Using fire to cleanse River Road of vermin and plague

Moi Avenue, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

It is finally raining in the country and Kenya’s collective thirst has been quenched. But to millions of Nairobi residents, these torrents mean big trouble because of clogged drains and flooded residential estates awash with rivers of raw sewage while clean drinking water is scarce.

This nightmare for the city did not start yesterday. Long before Nairobi was granted municipality status, the authorities used fire as a planning tool to rid the city of some of its myriad problems.

When Nairobi was afflicted by the bubonic plague in 1902 where 20 people died, Alfred Spurrier, the medical officer of health, determined the source of trouble to be the Indian Bazaar. He set fire to the place after all the traders were evacuated.

He justified his action thus, “as regards the Indian Bazaar, here is the opportunity to remark that in young Nairobi, with unlimited space around and with breezes blowing around from every quarter, a state of things had arisen which reproduced worst features of an old, densely crowded city of east."

According to Spurrier, the houses were "dump, dark, unventilated, overcrowded dwellings on filth-soaked rubbish strewn by people of uncertain habits, who loved to have things so and were so left”.    

But even after the place was razed to the ground to exterminate the plague, a spot check conducted two years later in 1904 found the place in a disagreeable state.

“The houses or better tin sheds for they lacked windows were used indiscriminately as dwelling houses, shops, stores, laundries, wash houses, opium dens, bakeries, brothels and butcher’s shops."

The amount of goods stored in the area was estimated to be between 800-1,000 tonnes. Here, rats were having a never-ending party while the 2,000 residents residing in the shacks were miserable and filthy.

In his report, the medical officer of health B W Cherrett noted, “Sir I had the honour to inform you that the municipal engineer and myself visited Abdul Estate this morning. The whole place is in a shocking sanitary condition. In fact, it is a huge evil-smelling swamp due to escape of liquid refuse from the houses, drains and overflowing swamps.”

At the time, there was no drainage in River Road and houses were built willy-nilly. More than 120 years later, if the planning authorities were to rise from the dead and walk down River Road on a rainy afternoon, they would order the entire place to be burnt down due to mountains of garbage and flooded streets while vehicles, handcart pullers, hawkers and pedestrians battle for a foothold as shop owners watch helplessly.