When a group of Britons sat in a hot room plotting over a map trying to figure out the best way to connect Mombasa and Kampala; none of them knew the ripple effect they would set off by choosing a swampy land based on its elevation and network supply of rivers. Even from its Maasai name Enkare Nyrobi, which when loosely translated means cool water; which they were oblivious to, Nairobi was a diamond in the rough. To them the swampy land was merely a supply depot. A convenience for their Indian laborers as they constructed the railway and a cool place to live. Certainly an upgrade from the hot and humid weather down coast.
No one had anticipated its rapid growth. Nairobi, from a simple railway depot attracted thousands of Indian laborers clamoring for work on the railway line. Like the step-sister that is often overlooked, Nairobi let flaunted its rough edges soon becoming the Railway headquarters. With such growth the Brits saw it fit to incorporate Nairobi as a township. Under the powers of one Sir Authur Hardinge, a commissioner Nairobi was a township. This was in 1900.
This rapid growth seemed to pose a problem for the settlers. As a town, Nairobi did not have the essential amenities. Streets were unplanned, businesses were sprouting up with no proper order, no refuse collection, and the promising town seemed to be crumbling under its own popularity. Action needed to be taken. And it was. A five man committee was formed and together paved the way for the smoothening of this diamond. With the right to create new by-laws, the committee was vested with the powers to bring order in the township. Things were looking up.
Mombasa, now the jealous sister, watched as people docking at its ports traveled to Nairobi.
Boasting of a post-office and rapid growth, the use of the railway as a medium of exporting and importing goods; Nairobi was becoming unstoppable. Hotels sprouted as did banks and trading centers. It was becoming evident a taxation system needed to be implemented. It was the only way that Nairobi would sustain itself. Pretty, naïve and on demand – Nairobi basked in the attention. Enjoyed it and welcomed even more. For a place of cool waters, it was feeling hot. Soon Mombasa was feeling the heat as it was replaced as the capital in 1905. This spearheaded Nairobi’s growth into an economic powerhouse. One that has seen it flourish to date.
For Nairobi, the only way to go and look was up. 1919 saw it transform into a municipal council with its boundaries extended. It was not a little girl anymore, the one that did not exist. The one that lived under the shadow of a bigger sister. Nairobi was growing into a pretty young girl. But, like most girls, it craved for beauty. It wanted to turn heads. Break necks. As a result, town planning commenced. One man from Kimberly, a man I did not know until today; took to planting Jacaranda trees in the city. Ironically his name was Jacaranda Jim Jameson. Not sure if there is a relation to the Jameson from the green bottle. But it’s safe to say, like the trees, Nairobi begun to flourish.
It was around this time that an ugly side of Nairobi reared its head. Racial discrimination. Its popularity attracted people from all around the country; but, only consideration was given to the Europeans when it came to governing roles. A stain on its immaculate record, Nairobi sort to rectify this. And 1946 saw the advent of the first African councilors. During this time political temperatures in the country were rising. There were rumors flying around. Whispers in hushed tones in African settlements. Soon Nairobi would be on its own. Fully grown. Ready to live.
Now Nairobi is a city to reckon with. It’s a hub of investment and is fast paced. It’s growing into its role as a leader. An independent woman ready to show the world what she is made of. She has a rich history to boast about. An alluring beauty that has left many speechless. It is a city where the good, the bad and the evil live. A city under the sun – and now maybe a little bit too under the sun.
It is a city with streets lined with secrets and cars fuming the day’s frustrations. A people that are as shifty as their shadows on a cloudy day. A city with men in dark suits carrying brown briefcases. Shaking hands and closing multi-million shilling deals. Dotted with coffee shops where love and espresso brew in the same pot. Same shops where hearts are broken. Fragile hearts shattered into a million pieces for the next person to pick up.
Neighborhoods lined with bars and churches for all those that need a spirit and the Holy Spirit. A rainbow of colored clothing from the figure hugging dresses to the flowing maxis. A city that has evolved from itself into a culture. A city that is much alive at 1 pm as it is at 1 am. A city that has more drama than it has theatres. An attention grabber; demanding to be seen and heard. Making the world stop and screaming “Look at me”.
A city you hate to love but love to hate.
Image credit: Leah Kanda