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The making of Nairobi city from marsh land to Metropolis

By Amos Kareithi | October 18th 2021

Torr's Hotel at Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street junction, 1950s. [File, Standard]

Back in the days when there was no capital city in Kenya and cash was scarce, the government went on a borrowing mission.

So urgent was the mission to transform Nairobi that had started off as a collection of tin shacks and tents in a marshy area patronised by hyenas and lions that all its assets were offered as collateral to secure a loan.

And so in 1949, the town fathers floated a loan at the London Stock Exchange and were shocked by the reception. In just a day, the offer was snapped up by overenthusiastic investors who gave Sh228,232,000 (1.5 million Sterling Pound) which was seven times the subscription.

Some white Nairobians were however not as impressed and wanted plans to make Nairobi a city scrapped as it did not meet the most basic qualification.

One angry resident wrote to The East African Standard saying it was scandalous that somebody was thinking of elevating a tenth-rate town which still stored human waste in drums, 400 yards away from European houses. Traffic was dogged by obstructive islands and the cost of the celebrations was astronomical.

But, the town planners were convinced that Europeans fleeing from neighbours' blaring radios, and political troubles that darkened the greying skies of their continent would leisurely troop to Kenya.

Sergent Ellis Avenue (City Hall Way). October 1963. [File, Standard]

To finance the making of Nairobi a city, King George VI and Queen Mary donated a two-volume Bible to All Saints Cathedral and appealed for more funds.

Earlier, the government had imposed a new levy on Africans christened a municipal tax so as to increase the African civic pride. Europeans were opposed to payment of any taxes to the government.

In the meantime, some jewellers in London were tasked to make the mace while the coat of arms was sourced from the College of Heraldry.

A lot of thought had gone into choosing the coat of arms, whose shield of green and gold represents the mineral and agricultural wealth of city, the centre represented the original water hole that was Nairobi while the crest consisted of the British lion which brought peace to the warring tribes.

The two dominant East African Cranes holding on to a Maasai shield symbolised vigilance envisaged in the original motto, 'Sapientia, Fide, Vigilantia,' (with wisdom, faith, and vigilance) conceived in 1923. This motto has since been changed to Ushauri kwa Uaminifu (honest counsel). 

Seventy-one years after getting its charter some of the original misgivings persist and Nairobi City has gained notoriety for its chaotic public service and noise. Its population has outstripped the sewerage system and human waste is not stored in drums but discarded in polythene bags in informal slums. 

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