AM Jeevanjee: The Man Who Built Nairobi

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Although the only thing that still bears his name in Nairobi today is a public park, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee’s (AMJ) story is closely interwoven with the story of Nairobi’s beginnings. Jeevanjee was a businessman, politician, and philanthropist all packed into one stocky, curious, and illustrious immigrant who made Kenya his home.

AMJ was born in 1856 to a rather conservative Islamic sect known as the Bohra sect in Karachi, Pakistan. As the eldest son, tradition held that he had to continue his father’s legacy. But AMJ, the eldest son of Moosajee Mulla Jeevanjee, was not going to be limited by the traditions and limited education his community offered. After his father died, the illustrous Jeevanjee left Karachi for a whirlwind adventure from Pakistan, across India, across the seas into Australia, and eventually to East Africa in 1890.He had been a house-to-house hawker in Australia, an experience that explained his fluency in English.

Middle-aged and armed with a wealth of experience, AMJ made contact with the first wave of British investors. Five years after arriving at the port of Mombasa, he was awarded the contract to supply Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACo) with labor for the Kenya-Uganda Railway. He facilitated the immigration of the first 350 ‘coolies’ from the Punjab region of British-India as the first batch of railway workers. Within six years, Jeevanjee had supplied 31, 985 workers to the railway line. Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs migrated to Kenya to work in different sections as carpenters, skilled laborers, electrical fitters and skilled metalworkers. Of those, 2, 473 died in East Africa and 6, 724 returned home. The rest remained in Kenya as the first generation of Indian immigrants and set up various businesses along the railway line.

Once the contract ended in 1900, Jeevanjee moved to supplying building and maintenance materials to the Lunatic Line, making a fortune in the process. His business acumen was well-known beyond Mombasa, especially on the port of Karachi where his seamlessly efficient companies were gaining ground on established shipping and ship maintenance companies.

From the proceeds of the railway venture, he expanded his construction business, eventually building most of the earliest post offices, government offices and railway stations in Nairobi.The entrepreneur par excellence was flush with the proceeds of his contracts with the railway and he put them into use, leaving a mark across Nairobi.  According to some accounts, Jeevanjee once owned 70 percent of Nairobi when the city was still a sprawling township. He also owned a significant part of Mombasa. He was arguably the richest man in Kenya at the time but reliable estimates of how much he was worth are unavailable. 

My grandfather built the first law courts in Nairobi where Imenti House stands today. He also built the original Nairobi Club, and was the first landlord to the Museum in a building he owned next to Union Towers,” says Zarina Patel, Jeevanjee’s granddaughter. “If you trace the history of the earliest buildings in Nairobi, Jeevanjee is bound to appear somewhere as the contractor, owner, or as an investor.”

He eventually sold most of the land to other Asians, the colonial government, and settlers.

In Mombasa, the entrepreneur renovated the Bohra mosque to the tune of 50, 000 rupees in 1901. That structure was, however, demolished in 1982 by the Bohra clergy. According to Zahira Patel’s book, the family failed to have the site because the UNESCO global conservation project started in 1985, three years too late. On the media front, Jeevanjee launched the African Standard in Mombasa. He sold it shortly after to two British businessmen who moved the print to Nairobi. They then renamed the paper the East African Standard and made it a daily. The print newspaper is today known as the Standard newspaper, the oldest surviving print newspaper in Kenya.

Now an accomplished and respected investor and entrepreneur, he shifted his focus to politics.  The enterprising AM Jeevanjee was the first non-white appointed to the Legislative Council. He established the East African Indian National Congress, the first political party designed to champion the rights of a minority in Kenya. Short and round, AMJ’s handsomeness and quietness often masked his true political leanings. In this biography, written by Zarina Patel and published in 2002, Jeevanjee is described as a stockily built man who was obsessed with punctuality, and whose presence did not inspire intimacy. He had a deep understanding of Western society and culture, having lived in India, Australia, and worked with the colonial government in Kenya. This made his political career methodical, ensuring his politics did not mess with his carefully built business empire. 

Jeevanjee’s first wife, Jenabai, died at the Kenyan coast in 1903 while giving birth to their fourth child. He married a woman called Dayambai, an adherent of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. She lived in Pakistan and India for most of their married life, finally moving to Kenya in 1928, eight years before AMJ died.

Today, the only remaining evidence that Jeevanjee once ruled the Nairobi skyline is the 5-acre Jeevanjee Gardens situated between Muindi Mbingu Street and Moi Avenue. It is further bounded by Monrovia and Moktar Daddah Streets. Jeevanjee built the gardens in 1904 and donated it to the colonial administration in 1906 as a public park. He envisioned a recreational, serene place in the middle of the growing city where people could rest at any time of the day. Knowing full well that the gardens would eventually be surrounded by the rapidly growing city, Jeevanjee brilliantly took advantage of the scheduled visit by Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Connaught, to fund the building of a Queen Victoria statue and its erection at the gardens.


The unveiling of the statue on March 17, 1906. [Source]

The unveiling of the statue by the Duke of Connaught was one of the most colorful events of the royal visit. It also played another, more critical role, as it ensured that any plans to annex the land would be plans to remove the monument of royalty. The statue, often mistaken for a Catholic relic of a saint, stood for more than a century until February 2015 when it was vandalized by unknown people. A statue of AMJ, however, still stands as the centerpiece of the recreational gardens.

In 1991, plans to annex the grounds and convert them into a mall and a car park sparked off a controversy led by the entrepreneur’s family. The plans were shelved after the Jeevanjee family, led by Shirin Najmudean, Jeevanjee’s last remaining daughter, now deceased, and her daughter, Zarina Patel launched a campaign to protect their ancestor’s legacy. The efforts inspired Zarina to write her grandfather’s biography titled Challenging Colonialism: The Struggle of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee for Equal Rights in Kenya, funded by the Ford Foundation.

The Jeevanjee family enlisted the assistance of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement. With enough international and local support, the lobby worked tirelessly until President Moi cancelled the plans. In 2007, a collaborative effort between Nairobi City Council and UN Habitat’s Safer Cities that included building a perimeter wall and conducting a major rehabilitation was mistaken for another plan to annex it. Bunge la Mwananchi, which regularly uses the grounds as a meeting place, extensively lobbied against the plans, leading to several arrests. There were reports that the actual plan was to construct a multi-storey parking lot with markets and shopping malls. Like the 1991 plans, the second wave of attempts were also shelved.

As the rest of the Nairobi skyline has changed, Jeevanjee Gardens has survived as a tribute to the man who built Nairobi. His surety that the land would never be vandalized may have become a symbolic relic in 1963, but the park is now protected under county and country laws on recreational spaces. It has a dedicated smoking zone, a shop, two public toilets, and concrete benches. 


An abridged version of this article was published on the Daily Nation on November 24, 2013. [Link]


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Last modified: February 3, 2020