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Does City Market sit on a former cemetery?

By Gloria Aradi | Jan 29th 2021 | 3 min read

New-look Nairobi City market after renovation by Nairobi Metropolitan Service. [Samson wire, Standard]

The discovery of large concrete crosses by workers who are renovating Nairobi's City Market has puzzled traders.

In their years of trading at the market, they never imagined that the cross existed in the premises.

There was speculation that the market could have been a cemetery or a church.

The construction workers contracted by Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), were replacing the chipped flooring in the washing bays where traders clean meat, when they stumbled upon two large concrete crosses in each courtyard.

Now, fresh concrete covers the crosses and red tape surrounds the two zones, preventing people from coming close.

National Museums of Kenya (NMK) advised NMS to cover up the structures and carry on with the renovations as further research how they ended up there, would have disrupted operations at the market.

“We have taken photos and measurements. We have advised NMS to cover them up because digging up the structures and researching them is heavy work that would take months.

"That would inconvenience the renovation works and affect the operations of the traders,” said Dr Purity Kiura, the Director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments at NMK.

The excitement about the crosses has since died down, as traders and construction workers go about their business.

"These crosses have been here. Personally, I didn't think it was anything major. I am wondering why it has aroused so much interest," a county employee working at the market told The Standard.

Uniquely designed

Bernard Okoth, a fishmonger who has been operating from City Market for a decade, said that the cabro-paved courtyards were worn out, necessitating them to be dug out so a new flooring could be installed.

That is how the crosses were discovered.

Titus Odhiambo, a former chair of the traders and a fishmonger who has operated at City Market since 1992, dismissed speculation about the crosses saying they were merely uniquely designed drainage systems.

“This was a drainage system because it has water pipes and outlets,” Odhiambo said, pointing to water outlets springing out from beneath the covered crosses.

He said the crosses are slightly tilted to one side, to allow water to flow easily.

However, Odhiambo did not rule out speculation that the market was a worship centre during the colonial era.

He noted that in the 24 years he has been operating at the market, the renovations have never been elaborate like the one being undertaken by NMS.

However, some of the traders are are still curious and want to know the mystery behind the crosses.

“We would like to know more about the crosses. I am upset that NMS covered them up without explaining to us how they ended up there,” an NMS employee said.

But Kiura, who led investigations into the discovery, said they are not crosses.

Cooling systems

“The feature looks like a cross but it is not. It is mainly made of granite and concrete, attached to another concrete with metal. It looks like a slab that fell and was left in place,” she told The Standard.

She insisted that the zones served as washing bays even after the market’s construction, meaning they have retained their use over the decades, since City Market’s construction in 1930.

However, because of the water piping and outlets in the crosses, Kiura believes that they could have been cooling systems, allowing water to flow underneath to cool the market.

She suspects that the crosses could have been too heavy to remove from the market during subsequent renovations, prompting the decision to cover them.

She dismissed speculation that the crosses signify the place was once a cemetery. She said the market was built on land that had not been occupied, following the need to upgrade the former market, which was at Jeevanjee Garden.

She also revealed that the design of the structure is not an oddity, since there are other buildings with the same feature, such as the Royal Horticultural Building in London.

“The kind of structure can even be found in London. There is a building in London called the Royal Horticultural Building, it was built during the same time for horticultural produce. The two buildings have similar designs,” Kiura said.

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