Catrina Stewart explores the area of Nairobi to the north of Kenyatta Avenue from Jeevanjee Gardens to a Luo restaurant that excites the taste buds.
Starting Point: Jeevanjee Gardens
Finishing Point: Al-Yusra restaurant
Time: 1-3 hours, depending on refreshment stops
In Jeevanjee gardens, there’s a plinth where a white marble statue should be. Queen Victoria, a colonial symbol who for more than a century has fixed her stern gaze on those perambulating in the five-acre city centre park, was mysteriously demolished two years ago by vandals. Nobody has ever claimed responsibility for the act.
This city space, bequeathed to the public in 1906 by Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, an industrialist born in modern-day Pakistan who largely supplied the Indian workforce for the construction of the “Lunatic Express” railway, is where we begin our walk.
Over the past few decades, the park’s supporters, including Wangari Maathai, have fended off a multitude of threats to the park, including plans to dig a parking lot beneath it. Yet still it remains – perhaps not as well-kept as in its heyday, but nevertheless a peaceful spot away from the hectic pace of Nairobi’s central business district.
We exit the park onto Moi Avenue, headed towards Biashara Street, the lively Asiandominated trading thoroughfare where a loyal crowd still comes to buy curtains, fabrics and baby clothes. It was here that the immigrant Indian community – brought in by Jeevanjee – would later set up their own businesses. We stop for a while in front of Prembro House, a building of uncertain age, that is one of many gazetted buildings in Nairobi, this one for its contribution to architectural beauty. It now houses a toy shop, the colourful lettering oddly complementing its ornate white exterior. We continue along the street past Haria’s Stamp shop, a must for stamp collectors, until we reach Muindi Mbingu Street, and head in the direction of Banda Street. Set back from the main street is the MacMillan Library, easy to miss despite its imposing exterior with the impressive lion statues standing guard at the main entrance.
Opened in 1931, the library remains one of Nairobi’s most storied institutions, with some 270,000 volumes housed inside. In the main reading room, readers quietly pore over books and documents. It has apparently undergone a refurbishment, but beyond the reasonably smart main room, the condition quickly deteriorates. Books, their covers tattered or even missing altogether, stand abandoned in a recess of the library. A shelf full of old books has partially fallen against another, which, as suggested by the pool of water at its feet, was probably the victim of recent rains.
Upstairs, through a carved door with ornate handle, one finds a treasure trove of old newspapers, East African annuals, Africana and coveted first editions. Under a stack of newspapers sticks out the corner of a 1929 edition of the East African Standard, its pages tattered. An illustrated annual from the early 1940s includes a British officer’s account of a fishing trip on Lake Victoria during the war. Meanwhile, barely visible behind a pile of junk, are the perfectly-kept complete writings of Theodore Roosevelt.
Back on the street, we head down towards Kenyatta Ave to look at the “three men,” a tribute to the Africans who served in the Kings African Rifles and Carrier Corps during the first World War. The statue, representing a porter, a soldier and a rifle bearer, was erected in 1928. Less visible across the street is a modest obelisk, erected in memory of those who died in the two world wars. Their placing in front of the old Cameo Cinema, now housing a casino and Nairobi Water Company, is deliberate. This is where much of the fundraising for the war effort took place.
Leaving the two war memorials, our walk takes us towards Kimathi Street, where on the intersection with Kenyatta Avenue once stood the legendary Torrs hotel, now Stanbic Bank. The hotel was started by Ewart Grogan, who, to prove he was of marriageable material to his future father in law, walked from Cape Town to Cairo. He subsequently married Gertrude, the woman in question, after whom he named the well-known Nairobi children’s hospital.
Built in 1923, the one-time Torrs hotel is said to be the oldest brick building in Nairobi, and if you head round to the back of the modern-day bank, you can see a small section of the original brick remaining. Torrs opened its doors in the late 1920s, before Grogan sold it in the late 1950s. In search of food and drink, we head past the black and white Nation building to K’Osewe, a long-time favourite for those in search of Western Kenyan food. The cavernous dining room quickly fills up at lunchtime as regulars, ranging from office workers to politicians, with Raila Odinga said to be a regular patron, come for traditional fare, with goat tripe, gizzards and liver all popular choices.
Long before settling on his current location, the owner, Mr Osewe (he has officially changed the name of the restaurant to Ranalo’s, but K’Osewe, as in “belongs to Osewe,” continues to stick) was serving the likes of Barack Obama Sr. back in the 1980s when his restaurant was little more than a shack under a tree.
We are invited to taste the four or five different variations on sukuma wiki – cooked in coconut milk, for instance, or mixed with an oil extracted from cow’s milk that is similar to ghee. Then it’s on to the main courses. I pass on the gizzard, and opt for tilapia stewed in coconut, followed by fried beef, which I mop up with chapati. I suppose my expectations had plummeted when I spotted tripe on the menu, but it’s among the tastiest meals out I’ve had in ages.
Then it’s off to al-Yusra, a popular Somali restaurant just across the way back on Banda Street. On the menu are local favourites such as chicken tikka, camel meat as well as hearty breakfasts. But we’ve already eaten, so we’re simply here to wash it all down with a cup of camel-milk tea.
Photos by Brian Siambi