More than a century ago, a brash and racist decision bore a small tin shack town in the middle of the swamp. Then the town became unstoppable.
The first men and women who landed in Nairobi considered the brackish swamp land perfect. The area was picturesque, with hills in the horizon and rivers crisscrossing the plains. The land was not suitable for farming, and certainly not for settlement, but it was perfect for grazing.
For the Maasai and the Kikuyu, the plain was also a meeting ground, cutting between the highland farming community in Central Kenya and the nomadic community in the Rift. The Maasai called it Enkare Nyorobi, ‘the land of cool waters’; the Kikuyu name for the land seems to have evaded history books. Although, the inviting plain was marshy, there were hungry beasts lurking in the grass and the forests.
The first Europeans to cross through Nairobi probably saw it as one of the easy stretches of a much long, much more arduous journey to the Western parts of what would become Kenya. The treeless plain was also curiously empty, particularly on the lush parts towards central Kenya. The adventurers and colonists named the plains Nyrobe in their letters home, a name that would eventually birth the modern name of the city. They marveled at the seemingly deserted land, not knowing that the land was in fact occupied, just not permanently. Smallpox and a few other epidemics had cut down the populations of many Kenyan communities, forcing them to occupy less land.
In 1896, builders of Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. But the plains were different.
There was something captivating, if not majestic, about the rather brash plains. The small supply depot would be right at the middle of the line from Mombasa to Kampala, the target destination for the line. In 1899, the rail-head reached Nairobi. With it, a new future begun.
The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. The arbitrary decision, which would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government, did not involve any proper assessment of the idealness of the site. Public health would be the key issue in those early years, with the lack of proper drainage making the new town the perfect breeding grounds for epidemics. The 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.”
As more people settled on what had become the railway headquarters, a pattern emerged. Europeans settled to the West, Asians to the Parklands side, and Africans to the East. Within the first five years, what had been a sparsely occupied swampy plain was now home to 10, 000 people. After Mombasa, Nairobi was now the cultural melting pot of the young British colony.
With government funding and rich entrepreneurs like AM Jeevanjee who had made a fortune supplying material and labor to build the railway, a town sprouted from the swamp. The richest man in Kenya at the start of the 20th Century, Jeevanjee would later go on an investment spree, building the first law courts, the original Nairobi Club, the first building that housed the Museum, and many other buildings.
Before the railhead reached Nairobi, the central economic activity for the young town had been big game hunting. By 1900, the town was a single street, driven by commerce as Asian railway builders settled in tin shacks on the plain. Beyond that street “lay the swamp where frogs lived every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township” as Elspeth Huxley writes in White Mans Country. The frogs formed part of the ecosystem, providing a rhythmic croaking during the calm nights of a budding young town. It was free music, if not poetry, but it freaked out public health officials.
Doctors were particularly concerned about the hazards the soggy grounds carried. At 1, 750 meters above sea level, colonists though Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos. It didn’t, because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect. Malaria would thrive in the new town, with 14, 000 new malaria cases reported in Nairobi 1913 alone. But malaria was only one of many health concerns that made doctors want the small town moved to higher ground.
In 1902, the small town faced its first major public health problem. An epidemic of the dreaded bubonic plague erupted along Indian Bazaar. With no sanitation or municipal plans, the main street at the time had played host to rodents, and the animals had in turn brought in the plague, killing several people. The plague was diagnosed by the enigmatic zebra-riding Dr. Rosendo Ribiero. The Medical Officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, ordered the entire street burnt. Everyone was evacuated, and Nairobis first CBD was torched.
In May 1903, Dr. Moffat, a 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 Winston 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.”
The letter further reminds Churchill of the 1902 recommendation to move the city “to some point on the hills.” 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 to try drain the swampy bazaar area.
In 1898, a 25-year-old man called John Ainsworth had disembarked from a ship at the Port of Mombasa. He was an employee of the colonizing company called Imperial British East African Company, ambitious to make a career for himself in the new lands. Before that year ended, he travelled from Mombasa, up to the then capital city of Machakos, and into the tin shack town called Nyrobe. He built his house at Museum Hill to found the colonial administration, much to the chagrin of influential railway builders. Eager to make the swampy plains work, he planted Eucalyptus trees on the swamp to drain the water. Ainsworth’s legacy remains to date, with most of his efforts being the only reason why more and more parts of the swamp could be occupied.
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.” The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the center of the new colony. It would take another six years for the Nairobi Sanitary Commission to be appointed, by which time the city was home to thousands of people. The swampy grounds would pose challenges for builders, medical officers, and town planners.
To settlers like Ewart Grogan, the Europeans should have occupied the area from Chiromo up towards and past Westlands. They would then leave the lower plains and its tin shacks could be left to Asians and Kenyan natives. The plan never came to be as the influence of the railway builders carried the day, and by the time it became clear the city would grow, it was too late to move it. In 1919, Nairobi Township became Nairobi Municipal Council and the boundaries were extended. It would be extended nine years later to cover 30 square miles. Seven years after that, Jim Jameson presented a town planning report with great plans to plant Jacaranda trees. The tin shack town was well on its way to becoming a city, and the future generations of city fathers would have to find a way to deal with the thin layer of soil.
The interests of the railway management trumped those of the colonial government and its health officials. For that, the latter would pay dearly, facing many epidemics and having to dedicate finances to further drain the swamp. Most of the swamp has now been replaced with skyscrapers and road networks. The city that was never meant to be, and probably should never have been, is now the epicenter of the Kenyan economy and society.
Cover Image by Mutua Matheka, Wallpaper Monday (205). [Link]
John Kamau is the Associate Editor, Business Daily. He blogs at Kenya History Today. [Link].