When you cross the recently-paved road and into John Michuki Memorial Park, you leave the city behind and are transported into an alternate Nairobi. A Nairobi that aspires to regain its glory as the green city in the sun. The buildings on Kijabe Street, with their vehicles parked outside and the shops selling bathroom fittings and books, give way to the lush greens of the recently-reclaimed park. The 26-acre Michuki Park, which sits between Kijabe Street and Kipande Road and straddles Nairobi River, has just been given a new lease of life.
The park is named in honour John Michuki, (now deceased), who played a key role in the clean-up of Nairobi River and its environs during his tenure as the Minister for Environment. Bamboo trees rise high on the banks of the river, shading and giving a cool appeal to the grey waters of the Nairobi River. With its medicinal trees, colourful flowers and walkways shielded by foliage, Michuki Park apes the aesthetic of traditional Japanese gardens.
The shadows thrown by the trees dance on the patches of recently planted grass and flowers on fresh beds waiting for their bloom into a visual spectacle. A curved bridge, made of metal and wood, sits across the river. From the bridge, the waters of Nairobi River are uncharacteristically clear. Devoid of the sludge of human waste, the river crashes through rocks as it meanders through the park with gusto. The result is a picture-perfect scene that provides a sense of calm whenever visitors catch a whiff of the scent of nature and the sound of an unburdened Nairobi River, as they wander along its paths and enjoy the bamboo and medicinal trees. However, Mr Paul Mwangi, a mechanic who was once operating from the park when it was decrepit and disused, remembers a different park.
“We worked from there for years before Michuki came and planted trees and asked us to move the garage elsewhere,” Mr Mwangi said.
He recalled being part of a group of mechanics who the defunct Nairobi City Council moved from the Nairobi River bank along Racecourse Road to the present day Michuki Park.
“The mechanics occupied the upper part but the lower part of the park nearer to the river was a no-go zone. Street children used to sleep under the bridge and would stage mugging from there. They would waylay passers-by, snatch their belongings and retreat into the forest to hide,” he said.
Mwangi compared the old Michuki Park to Mtego wa Panya section in City Park, which has a sinister reputation.
“I remember the way people were assaulted and mugged at Mtego wa Panya. This place was like that too, but now things will be better because there is security. The reclamation of the park is commendable.”
The Kenya Forest Service, the body that will be managing the park, has erected a 10-foot perimeter fence - a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, installed floodlights and a gate, four kilometres of walkways, planted 4,200 seedlings, constructed new toilets, and laid out a nursery. Visitors will also have to take in the spectacle of the river from a distance as it is barricaded, perhaps to avoid pollution. Loose gravel is poured from the entrance. The gravel gives way to walkways lined with concrete slabs.
Now, with people back into the park, the stray dogs that had made a habitat of the park and fed of the discarded food remains that were thrown into the park have lost a home. Nevertheless, the renewed lushness hides a dark and violent past associated with the park. For years, Michuki Park was left to stray dogs and thieves and converted into a dumping site. In the years since its initial reclamation by the former Michuki, the park became a haven for thieves and robbers, who, in the dark and sinister shadows of the trees, knew they had a refuge.
Michuki was Minister for Environment and Mineral Resources from 2008 till his death on February 20, 2012. It is instructive that when the clean-up of the river was done, those who handled the work said they recovered several identification cards, bank cards, other personal effects, and even weapons.
“Hii ilikuwa den, pahali ambapo wezi na wakora walikua wanapiga ngeta wananchi wa Nairobi. Hiyo sasa ni historia (This was a den. A place where thieves and crooks mugged Nairobi residents. All that is history),” President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Thursday when he opened the park and took the first stroll in it.
“In three months we have moved it from a haven for criminals to a place of serene beauty and peace; from blackened waters of Nairobi River to a swimming destination for ducks and mud-fish. We have been able to clear the park of the gang of thieves that had made this place their home. When we were clearing this area we found weapons, ID and ATM cards,” Uhuru added.
The garden was created in 2008 but abandoned for several years before it was identified by Nairobi Metropolitan Services and restoration began in April.