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Notes on the Geography of Kenya: Colonial Nairobi

What's left of British rule in Nairobi?

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We can begin here at the railway station. After all, the growth of Nairobi began with the opening of the railway from Mombasa in 1899. A station was created here for the logical but arbitrary reason that this was the half-way point between Mombasa and Kisumu, the terminus and ferry terminal on Lake Victoria.

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Chef de gare? Bahnhofsvorsteher? The sign is obviously an add-on, but from when? The one thing that's clear is that somebody believed that the station would have international visitors.

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Once, that was true. Once, there was a time when the railway ran to European standards, though with a twist. Elspeth Huxley writes, "First-class carriages were for Europeans and the more affluent Asians; second for lesser Asians who filled them with enormous families; third-class for the indigenes who sat all night on wooden benches chattering and eating, surrounded by kikapus (large, handwoven baskets) full of fruit and yams and every kind of eatable, the women generally with babies on their backs or toddlers at foot" (Nellie: Letters from Africa,, 1980, p. 33).

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The main entrance. See the wrought-iron gates?

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Understand the logo? It's a reminder of the railway's original name.

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Here's another, this one at the adjoining railway museum, which is in much better shape than the railway station. The initials stand for Uganda Railway.

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After World War I, when the Germans lost German East Africa to the British, the railways of both Kenya and what was then called Tanganyika were reorganized as the East African Railways, which explains the letters on this locomotive at the museum. The EAR, which also operated in Uganda, survived longer than British rule but came to an end in 1977. Since then, the Kenya part of the system has been simply Kenya Railways. Management has been in various hands. None, so far, have managed to do much to restore the system.

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The lines are meter-gauge, but the engines are compound monsters to cope with the grades climbing in and out of the Rift Valley west of Nairobi.

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The railway headquarters, apparently designed by no less than Herbert Baker.

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Entrance. It certainly has the gravitas of Baker's Union Buildings in Pretoria.

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Somebody decided that what was good enough for one building was good enough for another, in this case the law courts, similarly attributed to Baker.

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There's some slight variation in the city hall.

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This building was originally the Bank of India, which in the days before World War I was a major source of funds for European settlers (including Elspeth Huxley's parents, who at Thika, like Karen Blixen on the other side of Nairobi, tried and ultimately failed to make a go of a coffee plantation). The archives, established in 1956 by the British in their declining days, moved here in the late 70s.

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The McMillan Memorial Library was established as a private library in 1931 but became public in 1962.

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All Saints Cathedral comes as a nice bit of medieval relief to the pervading classicism.

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Dates? Sometime between the railway and independence. But signs will surely help.

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Now we're getting somewhere. Coryndon was a South African who joined the Bechuanaland border police, the "top hat brigade." Later he joined the British South Africa Company's police and became a professional big-game hunter, as well as private secretary to Cecil Rhodes. He served for five years as governor of Uganda before landing in Nairobi. His DNB entry says that he left "no philosophical rationale of colonialism. He was the type who wanted to 'get on with the job....'"

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A later addition to the church has its own cornerstone. Grigg was born in Madras, where his father was a member of the Indian Civil Service. After graduating from Oxford, he became a journalist and rose to head the colonial department of The Times in the days when that position mattered. He served as an advisor to the Prince of Wales on a royal tour of the dominions. Later he became private secretary to Lloyd George and an elected member of parliament. Grigg parachuted into Kenya in 1925, where he invited Herbert Baker to spiff up the government's buildings. The railway building and law courts followed. Years after returning to England, Grigg picked up his journalist's pen to write, as Lord Altrincham, Kenya's Opportunity(1955). "The very thoguht of Kenya is like sunlight to me, sunlight crisp as mountain air in the high places of the earth."

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Churches take time, so there's room for yet another cornerstone. A failure at Oxford, Mitchell was hired by the colonial office and sent to Nyasaland as assistant resident, age 23, to administer a district with 80,000 Africans. In the war he joined the King's African Rifles; afterwards, he joined the British military administration in Tanganyika. Soon he was district officer in Tanga and, later, Iringa. Rising to chief secretary, he guided the development of Tanganyika's version of indirect rule. Aged 45, he became governor of Uganda, where he promoted coffee, tea, and sugar, as well as the development of Makerere College. During World War II he was an adviser to General Wavell but was eventually packed off to become governor of Fiji.

He returned to Africa in 1944 as governor of Kenya. Despite this handsome career, the DNB is not kind to Michell, calling him "set in his ways, intolerant of criticism...." A general strike occurred in 1948 and another in 1950, when it was put down with tear gas in the streets of Nairobi. Mitchell retired in 1952, just after a visit by Princess Elizabeth. Oblivious of the dimensions of the Mau Mau insurrection, and apparently enamoured of Kenya, he began farming in the white highlands. Like Grigg, Mitchell found time to write a book: African Afterthoughts (1954). When independence came to Kenya, in 1963, he pulled up stakes and moved to Gibraltar.

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The church itself: somber, subdued, almost gloomy.

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There are plenty of epitaphs, including one for Governor Coryndon. Acute pancreatitis.

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A manager of the Uganda railway.

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An East African police officer, killed in action.

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Before there were governors, Kenya had commissioners. Donald Stewart was the third.

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Comissioner Stewart is buried a mile south of the church.

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Stewart has no biography in the DNB, but this inscription adds a few details, including one suggesting that he was not married.

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Many stones speak of lions. Fritz Schindler, according to a note in the Herefordshire Museum, was an "Austrian hunter 'renowned for his spotless white breeches and gleaming boots, for his daring and his womanising.' He was killed in about 1912 whilst assisting the millionaire American filmmaker Paul Rainey, in photographing a lion charging at the camera." We can correct that date.

Christine Stephanie Nicholls presents a different version of the story. "Fritz Schindler was a strange Swiss white hunter of nervous disposition who had despatched sixty lions in his time, despite being an erratic shot. A good raconteur, he was always reckless to the point of madness when hunting and if he had spectators would indulge in foolhardy actions, such as going up to a dead lion to cut out its heart and eat a piece of the meat. He said an old Maasai had told him this would give you strength. He was working on the Magadi railway in January 1914 when he decided to help the American photographer Cherry Kearton to make a film of a lion hunt. During the filming, an enraged lion, chivvied all morning from place to place, mauled Schindler so severely that his abdomen was split open. He died shortly after he was taken to hospital" (Red Strangers: the White Tribe of Kenya, 2005 pp. 67-8).

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And another.

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Ryall is also remembered on a stone outside the church.

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A lineup of railway workers.

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The Jewish section of the cemetery.

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In the line of duty.

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The wife survived her husband by almost 30 years.

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She survived the loss of her two children even longer.

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War graves.

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Speaking of war graves, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission erected this monument to African forces. A different statue, with a considerably more bellicose posture, was erected in Dar es Salaam.

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The inscription--identical to the one in Dar--was by Kipling, who was a member of the War Graves Commission and took its work very seriously, partly because he had lost his only son in the war.

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So much for churches and mortality. The city's main mosque is a reminder of the Muslims who migrated to the British colony.

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Another view.

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You might well assume that this is an old bank, but you'd be wrong. It's an Ismaili prayer hall, a Jama'at Khana or congregational hall, built in 1920.

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This building, despite a similar tower, was entirely secular. Its name: Kipande House. The name refers to the kipanda or identification cards required by the British and issued here. The building is now a branch of the KCB, a bank created in 1970 with the government's purchase of the shares of the National and Grindlays Bank. That bank was the result of a 1958 merger between the Kenyan branches of the National Bank of India and Grindlays Bank.

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Another bank, Standard Chartered.

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Bits of the old shopping districts survive, too, shabby but intact.

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Another example.

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The date is 1934.

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Something with pretensions to style.

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The name refers to the Silver Jubilee of George V, which dates the building to 1935.

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Apartment buildings.

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The city market, built in the 1960s. The Standard reported on January 4, 2005, that "the shocking rot of Nairobi's main market was exposed yesterday when it was revealed that 6,000 rats were killed in last week's cleanup exercise--and an equal number made good their escape."

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