Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Who will restore these Nairobi symbols of the past?

South Africans have managed to topple the statue of Cecil Rhodes from University of Cape Town and they are moving to vandalise other statues connected to the imperialist past.

In the rage, the statue of Mahatma Gandhi was also vandalised. We don’t know where they will stop.

They are wrong – and we were wrong in 1964 to remove the statue of Lord Delamere from the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue, the King George V statue and the bronze portrait plaque on the King George VI memorial near Intercontinental Hotel.

Recently, at the Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi, the statue of Queen Victoria (below) was destroyed by some vandals – denying future Nairobi generations to have a glimpse.

Empty plinths will never tell the story of a nation, however painful. Otherwise, how do we tell the authentic and balanced history of our colonial past while we have distorted the landscape where they sat?

While the fall of any regime is usually followed by the removal of its images and symbols, removal of monuments, memorials and statues is usually the first sign of intolerance. There is no monument that cannot be contested in space and time.

Germany removed the Nazi monument after the Second World War only for it to be rebuilt in 1988 to provide a link between the past and present non-Nazi generation. It is now a reminder of the fascist past and offers a symbolic dialogue to citizens.

In 1964, Kenya erected the statue of Jomo Kenyatta which was unveiled outside Parliament. Some 10 years later, another statue was unveiled outside Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

The two captures the history of Kenya in the formative years and any maverick who would target them in years to come would have done a disservice to history. The same goes to the Tom Mboya and Dedan Kimathi monuments in the central business district.

Perhaps we have been lucky, so far. President Kibaki did well to have resisted pressure to erase the Nyayo symbols and monuments that remind Kenyans about the dark days of Kanu.

Virtually every major town has these symbols – their architectural and aesthetic wants notwithstanding. There was an attempt to deface the Nyayo monument at the Central Park and police were called in and repairs later made. That is how nations should protect their past.

The world watched as Saddam Hussein’s statues in Firdaus Square in downtown Baghdad were brought down by US Marines which was the first attack on symbolic images on a nation’s political and cultural heritage. Is it any wonder that there is an ongoing destruction cultural monuments in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria by Islamic State? They have so far destroyed the statue of Abu Ja’afar Al-Mansour, the founder of Baghdad and the tomb of 12th-century philosopher, Ali Ibn Al-Athir.

When a nation refuses to acknowledge its past and appreciate the aesthetic and historical value of statues and memorials, then it loses an opportunity to dialogue with the past. No nation should settle scores with monuments and South Africans need to learn this.

Having said that, Nairobi should return the statue of Lord Delamere from the shores of Lake Elementeita to its original plinth. We cannot use sites and monuments to settle old scores.

We should start seeing the monuments as part of our heritage, as historical artefacts and as symbols of the past. Or do we think that the French are crazy to have maintained Arc de Triomphe despite the fact that it was associated with Napoleon Bonaparte – a man who almost destroyed France.

For public historians, it was gratifying that President Robert Mugabe said they will keep the grave of Cecil Rhodes in Bulawayo although some ZANU-PF members have been calling for his exhumation and repatriation to Britain. Governor Evans Kidero, should help Nairobi restore its symbols.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eldoret, the town that South African Boers started

Let us celebrate 100 (plus) years of Eldoret.

If you look at the old Kenya Gazette Notices of 1912 (and they are now online) you will find that most of the locations in Uasin Gishu had no names on government records. They were simply: Farm 1, Farm 2, Farm 3…

What is today Eldoret Town fell on Farm No 64 and for many years the town was simply known by that number. One of the cheeky stories of Eldoret was about the trust that pioneers traders had in each other. There is of course the hard-to-verify tale of the unmanned pub where revellers would walk in, drink and leave the money at the counter.

Space to breed

It is also the story of how some two revellers one day found the door locked (by mistake) and they removed the door, drunk the beer, paid and left. For many years, some historical wags say, the bar remained without a door! But seriously, the story of Eldoret is worth a tome. It was built by Boer rogues who had decided that they had had enough of British rule in South Africa and trekked north to protest the annexation their Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State to South Africa after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1988-1902.

It was in 1909 when a heavily-armed group of 280 Boers arrived in Kenya from South Africa. With them were prefabricated houses, wagons, ploughs, cattle and sheep. They wanted land, if not peacefully, by force. And they were willing to fight.

The Nandis were elbowed out of their farms around Uasin Gishu as they cut huge chunks for themselves and that had been surveyed by Royal Engineers. Their leader Meneer Van Rensberg had arrived in Mombasa with another group aboard a German vessel, Windhoek, and by July 1908 he was in Nakuru where he was directing the new farmers.

The families that set out for Uasin Gishu had heard stories of land that looked like the South African kopjes. Here, they spanned out with the single believe that “here is a land where our women can breed in space…”, according to Negley Farson in his 1947 book ‘The Last Chance in Africa’.

Colonial writer, Elspeth Huxley in her book ‘No Easy Way’ captured the drama too: “To get heavily-loaded wagons up this steep escarpment along the rough, narrow, treacherous track, with inexperienced oxen and in a wet year, was a truly remarkable feat, and only Afrikaners could have performed it...”

Heavy safe

Every time I look at the Standard Chattered Bank in Eldoret, it reminds me of the story of a heavy safe that had been brought in from South Africa by the boers and was full of cash.

It was at Farm 64, the story goes on, that the safe fell and the few boers present could not lift it back to the wagon.

To protect it, they built a bank around it — a branch of the South African Standard Bank! But the South African bank at first refused to have a branch in a mud house but later gave in. A historian, A.T Mason recalls the arrival of the instruments to operate a bank: “All the paraphernalia of city banking arrived, including a brass plate, which was quickly affixed to the mud and wattle wall.

On one occasion, its manager J.C Shaw told the office boy to patch the flaking mud but the Kiswahili of both the manager and worker was meagre with the result that when Shaw returned he found the wall had disintegrated under repeated onslaughts with buckets of water and the safe was outside in the mud!”

For a long time, Eldoret was the only town where the Boers used Kruger coins as currency, and for a long time – even after they were not in use in South Africa.

Also, they protested any sign of British control and got away with lots of murder and mayhem.

Today, the agricultural town they started has grown beyond Farm 64, just after 100 years. It is a lengthy story…

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Nairobi was built in the wrong place

When Nairobi was hardly eight years, the administrators were warned that they had done a mistake by allowing the building of a town in a treeless windy plain where residents were constantly baked by the African sun.

Medical officers warned in 1906 that the grounds were soggy and urged Sir James Hayes Sadler, the then Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, to plead with London and have the town moved. As usual, bureaucracy reigned and railway interests surpassed the wishes of the majority.

One has to look at the 1902 letter written by Sadler and which said in part: “Doctors are unanimous in condemning this site. They pointed out that it was a depression with a very thin layer of soil and the decomposition of animal matter was abnormally slow. It should be removed”.

The original city fathers wanted the place moved. Shortly after the swampy conditions induced a plague breakout out in 1901, colonial medical officer Dr. W.H. MacDonald worried that the city was in the wrong place. In May 1903 Dr. Moffat, principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.

On 18 May 1906, Sir James Sadler, commissioner for the Protectorate, wrote to Churchill, Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, complaining about the emergence of Kenya's capital: "...at the commencement of the 1902 plague...the then-commissioner, Sir Charles Elliot, was strongly of the opinion that the site, which had been selected three years before by the manager of the Uganda Railway without consulting medical or sanitary authorities, was, with its inadequate drainage, unsuitable for a large and growing population. [It is a] depression with a very thin layer of soil or rock. The soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year."

Churchill was reminded that four years previously, it had been recommended that the town be moved "to some point on the hills." But railway engineers did not see Nairobi as becoming anything more than an Indian township—which, they argued, could "prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague."

Sadler told Churchill this was a critical point in Nairobi's history; that his predecessor had said: "...when the rainy season commenced, the whole town is practically transformed into a swamp." But the Board decided instead only to try to drain the swampy bazaar area.

Nairobi continued to develop quickly and Sadler finally threw in the towel: "It is, I admit, too late to consider the question of moving the town from the plains to the higher position along the line some miles to the north. We had a chance in 1902, and I think it was a pity that we did not do so then as advocated by Sir Charles Elliot." But even Sadler did not anticipate the growth, saying Nairobi would never become "a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of industries or minerals in any of the new districts, the centres would spring up around them."

Churchill accepted this idea and made the final decision: "It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country."

By the time the Nairobi Sanitary Commission was appointed in 1913, to enquire and report upon the sanitation and drainage of the township, the town had taken shape. It was now left to the engineers to build a city with the challenges that soggy ground presented. Many years later, failure to consult experts could make many buildings in the city uninhabitable in a few years' time - or we look for ways to manage mother nature.