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A railway depot that birthed Nairobi city 123 years ago

Reconstruction of Sergent Ellis Avenue (City hallway)  on October 31, 1963. [File, Standard]

Today marks 123 years since the settlement today known as Nairobi came to be. It is a settlement that grew out of a need to speed up the work on the Uganda Railway, or the Lunatic Express, as some termed the new line in derision.

Perhaps there would be no Nairobi as we know it had the then chief railway engineer George Whitehouse not walked into the area as he scouted for a suitable place for the railway headquarters with yards and workshops.

He judged Mile 327 to be the ideal location before tackling the Kikuyu escarpment and the sheer drop into the Great Rift Valley.

But not everybody shared Whitehouse's enthusiasm. Ronald Owen Preston, who was in charge of laying the rails, had his misgivings regarding the new site and used unflattering words in his book, The Genesis of Kenya Colony: "A bleak, swampy stretch of supply landscape, windswept, devoid of human habitation of any sort, the resort of thousands of wild animals of every species.

The only evidence of the occasional presence of humankind was the old caravan track skirting the bog-like plain."

The new site, according to Preston, was nothing more than a hunting ground where locals had dug pits to trap the animals which they killed using poisoned arrows. Lions, he wrote, were especially plentiful in the papyrus swamp that stretched beyond the present-day Norfolk Hotel.

Still, Whitehouse forged ahead and built the first residential house out of bricks and corrugated sheets at the "Hill", now Upper Hill. Administrators would soon follow, starting with John Ainsworth who transferred his base from Machakos to the place the Maasai called 'Ewaso nyrobi', or the place of cool waters. The arrival of Ainsworth brought friction between him and Whitehouse who objected to the former's new plan to divide the land around the railway, formerly the preserve of Whitehouse and his men.

Thus, early Nairobi was under two administrations; the railway engineers and colonial authorities with the latter accusing the railways bosses of neglecting the needs of immigrants who were never part of the equation from the beginning.

Yet, as Bethwel Ogot and Madara Ogot would later describe the fledgling city, attracted more than speculators and bounty hunters. Japanese and Syrian prostitutes followed the settlers' money in a 'city' that boasted of more tents than conventional lodging facilities. With its skyscrapers and and an ultra-modern expressway, the current city bears little semblance to the accidental railway depot.