Origin of tree that gave Nairobi County exotic beauty

Pruned tree along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Last week, Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja issued a statement in defence of the county government’s decision to prune an iconic acacia tree in the city centre.

According to Sakaja, the decision followed an outcry from residents who said the tree had become a haven for marabou stocks, whose droppings soiled people’s clothes and vehicles.

The governor said he was equally devastated by the pruning of the tree that may have taken decades to nurture. 

“I have been assured that the pruning that was done as a result of Marabou stork invasion was procedural and that the tree will be nurtured. I reiterate we will increase our tree cover in the city. I was upset as you all but the tree will grow,” he posted on his Twitter handle.

The outcry was similar to the one that followed plans by a road contractor to cut down a giant fig tree in Westlands to give way to the Nairobi Expressway.

While Nairobians are “devastated” by the pruning of the tree, few know that when the town was established around 1899, trees were just but a rumour, except for acacia shrubs that grew within the swamp where the Maasai watered their cattle.

Marabou storks perched on a tree along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard] 

They called the swamp ‘ewaso nyirobi’ meaning place of cool waters and was once described in unflattering terms by Ronald Owen Preston, a railway engineer as “a bleak, swampy stretch of soggy landscape, windswept, devoid of human habitation of any sort, the resort of thousands of wild animals of every species.”

Ronald Hardy in the book Iron Snake described early Nairobi as a “place in which people and rats live together in common squalor” more so as there were no trees to absorb the water within the swamp.

To give the town some sense of order, Frank Walter Jameson was appointed as the first town planning consultant in 1926. While Jameson’s brief was to bring some sanity to the fast deteriorating housing situation, he immediately set out to clothe the city.

It was Jameson who introduced the beautiful Jacaranda trees in Nairobi after a similar feat in Pretoria, South Africa. By 1911, Jameson had planted 40 miles of Jacaranda trees in Pretoria as the roots were said to be “friendly” to the city’s sewer system. So famous were his exploits in South Africa and Kenya that in both countries, his moniker, ‘Jacaranda Jim’ almost became his official name.

Today, the Jacaranda trees dot many urban centres in Kenya that had a strong colonial past. In the coming weeks, the city will be dotted with purple Jacaranda flowers, thanks to Jacaranda Jim. City residents hope that Sakaja will keep his word and embark on a tree-planting mission in the city, now choking under garbage. And that Nairobi will reclaim its former glory as a ‘green city in the sun’.