The man who saved Nairobi from the Bubonic Plague

Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro is the zebra-riding octor who saved Nairobi from the Bubonic Plague. He did so because it was his job, but he rode a zebra because he could.

In 1902, a number of mysterious deaths occurred on the busy Indian Bazaar in young Nairobi. The street had grown too fast, spurred by the growing trade between Africans, Europeans, and Indians. With no proper municipal facilities, the filth had built up, bringing with it many rodents and scavenging animals. With them, the Bubonic Plague that would claim 20 lives before a future Portuguese consul diagnosed the disease.

The Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death, has a rich and tragic history as one of natures most lethal killer diseases. One of the earliest recorded cases of the plague spreading death across a large population was when Justinian was emperor of the Byzantine Empire.

800 years later, the more famous strain massacred the European population. It landed in Europe aboard a group of Genoese trading ships that docked at the Sicilian Port of Messina in October 1347.

Over the next five years, the rat-flea transmitted bacterium would claim an estimated 75 million people across Europe.

Flash forward centuries later, in the British Protectorate that will eventually become Kenya. Something eerily similar to the Plague has struck the central business district, and one man, one badass man, will save the city. Well, maybe save the people only. The city will be smoldering ashes. The doctor knew about the plague due to his experience in a previous outbreak in India. He noticed similar symptoms while attending to two Somali patients.

Ribiero immediately notified the Medical officer of Health at the time, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, of the potential public health hazard. Spurrier spurred into action like a good bureaucrat, following the medieval manual to the letter by ordering the entire street torched to the ground. All of it, the entire Indian Bazaar at the time. Wait, What?

In case you are wondering just how flamboyant one can be when riding a zebra...more so one that knows how to pose for the camera. Socialite zebra, is that you? Image from www.geni.com

In case you are wondering just how flamboyant one can be when riding a zebra…more so one that knows how to pose for the camera.

The Medical Officer, in a panic, ordered a containment strategy that would have been more applicable during the 14th century pandemic and not the 20th century one. Everyone was evacuated from the Indian Bazaar, and the citys first modern trade hub was set ablaze. With it came down, ironically, the practice that Dr. Ribiero had set up in Nairobi as the first private medical doctor.

The eccentric doctor?was known to ride his zebra to house calls, where he would almost always personally attend to any ailment or condition, including removing jiggers. Once the ashes had cooled, the government compensated him for his loss-or for his life-saving diagnosis, the history records are unclear.

The First Indian Bazaar. A new Bazaar was then set up on what is today Biashara Street. Image from http://www.theeagora.com/birth-city-photo-essay-history-nairobi/

The First Indian Bazaar.
A new Bazaar was then set up on what is today Biashara Street.
{Image Source}

The good doctor had arrived in the future Kenya Colony two years before. Goan by descent, he would serve as the Portuguese consul between 1914 and 1924. Before that, he was famously known as the zebra-riding doctor, defying all set limits of awesome by using the most flamboyant street-legal ride around.?

Dr. Ribeiro?died on 2 February 1951 at the age of 80 and is buried at the City Park Cemetery (Section 4: Lot 137). Kenya was hit by the Plague several times after, including 1904, 1911-4, 1941-2, 1950, and 1990. The plague, however, is still alive and well…and evolving.

Owaahh, 2014

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