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Nairobi suburb that oozes Asian architecture

By Austine Okande | October 17th 2013

By Austine Okande

Nairobi, Kenya: It boasts an array of charmingly designed Hindu temples, intricately designed mosques, shrines and monumental buildings owned by its first settlers.

Yet, it is still regarded as one of Nairobi’s commercial and residential hubs. It is also home to some of the wealthiest people in Kenya.

Welcome to Parklands, an estate barely a five-minute drive from Nairobi’s city centre. Established in the late 1930s, Parklands boasts a rich historical recollection. It is still predominantly home to the Asian community, who were among its first residents.

Historical documents at the Kenya National Archives claim that the colonial masters preferred the leafier western sections of Nairobi, which include Parklands, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Highridge, Gigiri and Runda. This excluded Kangemi and Dagoretti, which were earmarked as homes to their servants.

The Asian community, brought into the country to assist in railway line construction, settled in the areas around what is today known as Starehe Constituency, in the southlands parts of Parklands and Ngara.

Original settlers

In their book titled, A Brief Tour of the Buildings of Nairobi, Yuko Iwatani and Evelyne Wanjiku argue that Parklands was originally allocated to European settlers, who were large-scale agriculture and stock farmers.  They were hindered by unfamiliar African weather and diseases, as well as changes in the global export market that affected their cash flow. However, in 1930, land ownership shifted away from Europeans to Asians.

This was after a Dr De Souza, an Indian from Portugal, won a case to live on his property in 1923, which opened door for Asians to start moving into the neighbourhood, sparking ownership changes in Parklands in the 1930s.

Iwatani and Wanjiku write: “When the British Government declared that legal segregation of residential or commercial areas would not be approved for Kenya in 1923, the white settlers protected their areas through the use of legal covenants, allowing only Europeans to live on the property.”

The protective covenant system allowed non-Europeans to buy and own land. However, it prohibited them (non- Europeans) from building on it.

The successful petition filed by Dr De Souza saw an exodus of Asians from the downtown ghettoes of Nairobi to Parklands, diminishing European dominance in the area.

Described as an area with art deco and modern houses, Parklands houses are characterised by Asian architectural designs with ornately carved doors, window frames and fretwork balconies designed to ooze Asian culture.

Architectural influence

According to Aref Adamli, an architect and Architectural Heritage Advisory committee member, most of the old buildings in Parklands display an architecture design with strong Indian influence.

He notes: “The ‘unEnglish’ designs, reflected the desire by Indian business families to break away from an English tradition and assert their identity and newly made wealth through dramatic, modernist architecture.”  Other historians argue that Indians adopted a new style with a complete geometric shapes, clear outlines, numerous oriental and ornate gables to cement their Asian influence, seemingly as a way to show their opposition to the European styles.

The old building styles in Parklands are said to be less expensive compared to modern styles mainly because the materials used were cement, concrete and stucco which were less costly.

His Highness The Aga Khan is also believed to have spent his early childhood in Parklands and this explains his love for the area, which now hosts most of his business interests: The Aga Khan University, The Aga Khan School and The Aga Khan University Hospital.

Parklands also hosts one of Nairobi’s oldest schools: Parklands High School, formerly known as Dr Riberio Goan Secondary School, founded in 1928 by two Goan educationists in East Africa — Dr A C I de Souza and Dr Riberio.


The Goans are believed to have entered the country in the 20th Century as professional doctors, lawyers and businessmen and built the St Francis Xavier Catholic church.

The Goans are also behind the construction of Goan Gymkhana, a social club now referred to as Parklands Gymkhana.

The construction of the Thika Superhighway saw an overpass cut through Parklands. This has tilted property scale in the area, increasing rental costs and sale prices.

In recent times, Parklands has twirled into a prime property spot, with real estate developers seeking to tap into the rising demand for accommodation among the upper middle class.

Statistics show that a single bedroom apartment costs around Sh6.5 million, with a two-bedroom house going for Sh8 million, while a three-bedroom apartment fetches around Sh10 million on the lower side.

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