Adrian Blomfield takes a walk through the Nairobi neighbourhoods of Pangani and Ngara, and discovers there is much more to them than meets the eye.
The Swahili porters and Punjabi railwaymen who settled the forested river valleys east of Nairobi in the late 19th century would be utterly bewildered by them today. Sprawling and unkempt, the once colourful history of Pangani and Ngara is barely discernible now, swamped in breeze block and urban deprivation. Yet peer beneath the neglect and it is still possible to glimpse the past amid the drab tenements and chaotic vibrancy — appealing in its own way — of the present.
Pangani lays claim to being Nairobi’s oldest African suburb, settled even before the arrival of the railway in 1899 by Kikuyu women, euphemistically known as widows, who had escaped domestic violence or social ostracism in the villages of Kiambu. Many relied on prostitution and selling moonshine to survive.
These “widows” would play a vital role in the emergence of early nationalist consciousness, using their wattle-and-daub huts not just to succour the randy but also to agitate against the British.
With venereal disease spreading through the young city, the colonial authorities tried to end the boozing and whoring in the early 1920s. Furious, Pangani’s women rallied behind Harry Thuku, the father of Kenyan nationalism, and rioted when he was arrested in March 1922 — a seminal moment in the country’s history.
The uprising was in vain. Most of Pangani’s Africans were evicted over the following decade and the district became part of Asian Nairobi as Ngara, its western neighbour, already was. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Catholics from Gujarat, the Punjab and Goa gave the area a joyful raucousness that can still be felt today, even if the Asian presence there is much diminished.
Our suggested walk (best navigated via Google maps) starts at the Pangani Mosque, built by Punjabi railway contractors in 1954. Almost invisible until one is right on top of it, the brilliant white of the facade, the sun glinting off its minarets and mashrabiya windows, startles amid the surrounding monochrome. The mosque, which follows the Sunni Hanafi tradition, welcomes non-Muslim visitors. The carpeted interior, with its filigree-inlaid prayer-niche, is charming and peaceful.
Next, make for A A Mithaiwalla, perhaps Nairobi’s oldest restaurant. Abdulali Alibhai Mithaiwalla, a Bohra Muslim from Gujarat, began selling Indian sweets and savouries from a rickshaw in Pangani in the mid-1930s, before his family opened the present premises in the 1970s. Come on Fridays and Sundays when the restaurant’s Swahili dishes are served (sweets and curries are available every day). Try the goat’s hoof soup, known as paya, followed by the mutton biryani, 24 hours in the preparation.
At the northwestern end of Pangani Market is another colonial-era institution, the Liberty Cinema. Films are no longer shown but KCSE set texts are frequently staged and ushers will let you stand at the back. When we visited, school girls in green gingham laughed uproariously to a hammed-up staging of Grace Ogot’s The River and the Source.
A visit upstairs is even more interesting, with the rest of the building taken over by Yaden, a local charity that allows youngsters from the surrounding slums to jam, improvise and dance. There is even a recording studio, all part of the group’s underlying anti-extremism mission in a part of Nairobi where youngsters are vulnerable to al-Shabaab recruitment.
Ramgarhia Gurdwara Sahib
Our next stop is the Ramgarhia Gurdwara Sahib, Pangani’s main Sikh temple, which serves Nairobi’s 3,000-strong Ramgarhia, or carpenter, caste. Traditional Sikh hospitality is assured, and visitors will be offered a free vegetarian meal in the langar or kitchen. Visitors entering the prayer halls must cover their heads and remove footwear.
Leaving the temple, head down Park Road past the Guru Nanak Hospital and a cluster of colonial-era civil service bungalows on your right. You are now in Ngara.
Stop for a beer on the terrace outside the Blue Hut hotel before turning onto Ngara Road where you will find what was once the Shan Cinema, one of Nairobi’s great architectural landmarks, famous from the 1950s for showing avant-garde European films and Hindi classics.
This extraordinary building fell into disrepair in the 1970s, becoming a squat for street kids, after the bank foreclosed on the Shan Family. It was resurrected in 2001 by a Dutch woman, Marion Op het Veld, as the Sarakasi Dome, a training and performance venue for Kenya’s acrobatic troupes. It has been highly successful, and Sarakasi acrobats now perform around the world, from the stages of Beijing to the Hi-De-Hi vaudevilles of Butlin’s holiday camps in Britain. Visitors can watch sessions in the rehearsal studio and even pre-arrange a private show for a fee (see contacts below).
Ngara Road used to be famous for its sari and fabric shops. Sadly, only a few survive. The oldest, a few doors down from the dome, is Amarsons, which has peddled Indian silks, brocades and chiffons since the 1920s. Close by, Mitz Fashion sells ready-to-wear saris and Punjabi dresses for as little as Ksh1,500.
Blending history and comfort, the Goan Gymkhana at the foot of Museum Hill makes for the perfect end of a thirsty walk. Approach it via Globe Cinema roundabout and Kipande Road. Built in 1935 as a club for posh North Goans, it was the social heart of Goan Nairobi.
A Ksh200 day fee will grant you entry to the club, where you can relax over a drink or a Goan fish curry in the beer garden. There is a gloriously old-fashioned snooker room and a cozy bar. Best of all, for an additional Ksh100, there is a pool to wash away the sweat and grime of your exertions.
NOTES & CONTACTS
- Although Ngara and Pangani are safe enough by day, be alert and do not visit at night.
- To book a private show at Sarakasi email firstname.lastname@example.org; if Pangani mosque is locked, call Ali on 0723 500072. Enter the Sikh Temple by the entrance on Juja Road only.
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