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Remembering Nairobi’s first riot 100 years ago


Harry Thuku was arrested on March 14, 1922 , triggering a riot. He was later exiled to Kismayu for his political agitation. This picture was taken on August 31, 1978. [File]

It has been a century since one of the deadliest riots happened in Nairobi. On March 14, 1922, about 1,000 Africans did the unthinkable. Unhappy with the arrest of their leaders, they staged a protest outside Central Police Station demanding their release.

Trouble had started when word spread that Harry Thuku had been locked up at Central Police Station.

In solidarity, the protestors converged around the police station where they picketed. 

The madness that followed is partially captured by The New York Times which reported the atrocities visited on innocent Africans by an overbearing military that opened fire on the unarmed citizens.

According to the New York Times report, grave disquiet had been caused by news of serious rioting in Nairobi following the arrest of a native, Harry Thuku on March 14.

The official version was that the rioters had attacked a police station where Thuku was detained forcing the military to open fire, killing 20. But the numbers were said to have been in the hundreds.

What the paper did not report was that among the first victims was Rosemary Nyanjiru who, in a moment of defiance, approached the policemen who had bayonets and taunted them to surrender their pants to her and the other women instead of being so helpless.

According to the report, the men had sacrificed victims like Nyanjiru and other women folk in front of them, expecting this would prevent the police from firing.

The riot had been triggered by a reduction in wages paid by settlers to labourers on their farms.

“The White farmers and colonialists,” The New York Times reported, “depend entirely upon black labour for the cultivation of their estates, but the Black man does not take kindly to work, so that problem is how to make him work.”

Some of these settlers lounging at Norfolk Hotel opened fire on the protestors.

At the time, an estimated four million Africans were protesting being coerced into working for the 6,000 British settlers who were exclusively farming in the White Highlands.

To make the Africans work, the government introduced taxation and those who failed to pay poll tax were jailed.

To the British, Kenya was a land of great possibilities where “there exists no animal, tree or crop of economic value to mankind that cannot be raised in some part of it.”

Exactly 100 years later, the horrors of colonialism have subsided but some are still sublimely experienced.

Hordes of four million city residents roam the street in search of decent work at a time cost of living has become unbearable.

Thuku’s place in history is safeguarded with a road near scene of the shooting, that bears his name.

But the women in the struggle are footnotes in history.

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