The website of the Nairobi Arboretum says that it is one of Nairobi’s few remaining green spaces’. Is that really so? I suppose it depends on how you define a green space.
When I first drove to Nairobi from Mombasa docks back in 1967, apart from the sight of our first elephant by the side of the road through Tsavo, and the surprise that the stretch from Mtito Andei to Hunters Lodge was not tarmacked, I remember the sign at the outskirts of Nairobi that said, ‘Welcome to the green city in the sun’.
But it was in the mid-1970s, when I looked out over the city from the top floor of the KICC, that I fully realised how amazingly green Nairobi was. Apart from the CBD, there was an almost unbroken cover of green —not only over Lavington, Loresho and Muthaiga, but all around. Yes, it is different now – as I could see when I enjoyed a lunch at the revolving restaurant in the tower of the Mövenpick Hotel. There are now many more buildings that puncture the green cover.
However, I reckon that Nairobi must still be one of the greenest cities in the world. I have been lucky to have travelled in all but one of the seven continents. I can’t think of any of the cities I have visited that is greener than Nairobi. And I don’t think I would find a greener one in the continent I haven’t yet visited – Antarctica.
Nevertheless, Nairobi’s Arboretum is a very special place, whether compared with the many leafy suburbs, the Uhuru or City Parks, or even the Karura or Ngong forests. Like all arboretums anywhere, it is a place where trees and shrubs from all over the world are cultivated for scientific, educational and aesthetic purposes. But, so the website tells us, the Nairobi Arboretum had a less lofty and more practical purpose.
When it was established way back in 1907 by a Mr Battiscombe, who was then the deputy conservator of forests, it was intended as a trial site for exotic trees. It seems the indigenous trees that the railway relied on were getting used up faster than they could be regenerated. The railway engines were fuelled by the steam from burning logs. That went on right till 1952, when diesel engines took over.
The Arboretum is managed by the Kenya Forest Service and Friends of Nairobi Arboretum – a very energetic community forest association – and both have informative websites about its history, its attractions and its activities.
My wife and I went for a walk there last Sunday. We immediately noticed some changes since we were last there. The carpark was full, and there is now a small charge for entrance – only 65 shillings, whether you are a citizen, a resident or a tourist. Very good value for money!
The main walkways are now paved. Soon after the gates, the ways diverged. And, like the poet Robert Frost, we took the one less travelled by. Better still, we took some of the side tracks – under splendid trees and through a tangle of undergrowth. We were in the woods as nature meant them to be – and less than three kilometres from the CBD.
We did a loop of the paths, and on the way back we passed a woman who had found a secluded spot where she could pray. Then, in the open glades, there were small devotional meetings. There was a group enjoying team building exercises. Another group was having a barbecue. All of them were quite young.
So the arboretum can be a private or a social place. You can walk or jog; you can commune with nature – with the trees and with the birds – or you can meet and enjoy a picnic with friends. I wonder what that Mr Battiscombe would think, if he could see what has happened to his wood fuel project.