State of city statues

By Mwaura Samora

NAIROBI,kENYA:Statues are pieces of history that immortalise heroes, heroines or events in mortar, stone, bronze or wood. Their artistic relevance borders poetry or paintings hence more often than not their creators are as famous as the subjects.

Statues are usually placed in strategic positions like street corners, public squares and on top of tall buildings. Being one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, Nairobi boasts of several landmark statues of historical significance. The Nairobian takes a look at some of the major ones:

World War Memorial: The Forgotten Soldiers

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The three bronze men stand tall, their heads held high and their unseeing eyes focused on the perpetual flow of traffic on Kenyatta Avenue. Their attire and pose — though static — reminds those keen enough to look, of the era of war heroes and heroines. Beyond the obvious fact that the monument was erected to honour the fallen heroes of the two World Wars, very little is known about ‘The Three Musketeers’.

A sign at the pedestal indicates that the monument “is to the memory of the native troops who fought: To carriers who were the feet and hands of the army: And to all other men who served and died for their King and Country in Eastern Africa in the Great War, 1914-1918”.

These statues were the subjected of heated debate in Parliament in 1984 when the then Local Government Assistant Minister Njenga Mungai revealed plans to remove and substitute them with Mau Mau hero Dedan Kimathi’s statue. This stirred national debate.

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The then President Moi laid the matter to rest by ordering that the monument be left in place and those wishing to erect one for Dedan Kimathi look for another site. A few weeks later, Mzee Kitiku wa Mukuu from Makueni, a veteran of both world wars, came out claiming that he was the barefooted gun bearer with a walking stick.

The veteran soldier, known by his Kamba nom de guerre Mukua Ivuti (Gun Bearer) claimed that the trio were honoured after eliminating a German sniper, who had claimed many lives in Mbuyuni in Taita.

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Kimathi Statue

Standing gallantly with a typical guerilla’s tools of trade — a dagger and a rifle — and symbolically guarding a street named after him many years after his eternal departure, the commissioning of the Dedan Kimathi came as a great honour to Mau Mau freedom fighters. Unlike all the other heroes whose statues grace the city’s landscape today, Kimathi is the only one who died a prisoner and was buried in a yet-to-be-found grave. The statue was unveiled on February 18, 2007.

“One of the biggest challenges in designing the monument is that the popular image of Dedan Kimathi emblazoned in T-shirts is very distorted hence it was very hard to develop the statue from it,” says Kevin Oduor, the Kuona Trust-based artist who designed the statue.

“I had to work from a blurry video of him being taken to court and after the image was complete his wife Mukami had to come and confirm that indeed it was a true reflection.”

Kevin, who also designed the Usain Bolt-like Syokimau Statue says although he is glad that the image is part of the city’s scenery, he is disappointed that Kenyatta University, the institution that commissioned him to work on the project, failed to give him credit. He says the tradition is for the creator’s name to be scribbled at the base of major works of art as a sign of recognition.

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“Many people have tried to claim credit for this piece of work, but fortunately I have numerous documents and videos of the entire process to prove I am the creator,” he says.

Kevin explains that although he knows the total cost of erecting the statue, he is not ready to reveal the exact figure as he claims there are still unresolved issues on payment that he is trying to sort out.

“The statue was supposed to be life-size, but I realised that it was quite small given that it was to be mounted high. I decided to add one extra foot, which the commissioners didn’t know,” Kevin reveals for the first time.

Jomo Kenyatta

Unveiled in 1973 to mark the country’s 10th Independence anniversary and the opening of the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the imposing statue of Kenya’s first president was designed by British sculptor James Butler. 

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The artistic acumen of the Briton is in no doubt since the 12-foot bronze image astonishingly resembles Kenyatta up to a facial birthmark. Seated on a high pedestal at the middle of the KICC court, the towering figure depicts the grandeur of an ageing godfather watching over those going and coming from the landmark building.

Designed in England, the monument lifted the stature of James Butler from a simple art teacher to a world-renowned sculptor. It was shipped from England to the port of Mombasa before being towed by a truck to KICC grounds.

There is also another statue of Jomo Kenyatta inside the Parliament compound that was erected in 1964. Unlike the one at KICC where he is comfortably seated, in Parliament, Kenyatta is standing.

The fact that both statues were designed in England shows how dependent the new nation was to its former colonial master.

Tom Mboya

Although quite recent compared to its peers in the city, the Tom Mboya monument is perhaps one of the most visited statues in the city. Fans of Gor Mahia Football Club – a team also known as K’Ogalo – have made it a habit to religiously congregate at the monument after every game to supposedly pay homage to the former Nairobi Central (Kamukunji) MP and Minister for Economic Planning and Development.

The popular post-independence politician was shot dead a few metres from where his statue stands on July 5, 1969 on Government Road, since renamed Moi Avenue. Sculptured by the self-trained Oshoto Ondula at a record Sh20 million over a period of three years, the Tom Mboya monument is a piece of artistic work of bronze, standing on a rocky pedestal to symbolise Rusinga Island, the icon’s place of origin. It was unveiled by former President Kibaki during the Mashujaa Day in 2011.

“The materiality on stone imitation, though a robust move, is quickly brought back into place by the reality that it resides within giants in the names of the Kenya National Archives, the Norwich Union Building and the Hilton,” says architectural expert Billy Mwangi on his site, archidatum.com.

Despite being one of the most recent statues to be erected in the city, parts of the monument have been damaged, thanks to football hooligans. Speaking to The Nairobian, the National Museums of Kenya said the duty of maintaining statues lies squarely with the Nairobi county government.

“The museum only offers technical advice to the city and town authorities,” says Hosea Wanderi, a research scientist at the Directorate of Regional Museums Sites and Monuments.

Hamilton Fountain: The ‘Naked Justice’ Boy

This statue of a boy holding a fish and sprinkling water from its genitalia once caused a fuss when Maendeleo Ya Wanaume Organisation, a lobby group that claims to advocate for the rights of men, said the sculpture was demeaning and abusive to the boy child.

“It does not portray naked justice but instead it portrays naked injustice,” said Nderitu Njoka, the chairman of the lobby group.

The naked boy holding a fish is supposed to underline the fact that although justice should be bare and as fearless as a child in the nude, it is sometimes elusive or as slippery as a wet fish in the hands.

Although it is popularly known as ‘The Naked Boy’, its official name is the Hamilton Fountain and it was commissioned in honour of lawyer Alexander George Hamilton, who died in 1937. It is one of the best maintained monuments across the city given the fact that its fountains have been spewing for the last seven decades.

Other statues across Nairobi include the Nyayo Monument in Central Park, the Galton-Fenzi Memorial or the Nairobi Military Stone located at the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Koinange Street (erected in 1939 in memory of Lionel Douglas Galton-Fenzi who founded the Automobile Association of Kenya in 1919 and pioneered road transport in the country).  The monument is also said to be the focal point from where distances to various parts of the country are measured.

The other less known monument in Nairobi is that of Syokimau that was erected in honour of the eponymous Kamba prophetess, who is said to have foretold the coming of the railway long ago.

Twitter: @MwauraSamora

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