time. The event is immortalised in a black and white film reel widely screened on Jamhuri and Madaraka days commemoration.
The Gardens’ grounds have however not always been hallowed. Years of neglect after Independence lead to attempts to grab parts of the land by unscrupulous people for private gain. From above, the new look Uhuru Gardens takes the shape of the national coat of arms of a traditional African shield and two crossed spears, symbolising unity and defence.
At the main entrance to the museum part of the Gardens, is a long water fountain guiding one to the main entryway into the museum, and which ends with two large monuments identified as the Plaza of the People.
One monument holds stone carvings of freedom fighters Dedan Kimathi to the left and the other that of Mekatilili wa Menza to the right.
The front of each stone carving bears the inscriptions of the National Anthem and a lion carving at the top to signify the courage needed to defend the country. An epitaph, explains the significance of the lion carving in relation to the history of Kenya's railway line.
The museum officials said that the families of Kimathi and Mekatilili were involved in the carving process to ensure the final works were a close resemblance to the heroes.
Kimathi’s family made a special request to President Uhuru Kenyatta during the monument’s commissioning on May 31, to have his remains exhumed from the Kamiti Maximum Prison for internment at his home, a request that the president promised to look into, saying “it is possible.”
At the entrance to the museum, stands a Hall of Arrivals, where visitors get a briefing on what is inside the 72-metre Tunnel of Martyrs, inscribed with names of heroes who lost their lives fighting for freedom.
The tunnel, which forms the main section of the museum, is a metaphor that after a dark period there’s light, as it leads to an open area of multiple galleries showcasing the country’s different cultures.
A gallery dubbed the Birth of Kenya shows the country’s path to modernisation and a military gallery showcases military helicopters, and other hardware, technology and artillery that the KDF has used to secure the country’s borders from external aggression. The galleries also have visuals and audios that can be played for an explained narration of what is on display.
The general galleries exhibit has 12,300 artefacts collected from different parts of the country. The country has over 11 million cultural and natural artefacts exhibited in museums around the country.
The museum at Uhuru Gardens has in its exhibition the country’s first constitution, the pen that inscribed it and the national flag that was hoisted at Uhuru Gardens ground on December 12, 1963.
Eventually, this museum is planned to hold 20 galleries. Officials say some of the artefacts will be replicas of famous pieces held by various museums around the country.
An all-white Presidential Library holds memorabilia of the country’s past presidents, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki.
Next to it is a model of Mzee Kenyatta’s Ichaweri house and a Turi (train) station with a steam locomotive engine that tells the story of the making of colonial Kenya in the early 19o0s. A White Hall of remembrance showcases a compilation of 40 different audio-visual interviews by historians, academicians and heroes stands adjacent to the presidential library.
Between the Presidential Library and the Hall of Remembrance lies the Tomb of the Unknown Warriors thatpays homage to the ultimate sacrifice made by many. At the commissioning of the museum on May 31, President Kenyatta said “Uhuru Gardens National Monument and Museum not only speaks of our pain as a country but also eloquently tells the story of our heroes, academicians and sportsmen and women, stepping on these grounds should give all of us a sense of national duty and reaffirm our patriotism.”
Uhuru Gardens was preserved over the years as a camp of martyrs, a place of remembrance, unedited history, healing and renewal.
“Following years of neglect, this historic site had become a den of thieves. In fact, it is on record that the 68 acres on which these sacred grounds sit had fallen into the hands of some unscrupulous individuals. My Administration had to reclaim the grabbed site in 2019 and restore its dignity and purity. We have done this because a progressive nation does not hide its history. It confronts it and endeavours to correct it, so as to change the future,” he said.