Nairobi

The Best Western Plus Meridian sits in downtown Nairobi. A Best Western in Nairobi, Kenya, struck me as odd, but I never found out how this happened. I’m not sure anyone at the site would have known, simply because their “radar screen” was narrow. It seems to be another fact lost in the mists of time, and their website holds no clues.

It’s a nice hotel, though, and the staff are very nice, too. It has a small, but nice, good-for-cooling-off-and-not-much-else pool on the roof, along with a bar, spa, fitness room, and lounging area, all on the roof also. (The fitness room has a great view of the traffic jams that you’re not in!) The first floor restaurant is good, and the coffee bar makes a respectable cafe mocha.

View from the fitness room at the Best Western Plus Meridian.
Downtown Nairobi from the hotel roof.

And, it’s in downtown Nairobi, a central location for experiencing the city. Lonely Planet describes Nairobi as “gritty.” It’s true. Nairobi has bad traffic and a bad reputation for petty crime, as in purse-snatching or pickpocketing, and even violent robberies, mainly at night. I never had a problem, but I didn’t walk around Nairobi by myself, nor did I go out at night by myself. (I don’t go out at night by myself anywhere that I’m not familiar with.) During this walking tour of Nairobi, I was accompanied by Wallace, one of the hotel’s go-to guides.

Arab traders came to Kenya first. If you have been reading earlier posts, you know that Swahili, the unifying language in Kenya, is a mash-up of local African languages and Arabic. Indians came next, and were in Kenya as early as the 15th century when Vasco de Gama came exploring. As the Portuguese traders began displacing the Arab traders, eventually cracking the Arabs’ commercial dominance, the Indian accountants and bankers began working for the Portuguese, just as they had for the Arab traders.

By the 1800s, Indian merchants were settling in many places in East Africa. In the late 1800s, the British established naval superiority in the area, displacing Oman’s sultan. The British followed this by moving the East Africa Association, originally founded in Bombay, to Mombasa, a city on the coast of Kenya.

Between 1896 and 1901, approximately thirty-two thousand indentured workers were recruited from India to work on a railroad to Uganda. Some of these workers settled in the area and then brought their families after the railway was completed. The railway opened the interior part of East Africa for trade, and some Indians migrated toward the interior settlements.

Europeans were the next large immigration, and beginning in 1902, they were given large tracts of land in the White Highlands. These cooler highlands were more desirable to the Europeans and were reserved for them by the government. Excluding Kenyans, Indians and other Asians from these lands created friction between the British and other Europeans that lasted for decades.

Denied land in the highlands, many Indians moved to the “new town” of Nairobi. The British East Africa Association was taken over by the British East Africa Protectorate, who declared Nairobi as their capital, and Indians were allowed to settle there, but black Africans were not. As was happening elsewhere in Africa, people were being segregated by color – being Indian was more acceptable than being black African, and the white British retained political power.

In 1900, the Indians had organized the Mombasa Indian Association, backed by wealthy Indian businessmen Allidini Visram and the Juvanjee brothers, to protect the interests of the resident Indian population. The Indian community had considerable economic leverage, which in turn gave them political leverage, and this was their first political organization. By 1927, Indians used their political leverage to obtain five seats on the legislative council, as opposed to the eleven seats reserved for Europeans. Both groups denied any participation for black Africans.

After WWII, Indians and other Asians were found in all occupations – police, bureaucracy, professions, and in business. Their skills in commerce and administration helped bring prosperity to Kenya and East Africa generally. The 1950s saw the growth of anti-colonial feeling, and Asians pushed for increased rights.

By 1962, the Indians dominated the urban political community. They were two percent of the population, but thirty-three percent of Nairobi’s population, where they dominated the business community and owned approximately seventy-five percent of “non-agricultural private assets.” There were many buildings with Indian names.

Indian citizens invested in their communities. Here, one of the Juvanjee brothers created a neighborhood park. Like many things in Nairobi, it has not been kept up – maintenance costs money, and there have been other priorities.

In 1964, Kenya won their independence, led by Jomo Kenyatta, who served as their first president. Jomo Kenyatta stayed in office for 14 years, until he died in 1978. The airport in Nairobi and the major street are named after him, along with many other buildings.

He was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who served as president for 24 years, the longest serving president to date. In his later years, he was accused of abusing human rights and corruption. Moi designated Uhuru Kenyatta (Jomo’s son) as his successor, but Mwai Kibaki won the election. Kibaki, too, became controversial.

After turmoil that boiled over into violence, and rejecting a proposed constitution in 2005, Kenyans approved the new Constitution proposed in 2010, and Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president. Kenyatta was re-elected in a controversial 2017 election where much of his campaign reportedly was managed by Cambridge Analytica. Kenyatta is still president today.

Independence also began a period of friction and political conflict between Africans and Asians. Black Africans were assumed to be Kenyan citizens. All others – Indians and whites – were given two years to apply for Kenyan citizenship and surrender their British or Indian passports. Those who chose not to become Kenyan citizens were viewed with suspicion.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indians and Europeans who held British passports were discriminated against by the Kenyatta government, and left for Britain to re-settle. While those days are behind them, the perception of government corruption clings — a couple of people at the Meridian complained to me about the corruption of the bureaucracy and that the leaders allowed it to remain. They wanted to know how to become more like America.

There is a market in the downtown, inside the old arena. The vendors are mainly florists and sellers of souvenirs, art work, and crafts.

There are other high-rises, and they are visible from the top of the gigantic convention center.

A beautiful old library…

And a modern-era mosque

And war heroes. As with other former British colonies, Kenyans were recruited into the military during the World Wars, and there are monuments commemorating their sacrifices around Nairobi and other parts of Kenya.

Vintage buildings are hidden behind newer and less aesthetic storefronts.

The Stanley Hotel, originally built in 1902, and still privately owned, is a bright spot. It has been moved or re-built three times since 1902, to accommodate the collection of famous and rich people who were going on safari in Kenya.

I think the most famous would be Ernest Hemingway. A safari would be well within Hemingway’s mode of living on the edge. The Stanley Hotel has memorialized Hemingway, among others.

Ernest Hemingway photo in the historic Stanley Hotel, Nairobi.

But before there was Hemingway, there were Mr. Stanley and Dr. Livingstone. Those who are “of a certain age” remember the phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It was the catch-phrase from the famous journey of Mr. Stanley, a Scot, who set out to find Dr. Livingstone. Dr. Livingstone explored much of Africa in the 1800s, including the Zambezi River. That mission ended in 1864, and made Dr. Livingstone famous in Britain and Europe, but after setting out on a new exploration, he disappeared and was not heard from for six years.

Mr. Stanley, whose journey was sponsored by newspapers and private donations, found him, and uttered the words that became famous for their irony, since Dr. Livingstone was the only other white man for several hundred square miles. The adventure was made into a movie in the early 1940s, starring a young Spencer Tracy, and the phrase lived on through several generations.

Dr. Livingstone died a couple of years after being “found,” a natural death from malaria and dysentery. His body was mummified locally, and ultimately was buried in Westminster Abbey. Mr. Stanley continued to explore Africa, which is probably why the hotel is named for him and not Dr. Livingstone.

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?” Spencer Tracy plays Stanley in the story according to Hollywood.

Today, the Stanley Hotel is still a luxury hotel, and the original humble “Thorn Tree” bulletin board has been replaced with a swanky cafe.

The Thorn Tree Cafe in the modernized Stanley Hotel, Nairobi.

There is private lounge space for people who are trying to work, and the original bar is still there, awaiting their presence when they’re done!

The current bar of the Stanley Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya.

Out on the street again, we came to an open air market. It was aimed at tourists rather than locals, but still had interesting things happening. Here, an exchange student from the U.S. and the vendor were having an impromptu drum session.

Impromptu drum session in the open air market of Nairobi.

Do you remember the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, and the simultaneous bombing of our embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998? Kenya does. Twelve Americans were killed, and two hundred ninety Kenyans and Tanzanians. This park was built on the former embassy site as a memorial to the victims.

The people and businesses who donated to the memorial, an interesting list, are these:

The names of those killed by the bomb’s blast are memorialized on a wall within the park.

Features of the park have symbolic meaning, especially to Kenyans: stones, gathered from Kenyan river beds line the pathway, symbolizing resilience in the face of terrorism and violence; the plants and trees are indigenous to Kenya, and include plants that are considered sacred to many Kenyan communities, and pay tribute to the diversity of those communities; the fountain is made in the form of Yin-Yang, symbolizing two sides of life, turbulence and tranquility.

There is a building in the park, utilized as meeting space, an effort to promote talking instead of killing. Inside the small museum that occupies part of the first floor, there are photos and other displays that relate the events of August 7th, and describe the aftermath. One of the other displays is a column of about a dozen quotes from famous people, quotes related to violence, peace, and change. They are Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, Margaret Mead, Martin Luther King, Jr., Chinua Achebe, Confucius, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Wanagari Maathai. The quote I liked best, however, was from Lyndon Johnson: “The guns and bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.”

What happened? On August 7, 1998, two men in a truck pulled into the exit lane from the parking lot at the rear of the U.S. embassy, and demanded entry. The guards – who were unarmed – refused. The guards tried to call for help, but the single radio frequency and the phones were all busy. Shortly, the bomb exploded at the rear parking lot. Simultaneously, a truck pulled up to the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the guards also refused entry, and the truck bomb was detonated at the gate. Eleven Tanzanians were killed, and eighty-five injured.

In Kenya, the U.S. embassy was situated at major intersection – Moi Avenue and Haile Selassi Avenue. Nearby the embassy were the railway station and a busy bus station, which meant that many more people were killed and injured beyond the embassy staff.

Notice that the force of the blast blew out all of the windows in the building nearby.

U.S. Marines were deployed to secure and guard the Kenyan site. First responders were allowed in, and embassy staff were kept at the site. Those at the site searched the rubble for survivors, teams from around the world joined the search and rescue, and sadly, to recover bodies.

All told, Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Americans, about five thousand people were hurt in this chapter of Osama bin Laden’s jihad.

The four men directly involved with the bombings were tried in U.S. Federal Court in New York City, in March, 2001. The U.S. Constitution limits its jurisdiction to crimes committed against U.S. citizens, although the scope of the deaths and injuries from the incident were made known to the jury.

They were found guilty on three hundred two counts of murder, and are serving life imprisonment without parole. Many were satisfied, but many were disappointed that they were not sentenced to death.

It was moving to read the account of the attack and view the photos. I felt drained at the end.

Interesting, and less emotionally draining, was the Natural History Museum.

Ahmed of Marsabit, a “big tusker” from northern Kenya.

Ahmed, born in 1919, lived in northern Kenya, in the Marsabit National Preserve. He became famous for the size of his tusks – 68 kg/148 lbs each – and for his Presidential bodyguard. President Jomo Kenyatta was subjected to a post card campaign by school children pleading for Ahmed to be protected, and in 1970, President Kenyatta declared Ahmed a national treasure and assigned five rangers to guard Ahmed day and night from poachers.

Tales grew up around Ahmed, the most famous being that the bull elephant had to “walk backwards to go uphill.” Hard to know if that’s true, no one produced evidence, but there are photographs that show Ahmed resting his head on his tusks.

In 1974, Ahmed was found by his bodyguards (maybe 24/7 not strictly observed?) leaning against a tree, dead, but not poached, at least not successfully. His tusks were intact. He was officially declared to have died of natural causes, but there is some controversy. An autopsy was performed, and there were found two now-antique bullets in his stomach, which generated speculation that these were what killed him, although it took a long time.

His skeleton, including the tusks, is now displayed in the National Museum, with a security team focused on him to prevent theft of the tusks. A replica of Ahmed, as he appeared in life, stands outside the museum.

Since Ahmed’s death, and in response to more public awareness of elephant poaching, closer security has been given to elephants generally, but no presidential protection has been extended again to individual elephants.

After Ahmed, the skeletons of early hominids seemed dull and academic, but the museum does have some notable specimens. One is pictured below:

An interesting juxtaposition is presented by the side-by-side display of a human skeleton with a chimpanzee skeleton. The differences are listed, although it’s easy to see them if you look, and they illustrate the adjustments from life in the trees to life on the ground.

Below is Fossil KNM-WT 15000, or “Turkana Boy” to his friends. Turkana Boy was between seven and eleven years old when he died. He is about 1.6 million years old, and the most complete fossil of an early human to date, at least, as of 1984 when he was found. Turkana Boy is so named because he was found on the bank of the Nariokotome River, near Lake Turkana.

Kamoya Kimeu is the name of the fossil collector who found him. Apparently, Kimeu is well-known in the fossil-collectors’ world, having started his career with Louis and Mary Leakey, also well-known. Kimeu was recognized by the National Geographic Society in a ceremony at the White House, with a NG award presented by President Ronald Reagan. Turkana Boy now resides at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.

The final stop in Nairobi was the statue of Dedan Kimathi Wachiuri, who became famous in the Mau-Mau Uprising of the 1950s. The Mau-Mau were not a tribe, although many of their members came from the Kikuyu tribes. Rather, they began as a group of landless farmers, farmers who had lost out as land was distributed by the Europeans to other European settlers, just as the Indians lost out (discussed at the beginning of this.) The Mau-Mau name’s origin is not known, or maybe just “overlooked.” One museum historian said the phrase meant “kill, kill,” which isn’t exactly the publicity Kenya would want as it became independent.

Jomo Kenyatta and the Kenya African Union (KAU) had been pressing Britain for political rights and land reform since 1945, but not making much progress. A group of KAU activists, impatient for reform and independence, broke away and formed the Mau-Mau, a militant group that used violence to fight the British for independence. It was a violent and bloody time in Kenya.

During this time, Dedan Kimathi became a leader in the Mau-Mau movement. In 1957, he was wounded, imprisoned, and hanged by the British.

By 1960, Britain and the KAU were negotiating, and in 1964, Kenya became independent. The Mau-Mau are given part of the credit for independence because they certainly made Kenya painful to keep for the British.

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