In the last two decades, Nairobi has undergone a metamorphosis so drastic that even city residents sometimes have to rely on iconic landmarks like the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, to get their bearing. Not all landmarks have survived the test of time though.
There are historical fixtures and features that used to define Nairobi back in those days that current generations inhabiting the city will never have the luxury of ever seeing again – except in history books or on travel blogs such as Safiri Kenya.
Just like the path the great sabre tooth, the mammoth and the dinosaurs followed many moons ago, these features are long gone, extinct and very likely, forgotten – except by the old folk who remember them with a mixture of nostalgia and nausea.
In this piece, I will take you on a historical journey around Nairobi’s memory lane as I share with you 5 spectacular discoveries I stumbled upon.
1. Statue of King George V
Located at the junction of Queensway Road and Princess Elizabeth Way, now Uhuru Highway, the King George V statue was the end result of a committee chaired by Sir Geoffrey Rhodes in 1937 to advise on how an £8,500.00 King George V Memorial Fund was to be utilised.
The committee recommended two proposals – the setting up of a polytechnic and the erection of a memorial statue in Nairobi. The second idea sailed through a year later and hence King George’s bronze statue in his full field service uniform was erected on a pedestal of local stone in Nairobi.
Some of the money from the fund also went to set up other memorials in Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Nyeri and what remained was shared equally between the Kenya Boy Scouts’ Association and the Kenya Girl Guides’ Association. The statue was later replaced with the one of the seated Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
2. Double Decker Buses
Between 1955 and 1957, about 20 double-decker buses were bought and brought into Kenya to provide commuter service in the towns of Mombasa and Nairobi. The buses were doing an average speed of about 40 KMH – an impressive speed at the time. First-class passengers, usually whites, were carried in the front section of the lower saloon while Africans sat at the back or in the upper saloon.
Decades later, a new version of the double-decker bus is making a comeback in Nairobi. The new Isuzu buses reintroduced by Matatu operator, City Shuttle, will initially ply the Kikuyu, Embakasi and Ruai routes. The company has ordered 13 more double-deckers and 10 high-capacity buses that can carry up to 100 people at once – 60 seated and up to 40 standing. Perhaps the days of the double-decker are not entirely lost to history after all.
3. Fox Drive-in Cinema
On the outskirts of Nairobi, along the old Thika Road, Nairobians gathered to catch the latest movies in town on a mega outdoor screen, 120 feet by 70 feet in size, while tacked comfortably in the privacy of their cars.
Built just after the Second World War, the Fox Drive-in had box-office toll booths where you paid for your ticket before proceeding to secure your car beside one of the many upright speakers that provided sound as you stared at the giant screen a distance away.
Initially, it was patronised by British servicemen and their families but with the coming of Kenya’s independence in 1963, the rest of Kenya began to flock to the venue. Today, the spot is the site of a mega real estate development project that is coming complete with a shopping mall and a 6-screen multiplex.
4. Statue of Lord Delamere
If you happened to have visited Nairobi before 1964, then you probably knew about the Lord Delamere statue that used to sit on the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue.
In what seemed to be an attempt to blot away the memory of this foremost pioneer of Agriculture in Kenya, Lord Delamere’s statue was moved in 1964 from the city to the family’s Soysambu estate, where it faces out toward the mountain known locally as ‘Delamere’s Nose’ or ‘The Sleeping Warrior.’
Delamere road, also named after him, was later renamed Kenyatta Avenue, after Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Perhaps, it is his regular embroilment in the sagas and intrigues of the happy valley lot that inspired the next regimes of city administration to want to clean the city of his memories, perhaps not. I cannot tell, at least not now.
5. Single Space Parking Metres
In the early days, when Nairobi was known as the green city in the sun (I think it is slowly making a come-back on this), the norm in the CBD was to park your car in any of the vacant slots, slide some few coins in a parking metre, according to your anticipated duration and head your way.
In case you took longer than planned, all you needed to do was come back and throw a few more coins in the metre – which was rare. Back in those days, you did not need to look for the elusive guys in yellow or worry about finding a menacing clamp on one of your vehicle tyres – in fact, it was easy to know which space was parking and which was not – if it did not have a parking metre next to it, it was not a parking slot!
Years of neglect and the peculiar habit of Nairobians vandalising anything that had a slot in it, finally brought the age of the parking slot machine to an end – by the way the public phone booths suffered a similar fate.
There is word going around that we may not have seen the last of these machines as the new Nairobi county plans to reintroduce them soon – that was in 2012 and 3 years down the line conversations around that topic have gone silent – only time will tell.
As I concluded my trip of discovery around Nairobi, I did notice that these Houdini disappearing acts of monuments in the city had not stopped.
More iconic structures around the city are still suffering the pangs of time in the care (or lack of it) of a generation that seems to have no clue about their historical significance and the role they play in shedding light on the legacy of our nation.
Recently, some peculiar Nairobian decided the statue of Queen Victoria at the famous Jeevanjee Gardens needed some bit of a ‘facelift’. Being neither a Samwel Wanjau nor an Elkana Ong’esa, they did a terrible job of it. Now the monumental statue is no more and with it goes more than a century of rich history.
While the statue stood there, it served as a constant reminder to Kenyans of a period in their own country when they were not masters of their own destiny. What a pity.
People really have to get out there and catch glimpses of what remains before it all disappears. I look forward to catching some of your thoughts and welcome any additional insights and clarifications. Keep on travelling and discovering.