Unhappy birthday as City of Nairobi  turns 119 years

Aerial view of the Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. The city turns 119-years-old this week. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Slums have mushroomed in the city and today we have more than 200 such settlements holding more than 2.5 million people.
  • Urban planning is alien to the city and it operates without any master plan.

  • In place of an organised transport system which was in the 1948 master plan has emerged a nightmare of matatus and boda bodas.

Some 119 years ago next week Nairobi was born — not as a town but as an obscure railway depot; the only flat place remaining for the railway engineers as they prepared for the complex climb up the Rift Valley escarpment.

To all those thinking that President Uhuru Kenyatta and Governor Mike Sonko will solve Nairobi’s problems, use your bet for something else. Nairobi has a bigger structural problem — and the best they can do is to kick-start the process.

Nairobi is a sad story, but all is not lost if we get the right leadership for it.


Nairobi’s problems started on the afternoon of May 30, 1899 when the Uganda Railway reached Mile 327 the name given to this depot by Engineer Sir George Whitehouse as he prepared for the arduous task ahead of building a permanent line up and down the escarpment. When Mr Whitehouse selected this site, he never consulted any medical or sanitary authorities to check whether it had proper drainage or if it would be suitable for a large and growing population.

The problem was that nobody thought that a city would ever emerge here and Eng Whitehouse was least bothered with what the Indian “tenderpreneurs” — the likes of A.M. Jeevanje — and traders were doing behind the back of the railway administration.

Mr Jevanjee — who would later donate Jeevanjee Gardens to the people of Nairobi — had been given the contract to supply labour to the railway and is credited for shipping thousands of Indians into Kenya to work for Imperial British East Africa (the company collecting taxes for British government), the Uganda Railway and to work for his company, A.M. Jeevanjee, which had been given the contract to build government offices, railway stations, post offices as well as supply foodstuff and railway construction materials. For that, the Indians in Nairobi respected Jeevanjee and he led them to agitate for equitable treatment.


Nairobi is having an unhappy birthday and, most likely, and as usual, there will be no celebrations to mark the event. Instead, residents will be agonising about the deterioration of services and wondering how they ended up in what was described by Mr Whitehouse in 1898 as a “windswept, desolate place”.

Nairobi has ever since been run on a trial-and-error basis and Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko is continuing with a legacy of inept leadership and petty wars that have always been part and parcel of the city.

From the very beginning, naysayers dismissed the location of Nairobi and argued that no town would rise in the middle of the nyika (hinterland) without a waterfront or minerals. And they gave examples of Cairo founded in 969, Johannesburg founded in 1886 and Cape Town in 1652 — a story well told in Robert Maxon’s autobiography of John Ainsworth, the founder of Nairobi.

As the first administrator for Nairobi, Mr Ainsworth was caught up in daily feuds with railway officials since his arrival from Machakos where he was managing the bankrupt IBEA. He had apparently been asked to take up the position of the sub-commissioner for Nairobi and to co-ordinate the planning of the administrative centre.


All along, he had thought that Machakos, where he had planted eucalyptus trees and lined up some of the modern-day boulevards — would emerge as the future capital of a British colony. He was wrong — or rather, he was incensed when the railway engineers skirted the town, a move that killed Machakos’ dreams of becoming a city.

And because of that, Mr Ainsworth was always at loggerheads with the railway officials and when he arrived and found that one of his IBEA official Francis Hall of Fort Smith in Dagoretti had befriended the railway managers he transferred him to Machakos. In turn, Hall never hid his dislike for Mr Ainsworth. He once wrote: “These fellows, brought up behind a counter, get too big for their boots and make life unbearable for others.”

And with such battles, Nairobi’s growth and planning was stymied.


What we know now, is that Mr Hall was a “social snob” too and even looked down at Mr Ainsworth’s American wife, Inca, for the simple reason that Inca’s sister was married to Mr Hall’s cashier! It was this contempt that would eventually see Mr Hall transferred to the troublesome Murang’a in 1900 where he established the modern-day town, which until independence was known as Fort Hall. But he only stayed there for one year and died of dysentery aged 32. He is buried at the little cemetery in Murang’a town.

Actually, apart from the railway engineers, workers and the Indian traders, nobody loved this swampy site. Mr Ainsworth had requested the railway engineers — who acted as the government — to allocate him sites to build government quarters and a trading centre. He was allocated some marshy sites next to Nairobi River, modern day Biashara Street and parts of River Road.

Nobody cared about garbage disposal. There were no toilets and as Ronald Hardy recounted in the book Iron Snake, Nairobi was only remembered for its “galleries of hut and hovel, the stench and the garbage and the fecal matter.”  It was no surprise that in 1901 — thanks to tens of thousands of rats — a plague broke out in Nairobi killing many traders. That was repeated in 1990 when a strain of bubonic plague broke out in Embakasi as a result of uncollected garbage, an indicator that we had not learnt any lessons 90 years later.


The reason for such an outbreak was due to poor planning of the town. The first Nairobi Committee ( town managers) was biased against the Indians and indigenous Kenyans and adopted differential treatment on sanitary matters. Archival reports show that for instance, the Indian bazaar was unplanned and filthy and although the Indians complained to the township committee nothing was done.

What was written about Nairobi more than 100 years ago — and the way it discriminated between the poor and the elite neighbourhoods — could still make sense today: “(In poor neighbourhoods) the filth is incredible. Garbage rots in uncleaned heaps. Rats abound. Meat and other edibles hang within inches of human ordure and all of it stinks in the tropical sun… (But) as one crosses the stepping-stones of the Nairobi River (this is today’s Museums Hill Bridge)…all (is) in good order and cleanliness but again, it is evidently thought proper (that) the sewage should run along open cement channels and into a river from which most of the population draws its water.”

Actually, and unknown to many, Nairobi River was deliberately polluted with sewage. Does it surprise anyone that today industries still pour raw effluent into it?


It is now wonder that the pioneer medical officer, Dr W.H. MacDonald was convinced that Nairobi was being built in the wrong place or what the principal medical officer of East Africa and Uganda protectorate, Dr Moffat described as “dangerous” and “very defective.”  In an April 1903 report, Dr Moffat regretted that the opportunity of the 1901 plague was not utilised “to carry out this somewhat heroic measure” of removing Nairobi from the plains.

A year after he wrote that report, another plague broke in 1904 and the decision on what to do with this railway-cum-trading centre was left to Major J. W. Pringle, an inspector of the railways who was attached to Nairobi’s board of trade. He said: “As a station site, the level ground commends itself to a railway engineer. As the site for a future capital of East Africa and for permanent buildings for Europeans, the sanitary engineer and the medical expert condemn it. Under this circumstance, I cannot but urge on His Majesty’s government the desirability of further considering the question before the construction of numerous buildings of a permanent type pledges them hopelessly to the adoption of a bad site,” wrote Pringle.

But nobody listened in London, after all they thought Nairobi would not grow to anything with its insanitation, rats, plague and swamps. It is the same way we watch the city’s chaotic growth with matatus and boda bodas as part of transport system.


That kind of thinking and lethargy was witnessed in April 1904 when Major William John Radford succeeded Dr Moffat as medical officer. Although he deplored the selection of Nairobi site, he decided not to do anything because of the “enormous expenses” that would be involved. He wrote: “It is too late to entertain the proposal of moving elsewhere,” he wrote. “Permanent buildings have been erected…trade and other vested interests have arisen all of which would demand compensation for compulsory removal. I do not consider the result gained by removal would be anything like commensurate with the expenditure it would entail.”

And that thinking was accepted despite protest by senior officials including Sir James Sadler, the Commissioner for the East African Protectorate, who on May 18, 1906 asked Winston Churchill to help resolve the problem of Nairobi.

Although Sadler told Churchill, by then Secretary of State for the colonies, that Nairobi was a “depression with a very thin layer of soil (and that) the soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year”, it appears that London had already made up its mind.


Churchill wrote back and refused to make any decision: “It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country.”

Fast forward to 119 years later, Nairobi is still grappling with its leadership problems. It still retains its bylaws borrowed from South Africa; and is the victim of a master plan of 1948 which was more about segregation than delivery of services. This was the kind of Nairobi that we inherited in 1963 and ever since the development of the road networks, lighting, water and sewer systems still follow the income levels.

The colonial bylaws that were anti-African and anti-business — and which were first prescribed by the notorious Muthaiga Township Committee then an exclusive suburb of Nairobi’s European community— are still in place.


Slums have mushroomed in the city and today we have more than 200 such settlements holding more than 2.5 million people. Urban planning is alien to the city and it operates without any master plan. The housing challenge, lack of basic  infrastructure — especially  sanitation,  drainage,  and access  to  energy  and  clean  water — still dogs Nairobi, 119 years later.

To make matters worse, only 220,000 households in the city are supplied with water and although Nairobi water company pumps 550,000 cubic litres a day to the city, 40 per cent of this is never accounted for and is either siphoned or leaks to the ground — thanks to aged pipes and illegal connections.

In place of an organised transport system which was in the 1948 master plan has emerged a nightmare of matatus and boda bodas.

As Nairobi turns 119 —its problems are more than Mike Mbuvi Sonko and I can bet he won’t solve them as long as Nairobi has no working master plan. We all know how Mayor Steve ‘Magic’ Mwangi’s attempts were thwarted and frustrated.

But all, in all, happy birthday, the City of Nairobi.

Kamau is a Senior Writer with NMG. Email: [email protected]; @johnkamau1