Reflecting on Nairobi’s heritage

Residents of Nairobi appreciate the city for its present-day attributes but not so much for its history. The city, built on a swamp, began in 1899 as a railway depot and camp during the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala railway.  By the early 1900s, Nairobi was a bustling town and eventually became the colonial administrative capital of the East African Protectorate.

Yet, after over 100 years of inhabitance, not many Nairobians consider the city their home. In a recent short-list of 155 nominees for principal secretaries, the top administrators of government ministries, the Governor of Nairobi, Evans Kidero, expressed concern that not a single nominee had listed Nairobi as their home county.  While Kidero understood this void to indicate that there was no representation from the county, it is equally possible that many of those on the list reside, at least semi-permanently, in Nairobi but consider “home” the geographical location from where their family originated (which is often in rural areas).

“Nairobi started off as a colonial tool for asserting colonial authority. We have been conditioned to think of Nairobi as dispossessed from us. We think ‘It is not ours. It is the colonial,’” explained Dr. Lydiah Muthuma, art historian and author of “Nairobi in Pictures (1899-2000)”, at the June opening of exhibition “Nyrobi in Pictures: From a Swamp to a Capital City.”

Muthuma added that, despite the city’s unpleasant history, residents must begin to appreciate it. “Nairobi without its history would not make any sense. It would make us a rootless people. It would be a city, a community, that is so proud of itself, rooted firmly in mid-air.  That’s what you would do to Nairobi if you took away its history.”

Who is Nairobi?

A number of initiatives are slowly exploring the colonial heritage that Nairobians have been conditioned to disregard. The National Museums of Kenya has initiated historic walking tours of what is now the central business district where most of the colonial built heritage is located. Still in inception stage, the volunteer guides take curious locals and tourists alike along a tour filled with historic facts about the buildings and monuments in downtown Nairobi.

The inception of these walking tours is part of a larger Nai in Who (Who is Nairobi) festival, running from May-August 2013, which is seeking to provide the space for Nairobi residents to explore and unearth Nairobi’s identity. An initiative of the GoDown Arts Centre, the organizers are very conscious about asking “who” and not “what” is Nairobi to emphasize that it is the people who make up a place, and not the other way round.

The intention of the exhibition “Nyrobi in Pictures: From a Swamp to a Capital City” which carries photos of Nairobi since the days it was barely more than a swamp, is to “ask ourselves some deep questions about Nairobi and about who we are” said Muthuma.

Another initiative “Nairobi Past, Present and Future: (Re) discovering Nairobi” kicks off mid-June to explore questions such as how much are Nairobi’s monuments conserved, and what matters for Nairobians when we talk about planning and conservation.

Calling Nairobi Home

As Muthuma concluded: “We cannot go on describing, indeed defining, Nairobi as a city only of its wants.  It is time we got hold of it, we identified with it, so that we live in it better. We need to know who our city is, what our city was, in order to live in it today to its full extent.”

The identity, “Nairobian”, links one not just to the city’s present but also to its past. Contrary to contemporary thinking in the city, the city can be called home. For Governor Kidero, this would translate into a few names on that short-list stating Nairobi is their home county.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Read Sheila Kamunyori’s other articles on Nairobi:

Examining Nairobi’s split personality

Can recycling help Nairobi cuts its waste?

Come dance with me

Main image: Nairobi high court. Taken by Sheila Kamunyori at the “Nyrobi in Pictures” exhibition. Original photograph courtesy “Nyrobi in Pictures”/Lydiah Muthuma.


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