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Even with all its shortcomings, Nairobi could be witnessing a silent rebirth

A cycle lane on Nairobi's River Road. The city is going through a commendable transformation in some areas. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) looks very different depending on whether you drive, take public transport or walk. 

Truth be told, driving keeps you from enjoying the beauty of the city. You are too focused on avoiding accidents or getting worked up over incessant traffic jams. In matatus and buses, we tend to focus on the phone, our new master. 

Beyond high-rise buildings, we don’t notice the gems that make our city. One easy way to soak in the sites of our city is to walk! 

I tried that two weeks ago, and I was surprised. In a group of like-minded Kenyans, we spent a Sunday afternoon exploring the once-green city in the sun. There are still remnants of green, which should be enhanced. Our walk started at Makaburini, Nairobi South cemetery. It’s more than a cemetery. There is a section for Commonwealth war graves, one for Goans, a memorial for Indian soldiers and another for Jews and unmarked graves. The earliest grave dates back to 1900. Cemeteries give you a peep into our past for the curious. 

We then turned into Bunyala Road and right into Lower Hill Road, hugging the Railway Golf course. Ever noted that the railway line cuts through this golf course? Did you know the railway once snaked its way through Westlands from the Central Business Distric (CBD)?  

I hear Gertrude Watt, Ewart Grogan’s wife, who lived in the old house at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus complained of noise and it was re-routed. Who has facts? 

 The walks give you one of the most beautiful views of the city’s skyline against the golf course and its trees. This view convinced me the designer of Nairobi City was not an idler! 

Just before turning right into Haile Sellasie, a big water hole awaits you. Who dug it and when? The next destination was the railway clubhouse, very historical going by its doors, floors, walls and roofing.  A few Kenyans and visitors were playing golf on a Sunday afternoon. 

We walked down Haille Sellasie Avenue with a view of Bunge Plaza opposite Parliament buildings. An architect explained to us the different architectural designs in the city from modernism to expressionism.  I noted the extent we imitated the UK Parliament building even with a Big Ben! Harambee Avenue has lots of government offices, including unique and iconic buildings like Jogoo House or Sheria House with its walls inspired by a honeycomb. 

Add Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) and the CBK Pension Tower, whose roof looks incomplete, which I was told is meant to demonstrate that your money keeps growing. 

Between Jogoo House and Electricity House, there is an empty parking space (on Sunday), which becomes a skating park. 

We found dozens of children skating as others trained.  This is the rebirth or renaissance   Nairobi needs.  This is the social innovation needed to make the city vibrant and homely. After all, most streets are empty over the weekend. They were to become bazaars. Is the plan still on?   

The next street, City Hall Way, has landmark building like the Supreme Court building, City Hall and Holy Family Basilica. Never mind on one end of the City Hall Way lies the closed Hilton Hotel and Hotel Intercontinental. Can they be turned into affordable housing? Would love to live in the CBD? 

The hotels’ closure is counterbalanced by the revival of photography. Hoards of young people with modern cameras and light control equipment dot City Hall Way and other streets, choosing the iconic buildings as background.  Despite every phone having a camera, photography is back to the city.  

Three other spots caught our attention. One is the old Provincial Commissioner’s (PC’s) office next to Nyayo House built in 1913. Its architecture stands out as a complete contrast to Nyayo House, a sign of how far we have come as a country.  

On the other side of Kenyatta Avenue lies Westminster House and its unique design. It used to be a banking hall, now a high-end restaurant. We had lunch there; we were hungry after a long day’s walk in the hot sun. 

The final destination was the iconic McMillan Library. Outside, youngsters danced to music, another social innovation beyond photography. 

I hope these activities are replicated in the estates and other towns. When is Uhuru Park reopening? Can we have more parks like this in other towns before all the land is gone? 

Can every affordable housing project go with a park? After all, we do not spend all our time sleeping!  As corporations leave the CBD, it’s returning to its original purpose - the seat of the government - and more creative use, a tourist attraction with more than a century of history captured by buildings, streets and monuments. Take a walk down memory lane on Sunday afternoon in the CBD. Who said tourism is just about the Big Five?  

What other social innovations are taking place in other parts of the city, particularly Eastlands where most Kenyans live?

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