Book on legendary settler expounds the many parallels between Nairobi of old and current city, with garbage, dark alleys and disease.
The red light blinks nonchalantly as cars hurtle ceaselessly past the harried pedestrians’ whose glances at the man with the peaked cap and the reflective yellow jacket are ignored.
The man then leans towards the lamppost, presses the switch and judiciously stops the reckless flirtatious dance with death.
Car brakes squeal. Traffic stops. The road now belongs to the clicking high heels, the clanking of the blinds’ white canes and the granny’s walking stick, haltingly prodding the tarmacked surface.
As the light flashes green, the motorists at the zebra crossing wait, while pedestrians get on their way. Finally, the rush by drivers and pedestrians along Nairobi’s Harambee Avenue is temporarily halted.
The county government has installed a switch which now enables a pedestrian to stop traffic so that he can cross the busy road. This has not always been the case along the thoroughfare which is the nerve center of government operations.
Back in the days before Gerald Ford’s sensational contraption, the motor vehicle, became fashionable in the rut-filled roads in Nairobi, the only means of transport then was either on the back of a horse drawn carriage or donkey cart.
Then, in 1910, an enterprising Indian businessman, Ali Khan, created a monopoly of the transport system with an array of buggies. And to the aristocrat with sophisticated taste and style, there were horse-drawn carriages which plied the route between the railway platform to Norfolk hotel.
There has been quite an improvement for Nairobi, whose location was chosen not for its beauty but other considerations.
Elspeth Huxley in her book, White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya, writes that in those days, “Nairobi consisted of a railway station made of a wooden platform and roofed with a few strips of corrugated iron sheets where naked natives congregated to see the train which they considered a miracle.
According to the author, passengers had to walk from the station as there were no rickshaws. There was only one hotel and those who could not find accommodation had to pitch camp in the thick forest by Nairobi River.
The state of Nairobi was unflattering as it is variously described as, “a bleak swampy stretch of soppy landscape, windswept, devoid of human habitation of any sorts, the resort of thousands of animals. Lions were very plentiful in the papyrus swamp extending beyond Ainsworth bridge.”
The first structures were tin sheds erected in 1899, by-products of the railway. Further afield, the gradient of the railway was steeper and loads used to be changed there, and extra engines put on for the still climb up the Kikuyu escarpment.
“Nairobi grew up in a haphazard and wasteful manner, with the usual ugly results and there was never time to design beautiful buildings,” the author opines.
At the time, the only road was a cart truck, which was later renamed Government Road. It is the current day Moi Avenue. And this is where the good old Lord rediscovered a new sport, when the powers that be saw it fit to install street lights along the important artery.
When streetlights, which were a novelty then, were first installed in Nairobi, Lord Delamere had a field day. On the spur of a moment, he shifted focus from competing with his friends in a rickshaw race from the old Nairobi Club to Government Road.
Instead, he started shooting the lamps in the posts lining the prestigious road and extinguished all of them, including the ones outside the provincial commissioner’s house. He effectively plunged the city into darkness.
And in the same spirit of unleashing darkness and light, Delamere on another occasion caused a stir when he paid vandals to collect firewood and heap it around the Lands office, the equivalent of today’s Ardhi House.
The mercurial aristocrat was incensed because the government had reneged on a promise to allocate him a prime plot of land where he hoped to set up a wheat flour mill.
At the time, Delamere had secured a plot where he intended to put up his mill and had even bought the necessary machinery in England, but the government started playing games with him.
The Ministry of Lands officials belatedly suggested that he gets an alternative plot because the one he had been promised in Nairobi was unavailable. Delamere was adamant, insisting that he had chosen that particular location because of its proximity to the railway.
It is at that point that Delamere stormed out of a meeting he and fellow directors of the flour mill were holding with the land officials. He was heard shouting that he was going to burn down the office.
Still fuming, Delamere approached a group of Africans who were sitting under a tree and paid them a rupee each to fetch firewood.
Lighting a match
When they brought the firewood to him, he ordered them to pile it under the ‘flimsy wooden building’ that housed the lands department. He was in the process of lighting a match when shocked government officials pleaded with him not to burn it.
He later explained that he was prepared to burn down the building, its papers and the land officials who had shortchanged him. However, his directors persuaded him not to kindle the fire and he was ultimately placated by being awarded the piece of land he had been promised.
But when Delamere next sought to burn some lands document, he successfully did it and was adjudged as a criminal by the Supreme Court in Mombasa.
On this occasion, in 1906, the Lord had been outsmarted by a crafty Nairobi land dealer. He had bought 500 acres in Nairobi from a Mr Smart. However, before the agreement had been signed, the vendor offered the land to somebody else.
Smart then sued Delamere and his lawyers, demanding to have his title deed back. He then went bankrupt before the title deeds had been returned. When Delamere learnt this, he tore up the title deed and was consequently prosecuted by the crown for fraudulently destroying an asset in bankruptcy. The case was tried by the Supreme Court in Mombasa and Delamere was vindicated.
Then, just like now, garbage collection and sanitation problems still plagued Nairobi, which at the time had no sewerage system and portable water was still a pipe dream.
Back in the day, hyenas were the only scavengers in town and enjoyed all the howling and bragging rights.
Not a man to sit on his hands when confronted by a problem that demanded immediate attention, Delamere devised a method to deter the predators which had become so bold and noisy, making his nights miserable.
He put poisoned baits around his hut, killing a number of hyenas. His neighbours were unimpressed by this method and lodged formal complains, saying city scavenging would remain undone if hyenas were discouraged from nocturnal prowling and howling.
The baron was dissuaded from annihilating the city hyenas by a health department which had earlier had to deal with a catastrophe.
Earlier in 1902, the town had been hit by an epidemic of bubonic plague which claimed 16 people. Consequently, the principal medical officer ordered the burning down of the town.
Following his order, the bazaar, the native villages military line and the railway workshops were burnt down. The operation then cost the government 50,000 pounds, which was equivalent of half the revenue the government was collecting then.
Well, 117 years later, Nairobi may have freed itself from the clutches of bubonic plague (black death) spread by fleas that bite infected animals like rats, mice, or squirrels but its four million residents are still preyed on by cholera.
The hyenas have been confined to Nairobi National Park but City Hall is still gnawed by problems of uncollected garbage because the tenders to collect it are mired in huge procurement scandals.
The rickshaw races are gone. The horse carriage has long departed Government Road (Moi Avenue), replaced by Boda Boda and matatus driven by highly intoxicated youths. And the street lights Delamere shot at have been replaced but the city’s miscreants still lurk in unlit dark alleys in the heart of the town.