Since Kenya was established mainly due to the advent of the railways, it is interesting to note that according to a myth of the local Maasai tribe, the end of the world would come with the arrival of an ‘iron-snake’ crawling across their land!
The city of Nairobi is known by many names. The capital of Kenya, it has been called the ‘Green city in the Sun’ and ‘Nai-robbery’ due to its high crime rates. The original name however, is a Maasai term meaning a ‘stream of cool water’. The city originated as a transport hub and since then has expanded upwards and outwards to accommodate a population of over three million people! Its diminutive colonial buildings jostle for space with high-rises and concrete apartment blocks.
The city was established on a plateau at a higher altitude as it was believed that mosquitoes that spread malaria could not thrive at these high elevations and cool weather conditions. Here warm days become surprisingly cool in the evenings.
Nairobi replaced Mombasa as Kenya’s capital in 1905, and was a principal base of operation for the British for their hunts and safaris. Although you can no longer hunt, you can still go on one of the myriad safaris the city has to offer.
Nairobi is a culturally diverse city with major Kenyan ethnic groups represented here. There is also a sizeable population of Asians, Europeans, Somalis and a growing community of expatriates as numerous embassies and international organizations have set up offices in the city.
Nairobi is also the safari capital of the country and a good base for travel in Kenya. You could use the city as your base, much like the British did in the past.
Situated between the cities of Kampala and Mombasa, Nairobi is at an altitude of 1660 m above sea level. The Nairobi River and its tributaries run through the province. It is close to the edge of Rift Valley hence minor earthquakes and tremors are commonplace. The Ngong hills west of the city are the most prominent geographical feature here. On a clear day, you can also see Mount Kenya in the north and Mount Kilimanjaro towards the south-east.
Nairobi is a relatively younger country and almost everything here has been built in the last hundred years or so. Until the arrival of the railway network here in the late 19th century, the city was just a boggy waterhole for the local Maasai tribe. When the tribes were devastated by civil wars and numerous diseases, their laibon or spiritual leader, negotiated a treaty with the British allowing them to lay the Mombasa-Uganda railway line right through Nairobi’s grazing pastures. As the tracks of the East Africa railway were placed, a depot was established on the edge of a small stream here.
Before 1870, Kenyans were independent and governed themselves though councils of elders. That changed when the Sultan of Zanzibar allowed a trading concession to the British Eats Africa Company, sparking British interest in the region. The Company also sent missionaries to spread Christianity and help abolish the slave trade.
Nairobi was founded in 1899 around a railway line being constructed by the British colonial officials from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Uganda. The city was originally a stores depot, shunting yard where trains were placed to be shifted from one track to the other. It was also used as camping grounds for Indian laborers (also under British rule) employed by the British to work the line.
The city developed gradually – unplanned and unexpectedly! Plague and fire necessitated the town’s rebuilding. By 1907, Nairobi was an established city and the British made it the capital of the newly formed British East Africa. They encouraged Europeans to settle here since it had a cooler climate and fertile soil. British officials hoped that the settlers would develop a modern economic sector that would make the railway line economically viable.
Farming ventures were taken up by the trial-and-error method since little was known of the kind of crops that would thrive here. They established plantations of coffee, tea, sisal (a plant with strong fibers used to make rope) and pyrethrum (a perennial plant used to make insecticide). Cattle rearing also proved to be profitable and led to the establishment of sprawling ranches.
The British started forcing African laborers to work for them and began confiscating African land and taxing them heavily. The natives had no choice but to resort to working on European plantations and give up their land. In the early 1950s, the Mau Mau group launched severe internal protests and confrontations to remove the British from power. In retaliation the British made mass arrests in the city and the Mau Mau were defeated only after troops were sent from Britain to Kenya.
In 1957, the first elections were held and in 1963 Kenya achieved internal self government with Kenyatta as the first prime minister. On December 12, 1963, Kenya became an independent state. But the country’s troubles were far from over.
Nairobi today is a bustling city with a high rate of crime, political disputes that result in violent confrontations, and corruption. Religious violence has also been on the increase. The US Embassy bombings in 1998 were a tragic event. The city still goes o with its life, trying to cope as best as it can.
Being at a reasonable elevation, Nairobi has a moderate climate, summers are warm and winters are mildly cool. The warmest months are from December to March. There are two rainy seasons but with only moderate rainfall. As Nairobi is located close to the equator, the differences between the seasons are minimal.
Getting There & Around
Nairobi’s main airport is the Jomo Kenyatta international Airport, just 15 km from the city center. Another airport, Wilson airport, is used mainly for domestic connections and is just 11 km from the city.
Kenya is probably the only country created because of the building of a railway network. Try out the slow and comfortable pace of the trains. You can catch one at the Nairobi Railway Station that has daily arrivals and departures to the rest of the country.
Nairobi is not a huge city in terms of area and most places are walkable. Moi Avenue is the city’s major road splitting it in half almost! Walking around the city will also give you an insight of the city life.
Taxis are the easiest way to get around the city but relatively expensive. A cheaper option would be the bus or a matatu (shared taxi), but getting on one that’s going your way can be a tad confusing.
What to See & Do
For wildlife enthusiasts, this is the place to be. The city has several national parks within and around its vicinity and is a base point for trips further away. The Nairobi National Park, established in 1945 was the country’s first national park. It is immaculately maintained, and the wide plains is home to a large number of Africa’s best known animals – zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, black rhino, ostrich, baboon, and of course the star attractions, cheetahs and lions. Within the park, there is an Animal Orphanage, an educational center, the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage where visitors can watch the calves being taken care of and the Impala Observation Point. Here President Moi burnt 60 tons of ivory recovered from poachers indicating Kenya’s disapproval of the illegal trade.
Just past the Nairobi National Park is the Bomas, a cultural center. It offers traditional songs and dances of the myriad Kenyan tribes. There are daily performances, good food and souvenir shops nearby, making it an ideal way to spend the afternoon.
Around the city there are many monuments and sights, mostly of historical significance. The Nyayo monument was built in 1988 to mark 25 years of independence. It is a marble interpretation of the lowering of the British colonial flag and the raising of the Kenyan flag. It took almost a million US dollars to build and evokes a strong patriotic feeling from the citizens. The Uhuru monument was built in 1973 and it also to marks the independence. An ihara tree marks the spot where the national flag was first hoisted.
In the Parliament building, some of the more interesting items on display are the needlework tapestries made by East African Women’s League showing the country’s history, a table made from various trees found in the country, and a mosaic of Kenyan tribes.
Among the many museums, some of the more prominent ones are: the Karen Blixen Museum, the author who wrote under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen. The house was a coffee plantation and the quiet green surroundings give you a nice break from the city; the Kenya Railway Museum should not be missed since the railways was the reason the country came into existence. It exhibits ten old steam engines and fascinating photographs and material that were used to develop the railways; the National Archives is a public gallery with some amateur art and a collection of ethnography (weapons, musical instruments and domestic tools). It also has handicrafts, artwork and historical documents and pictures; and the National Museum of Kenya, which contains discoveries from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge and Kenya’s Koobi Fora. You can also view a range of weapons and ornaments of various local tribes. Within the grounds is a snake park with live east African snakes, and an aquarium with marine and freshwater fish.
For the nature lover there are several parks and gardens where you can take a stroll or just sit back and watch the world go by. The Arboretum, an 80 acre forest reserve, hosts over 300 species of indigenous trees. The Uhuru Park is a popular place in the city. It has a small lake on which you can go boating and it offers good views of the city’s main skyline.
The Giraffe Center is known to have saved the Rothschild giraffe from extinction. You can see these long-necked beauties here and even feed them. Other attractions here are warthogs, bushbuck and dik-diks. Although it is meant primarily for school children, adults enjoy their time here just as much. The gift shop has some excellent animal-motif souvenirs and all profits from the shop go to preserving wildlife.
What to eat & where to stay
Nairobi has many luxury hotels, serviced apartments, budget inns and hostels for you to choose from. It all depends on how much you are willing to spend and what luxuries you need. You can also find a wide range of cuisines here…everything from European to Asian and local fare. And if you dare, try out Carnivore. This true to its name restaurant offers exotic meat of all spot and stripe – you can feast on zebra, crocodile or ostrich meat here! Only for the truly adventurous.
Nairobi is the center of the country’s music scene. Benga, a fusion of jazz and Luo music forms was developed here. In the 1970s the city was a prominent hub for eastern and central African music and more recently it has become the center of the country’s hip-hop scene.
If you prefer some dramatic theater, there are two major theater companies that hold stage performances – the Kenya National Theater and the Professional Center. The city’s Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi also have many amateur theater groups that perform all year round.
For two days every year, all eyes of motorsports enthusiasts around the globe turn to Nairobi. This is when the KCB Safari Rally takes place. The world’s greatest rally drivers take to the dusty road of the Rift Valley in a trail that is now known as the ‘car breaker’. Supporters cheer for the participants and you too can join the crowd.
And if you happen to be in town during Christmas, you can pick up some African treasures at the Crafts of Africa show. The exhibition attracts over twenty thousand people during the week it is on. On display and for sale are various arts and crafts from wood work and leather work to glass, gourds and cloth.