Inside The Archives where Kenya’s past awaits with informative tales

Charles Okumu shows off a Swahili bed inside the Kenya National Archives. September 20, 2021. [Denish Ochieng, standard]

Smack in the centre of Nairobi’s Central Business District, the Kenya National Archives has been the meeting point for Kenyans for decades.

The city square outside is also the business hub for hordes of street preachers, flocks of wily pick-pockets, tens of upcoming gymnasts and countless idlers who sit to count human traffic for no pay.

Yet few bother to marvel at the colossal edifice that sprouts right in front of their faces, The Archives, its façade beige, inside its bowels tomes of black and white, Kenya’s history in indelible ink and timeless pictures.

The Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service director Francis Mwangi, who sits on the second floor of the building, acknowledges some Kenyans, probably choking from the acrid smell of sweat and noise in the square outside The Archives, find their way inside and walk around, marvelling at antiques as they wait for their friends.

“But there is still inadequate information out there on what to be expected inside The Archives, which may be why be the reason some people do not come in,” he says.

At the entrance you pay Sh50. You then enter the mysterious city building, where walls are filled with portraits of some of the people and events that defined Kenya’s history.

On ground and first floors, walls are painted black and white, with pictures of paramount chiefs, political leaders of yore, the Legislative Council team that went to the United Kingdom in 1962, royal visitors to Kenya, Kenya’s presidents and their vice presidents, and other notable figures.

Gallery at the Kenya National Archives. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Also embedded on the walls are articles of clothing from different cultures, charts with drawings of precolonial tribes, and cultural activities. “Kipsigis beer party”. “Kikuyu hairdressing.” “Endo tribesmen in Rift Valley entertaining the Queen Mother.” “Kamba medicine men performing rituals.”

The Archives should, rightly, stock such, alongside books that sit in the Search Room, but they also have artefacts to “bring life” inside the otherwise drab environment, as Mwangi puts it. 

“There are people who will keep off if the only thing they can access here is books. These artefacts were collected by Joseph Murumbi, who wanted them stored alongside his books,” Mwangi says. Murumbi, an avid collector of artefacts, was Kenya’s second vice-president.

Among the artefacts are Kenya’s first presidential seat, a modest red chair emblazoned with the coat of arms, now slightly weather-beaten, used by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and African stools and calabashes. Weaponry, such as spears and shields, and jewellery, hang on walls to amplify Kenya’s rich pre-colonial history.

Established in 1965, The Archives has received scholars of note who comb through volumes inside the Search Room to advance their knowledge.

“A lot of researchers visit us. Postgraduate students are also very regular in the search room,” Mwangi says.

As required by law, government-funded departments and parastatals deposit two copies of every document they author at The Archives, which ensures the libraries here are always up to date and well-stocked.

A 12-month long permit for diploma students wishing to access The Archives goes for Sh100. Undergraduate students and postgraduate ones pay Sh200, the same as any other adults. Foreigners pay Sh1,500 for the same permit.

Hung on the outside of The Archives are banners requesting Kenyans who have artefacts to submit them.

“We have felt the need to ask people who have various items of historical importance to kindly bring them to us. Some of these photos or letters that they may have, or other artefacts, may get lost if they remain in the custody of the individuals,” says Mwangi. “It is everyone’s little bit of history that tells Kenya’s history.”

So far, he says, many Kenyans have responded to the call and brought items for preservation. A few have asked for monetary compensation, which has been done according to the value of the items. Others have asked that their names be inscribed in their artefacts.

A section of the Kenya National Archives. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Mwangi is appealing to Kenyans to donate whatever they think could further enrich Kenya’s heritage.

While people walking around have it easy to access The Archives, vehicles do not have such a smooth entry. Access roads have been blocked by matatus picking and dropping off, and the northwest access that should be the most open now teems with tuk-tuks.

“We have schools coming around but their buses are not able to access us as the roads are all blocked,” says Mwangi.

The chaos in the city now renders The Archives inaccessible despite it being in one of the most ideal positions in the city for people on foot. It is mainly left to such people to maximise the use of the government facility that not only informs on Kenya’s rich history but keeps an up-to-date record of everything that is happening in the country.

For history scholars, those who would enjoy a rare photo of founding father Jomo Kenyatta in a beach moment with the likes of Dr Njoroge Mungai, Muiga Chokwe and Tom Mboya, then The Archives is the place to be. The appeal of the inside, in all truth, beats that of the outside, and meeting friends could well do so inside; because they will meet their past too, a worthwhile bonus.