How the University of Nairobi came into being

Half a century can be quite a long time. Indeed, a lot has happened in Kenya for the last 50 years although some of the developments may sound like fairy tales.

While they reigned over an empire where the sun never set, the British colonialists loathed the idea of educating Africans because they believed that they would start agitating for political change and a right for self-determination.

Governor of Kenya and Chairman of East African High Commission Sir Philip Mitchell (C) after laying the foundation stone at the royal college in April 1952. [Courtesy]

Sometimes in April 1952, if Sir Philip Mitchel, Governor of Kenya, knew what was about to happen in the country when he laid the foundation stone for The Royal College, he would have cancelled these plans.

At around the same period, an African his government had described as an upstart native for daring to pursue a law degree on a government scholarship instead of doing a social science course, was in town. Argwings Kodhek was now a barrister, after defying the government even after it withdrew his scholarship. And he still pricked the government when he represented Mau Mau suspects and other impoverished African peasants who had hitherto never had legal representation.

The establishment of the college came at a time the government had just closed down all African independent schools that had started offering academic lessons to their pupils as well as teaching English language to all.

This was against the spirit of the mission schools, which largely offered technical education, imparting skills, which were meant to make Africans more skilled in serving them.

The year the Royal College was launched also marked the turning point on Kenya’s politics, as most of the elites were rounded up and detained to contain the growing uprising.

The idea of establishing a premier college dates back to 1947, when the Kenya Government drew up a plan for the establishment of a technical and commercial institute in Nairobi, but the concept was later widened to cover the East African region. At some point there were plans to establish a similar institute by Asians, but this was abandoned when the Royal College was created.

The college was renamed University College of Nairobi on June 25, 1961, becoming the second such institution in East Africa in 1964.

In less than two months, the University of Nairobi will celebrate 50 years since it was elevated to a fully-fledged university on July 1, 1970. Currently, it has more than 84,000 students in its programmes, compared to 1970 when its entire population was 2,768.