State House and its precincts are among the most hallowed grounds in Kenya. Showing up without an appointment, or worse still, trying to enter through unorthodox means is akin to signing your death sentence.
The house was built in 1907 following architectural plans by British architect Sir Herbert Baker. His other works include the imposing railways headquarters and the administration building of Nairobi School, then Prince of Wales School.
But did you know there were times when the official residence of then governor of Kenya and later the official residence of the presidents used to be open to the general public? The unprecedented move to have the public tour then Government House was made by the last governor, Malcolm MacDonald, just when Kenya was gaining her Independence.
Every Saturday afternoon, the grounds would be opened to the public who would then have a ball as they strolled around the well-manicured lawns. The rules were simple: parents or guardians were to take charge of their children during the strolls. No dogs were allowed.
A report carried in The Standard newspaper on July 8, 1963, said the move was popular with “a steady stream of visitors, including a party of schoolchildren who strolled around the grounds and had their pictures taken in front of the flower beds and the Government House building.”
But these fun trips were discontinued soon after Kenya became a republic with visitors only allowed in after thorough vetting and only by invitation. State House is classified as a ‘protected area’ where photography is prohibited, much like an army barrack. This is in sharp contrast to America’s White House where visitors can pose and have photos taken in front of the building.
While human visitors cannot get into State House as they wish, a troupe of monkeys from neighbouring Nairobi Arboretum made it a habit to intrude into State House in search of food. A 2003 report by the BBC said the monkeys were attracted by the sweet aromas wafting out of State House’s kitchens.
"Once a few monkeys found out that food was available at State House they went back to the park and invited all their friends. They are very social animals and communicate very easily and very fast," said a Kenya Wildlife Service official.
As the presidential campaigns heat up, it remains to be seen whether the next occupant of the house will emulate MacDonald and once again allow the public the thrill of stepping into what may be the best tended gardens in Kenya.