Every year in early October, the majestic jacaranda trees beautify Nairobi with their attractive violet flowers that change the outlook of the city’s tree line.
However, this time around, the usual bloom is missing – or at least it is not as spectacular as it used to be.
Reason? The decades-old jacaranda trees that once lined either side of Kenyatta Avenue, in the stretch from the GPO past Serena Hotel and All Saints Cathedral, have since been cut down to make way for ongoing infrastructure development.
When the British left Kenya at the end of their colonial rule in the 1960s, one of the things they left us was the gift of the jacaranda tree.
Kevin Masabule, born and raised in Nairobi, remembers the days he used to walk in town and notice windblown purple buds flying towards him, putting a smile on his face
The buds from the jacaranda trees reminded him of “the essence of time. The blossoming of the jacarandas trees, which occurs around this time of the year, fills me with hope and optimism”.
The presence of the jacaranda tree in Kenya is unusual in the sense that it has little, if any, utilitarian value. The British were building a colony and they planted trees to help them in that enterprise.
The jacaranda was purely an ornamental plant.
It spoke to a particular colonial whimsy, and, much like Elspeth Huxley’s flame trees, served to remind the British of the beautiful homes that they had left in merry old England to embark on the process of civilising the harsh terrains that were Africa.
However, long gone are the days you will feel fresh air in Nairobi, filled with scented purple flowers painting a beautiful picture of the city.
The photos littering social media under the hashtag #jacarandapropaganda are from other parts of the city and country.
“Nairobi is a paradox. A lot of people are in a hurry, looking for the next meal, it is chaotic, sometimes, a walk beneath the splendid blooming jacarandas in Jevanjee gardens in the midst of the chaos brings a lot of calmness,” argues Masabule.
“The trees blossom but they are the same ones being cut down to pave the way for road expansion. The beautiful trees have been sacrificed for malls, which will be abandoned by lights too blinding to the eyes. A sad imitation of modernity.”
Despite, heavy traffic, air and noise pollution and poor roads, Nairobians took the hashtag more seriously and made it a small online celebration of the beauty of a city every October.
In February 2022, the Chinese firm that built the Nairobi Expressway revealed that it had cut down at least 2,500 trees to build the double-decker road, according to an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The jacaranda trees on Kenyatta Avenue, down towards the Serena, were cut down for the entire stretch, from the Kenyatta Avenue-Uhuru Highway roundabout to Ngong Road.
This was to facilitate the construction of two overpasses and a series of road interchanges to link Ngong Road to the city centre.
The Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) in November last year said the project, estimated to cost Sh2.9 billion, will be completed in 2023 and will include building a viaduct at Valley Road-Kenyatta Avenue intersection from Integrity Centre to the Serena.
Joseph Silali, an environmental filmmaker at Laudato Si Animator Kenya, an NGO that brings the Catholic community together to care for the common home and achieve climate and ecological justice, says the importance of trees is to combat noise pollution.
“I do not fault the construction of roads but trees have big importance; they combat noise pollution, but we should not look at the short impact solutions. The county should take into account the needs of future generations, for which trees and jacaranda (specifically) have a definite impact in our history,” Silali says.
“They should have at least worked out the alternatives or even replanted the same trees around the road reserves … sometimes development goes hand in hand with destruction. They should have told us how the trees were replaced.”
Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja recently, defended the county from public attacks after staff cut down the branches of an iconic tree on Kenyatta Avenue.
Mr Sakaja explained that the pruning followed an outcry from pedestrians about an invasion of marabou stork.
The governor initially said he had ordered an internal probe into the incident.
He also said that officials from the county’s Environment department had assured him that the tree will be nurtured to regrow its branches.
He reiterated that the county government will increase the tree cover in the city.