Adrian Blomfield takes a nostalgic walk through Kenya’s history.
Total distance: about 4 km
Total time: 5 hours (including stops and lunch)
The graveyard, forlorn and neglected, has an Ozymandian quality to it. Under toppled and faded headstones repose the relics of an unloved empire’s unfortunate privileged, nearly all of them felled in their prime. There lies Sir Donald Stewart, His Majesty’s Commissioner for British East Africa until he succumbed in 1905 to the psychic powers of Koitalel arap Samoei, leader of the Nandi Resistance. Or to pneumonia, if you prefer the prosaic official explanation.
And there, a little to the right, is poor Charles Ryall, who came to East Africa in 1900 to kill the man-eater lions of Tsavo, only to be killed by them instead after falling asleep on the veranda of his railway carriage.
Housing Nairobi’s oldest graves, the cemetery at the corner of the Bunyala Road and Uhuru Highway makes an excellent starting point to this month’s meander through Nairobi’s history.
The cemetery is divided into three. Below the colonial graves is the resting place of some of Kenya’s first Jewish settlers, who came here anticipating the creation of a Jewish State — not in Israel but in Uasin Gishu. Hunt among the headstones for Ettel Block, matriarch of the Jewish family that once owned the Norfolk Hotel. It is strange to think that if Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, had not eventually rejected Britain’s 1905 offer to carve out a Jewish homeland in what was then Uganda, the capital of the Jewish State might have been Eldoret rather than West Jerusalem. Below the Jewish section is the Nairobi South War Cemetery, where 155 victims of the First World War and two of the Second lie buried.
Leaving the graveyards behind you, head for Haile Selassie Avenue and turn left onto Parliament Road. You are now passing through Nairobi’s former theatre district. Sadly, the Donovan Maule Theatre, opened in 1958, has long since been torn down and even its later incarnation, Phoenix Players is no more. Wistful theatre-goers can still have a steak at the Professional Centre Restaurant. Even if its legendary former owner, Mike Doughty, is no longer behind the bar, some of his staff are still there.
Our next stop is the Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Family, the seat of Roman Catholicism in Kenya. The original church, built in 1904, was replaced by the present edifice in the 1960s. It was designed by Dorothy Hughes, one of Kenya’s first female architects, who catered for both saints and sinners — she also created the flying-saucer-shaped New Florida Nightclub on Koinange Street, torn down in recent years by enemies of architecture. Hughes was kinder to the tarts than the vicars, and many will find the basilica rather charmless.
Across the road is the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the tallest building in Nairobi when it was built in 1974. Hurry past the Soviet-style kiosks on the ground floor that used to sell KANU kitsch (the building was the former ruling party’s headquarters until 2003) and buy a ticket for the roof at reception. An express lift will whisk you up 27 floors. Tarry for a while on the two lower viewing platforms above the abandoned revolving restaurant. Then head for the helipad to enjoy spectacular, if vertiginous, views of the Ngong Hills and a 360-degree panorama of the ever-expanding city.
Stop for lunch at what may be the only surviving Chinese restaurant in the centre of town, the Tin-Tin (lunches only), at the bottom of the KICC. Founded by James Tin, who fled the Japanese advance on Hong Kong for Mombasa in 1940, and his wife Anna, the 39-year-old restaurant is still run by members of the Tin family.
Next stop is the neighbouring Supreme Court and Judiciary Museum, situated in its bowels. The building was designed in 1935 by Sir Herbert Baker, one of the best-known imperial architects, who was also responsible for the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa House in Trafalgar Square and, with Edwin Lutyens, much of the administrative centre of Delhi. The museum takes visitors sequentially through Kenya’s history, with the gloom and blue walls giving way to bright lights and yellow walls as you pass into the country’s post-independence era. The holding cells, including one for capital offenders, are a grim reminder of the political prisoners who passed through here.
Stop for a breather at the August 7 Memorial Park, built on the site of American Embassy and Ufundi House, both destroyed by al Qaeda terrorists in 1998. There is a moving memorial to the 218 people killed, as well as a small museum.
Head across the roundabout and turn onto Racecourse Road (the old racecourse was dismantled in the early 1950s) to St. Peter Claver’s Church, lovelier and more peaceful than the basilica. Built in 1922, it was the first Catholic church to serve Nairobi’s black African population, and was the site of Tom Mboya’s “wedding of the decade” in 1962. Across the road, St. Peter Claver’s School was the first in Nairobi for African children, whom the colonial authorities initially tried to bar from the city.
Our final stop is the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Gurdwara, or temple, of the Sikh farmer caste, on Uyoma Street. This extraordinary building, which catches the eye when you look east from the KICC’s helipad, houses Kenya’s largest dome, completed in 1963. Step inside and the priests will be delighted to let you marvel at the interior of the umbrella dome, resplendent in alabaster and teal — Nairobi’s modest answer to the Pantheon in Rome.