The discordant fences of jagged rusty iron sheets have formed miniature unkempt prisons around the once airy residence. This has created a slum and paled an estate that was once home to some of East Africa’s finest politicians.
To access this cradle of democracy, a visitor must jump around numerous puddles of stinking water and weather the zombie-like gazes from small groups of stoned faced youth. Here, miraa is the holy communion, washed down by liberal sips from glasses of potent cheap gin around open-air coffee tables.
Although it is long before 5.00pm, the official opening time of pubs, a party of sorts is underway, under a cover of wisps of blue smoke wafting up the foggy atmosphere accentuated by a lingering smell of bhang.
Sands of time
The din from makeshift garages operating right at the door steps of residential houses act as music to the lounging youths. Rusty fences have created a maze of meandering alleys in the overcrowded estate. A haven for muggers.
A walk down the frightening alleys of Ziwani estate is uninspiring and the only glitter in the horizon is from a colourful billboard announcing that the paving of the main road is the work of Governor Mike Sonko and area MCA Millicent Mugadi. Across the road, a county notice mocks their smiling faces, announcing,”we apologies for any inconveniences”.
Tucked right in the middle of the chaotic alleys stands house number 38, which has miraculously survived the sands of time. Unfenced and with a little space to stretch a leg, the block resembles an island which has withstood devastating storms.
Its once white walls wear a coat of dirty brown, and its small concrete canopy at the entrance host some weeds. Black telephone wires, once a status symbol, uselessly dangle from a ventilation high above a window.
The pavement, which was once trodden by the ‘who is who’ in Kenya’s liberation politics, have disappeared. And so have the flowers and the trees which once embraced visitors with their enticing aroma.
It has been more than 60 years since the famous tenant of house number 38 left the estate. However, memories of the days Tom Joseph Mboya occupied the two bed room are still fresh.
These memories light up the lives of the tenants of the ancient estate which, if Nairobi County has its way, will soon be flattened.
Thomas Okida smiles when asked whether he is aware of the house’s rich past: “Of course, I know this is where Tom Mboya used to live. He left the house to my cousin, Dr Okida who was married to Mboya’s sister. I was born in this house in 1970 and I have in turn inherited it.”
It is from this house that the colonial police force executed one of its most daring operations. Sometimes in September 1959, the government learnt that Mboya, a top ranking Kanu official, was holding a secret meeting with Dr Julius Nyerere, who was planning to take over the leadership of Tanzania.
According to veteran journalist Leo Odera Omolo who died last year, Nyerere was picked up at about 1.45am at Mboya’s house.
Nyerere had stopped briefly in Nairobi on his way to Dar es Salaam after a trip to the United Kingdom. He had spent his time in Kenya visiting Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Ronald Ngala before proceeding to Ziwani estate to meet his friend, Mboya.
On the material day, according to an article Omolo had written in 2009, he (Omolo) was in Mboya’s house to seek some assistance. When Nyerere visited Mboya that fateful day, he was accommodated in the bedroom while Mboya slept in a smaller bed. The journalist was sleeping in a couch in the sitting room when he heard bangs.
Former Karachuonyo MP Phoebe Asiyo too remembers that noise.
“I remember one particular day when British police officers stormed Mboya’s house in the wee hours of the morning and arrested Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who had visited and held a meeting with Mboya the previous evening,” says Asiyo in her memoirs; Phoebe Asiyo: It is possible: An African Woman Speaks.
At the time, Asiyo was living in house number 32, directly opposite Mboya’s residence.
“The commotion emanating from Mboya’s house during the arrest attracted us and we came out only to find Nyerere being shoved in an attempt to bundle him into a waiting 999 police car,” she says. “Before he was hustled away, Nyerere threw his briefcase at us which I picked up. The briefcase remained with us until Nyerere sent a messenger to come pick it,” Asiyo writes.
Omolo too recalled how the police stormed and ransacked the house before whisking away the undesirable visitor to the airport. Mboya too was temporarily held by police until the following morning as his house was turned upside down.
It was during this interlude that Nyerere called Mboya’s house from the airport, instructing Omolo to ask Mboya to organise for some important files he had left in the house to be dispatched to Tanzania. He sent a messenger to collect the briefcase from Asiyo many years later.
“I was dispatched by Mboya to Dar Es Salaam to deliver Nyerere’s files. Mboya instructed me to trace either Michael Kamaliza, a trade unionist, or Rashid Mfaume Kawawa, the Secretary General of Tanganyika Federation of Labour. I met Kamaliza, who took me to Kinondoni, where Mwalimu was addressing a seminar of TANU cadres,” Omolo says.
The following day, the emissary met Nyerere who looked worried about what had happened in Mboya’s house the previous week but was relieved on being assured that his friend was unharmed. Omolo later learned that the files had minutes of meetings and programmes of Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa earlier launched by Nyerere and Mboya.
Many years later, Nyerere wrote a note to Asiyo and her family thanking them for rescuing his briefcase and invited them to visit him at his home in Butyama. When the former MP drove to Butyama, they found the President molding bricks to extend a house in his compound. ”We talked about the past and especially the day he was arrested at Tom Mboya’s house. I never found out what was in the briefcase but I was happy to have kept it safe for so many years,” Asiyo recounts.
The Ziwani of the 1950s was a hotbed of politics for Milton Obote, who later became the first president of Uganda. Apart from Mboya, Isack Lugonzo, who later became mayor of Nairobi also called Ziwani home, while Margaret Wambui Kenyatta visited occasionally.
Wambui, President Kenyatta’s daughter who also rose to be Nairobi’s first African Mayor was at the time in the ‘less glamorous’ Kariokor estate and was living in a 10 foot by 10 foot room which had no toilet or running water and kept all her belongings under her bed because according to Asiyo, the room was too small.
The luminaries are long gone and so have the colonialists, but Ziwani remains intact, although its resident and buildings are crying out for redemption after years of abuse and neglect.
Long after the Nairobi County bulldozers bring the iconic estate and its history laden walls down, memories of its illustrious sons and daughters will remain.
In the meantime, Mboya’s statue, erected on the spot he was felled by an assassin’s gun in 1969 in Nairobi stands like a prisoner ringed by iron sheets and neglect by masters of doublespeak, who only play lip service to his sacrifices in the country’s liberation struggle.