East Palo Alto’, the unmistakably bold sign positioned along University Avenue seemed to call for my attention. I stared at it as the taxi rolled past, long enough for it to take over my thoughts and start wondering how different, if at all, this city would have been had the vote to change its name succeeded.
East Palo Alto is a flat and low-lying city at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay in California. It sits just a few miles from Stanford University and is surrounded by the enormous wealth created by tech firms like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and many others. But East Palo Alto’s residential streets, its commercial streets, all are somewhat worn, the mark of many years as one of Silicon Valley’s poorest quarters.
In 1968, five years after Kenya gained independence, some residents of East Palo Alto campaigned to rename their city ‘Nairobi’. Many community members wanted East Palo Alto incorporated as a city and renamed to reflect the African heritage of the majority of its residents, who at the time were 80 per cent African American. The heroes of independence in Africa, including Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, were seen as an inspiration for self-determination.
I first heard about East Palo Alto after chatting to an acquaintance from Fiji who also lived in Silicon Valley. I had just moved into the area to pursue a journalism fellowship at Stanford University for a year, and after mentioning I was a journalist from Kenya, my friend was quick to make the connection, asking if I knew that there was a place nearby nicknamed ‘Nairobi’. My curiosity was piqued. I began to dig a little deeper to find out why this place was named after my home city. As I learnt more I was intrigued. Before settling on Nairobi as the chosen name for the city, the community had also considered Kenyatta, the name of Kenya’s first president and Uhuru, which is Kiswahili for freedom. It also happens to be the name of the current president of Kenya, who is also Kenyatta’s son. I was curious to find out what the fascination was in particular with Nairobi and Kenya.
Another Kenyan acquaintance, longtime East Palo Alto resident Meda Okelo, even told me that some in the community say that EPA stood for Eastern Part of Africa.
I first met Meda when I went to interview Bob Hoover, a community leader in East Palo Alto and the programme manager at the David Lewis Community Reentry Centre. A tall frame, with an overwhelming presence met me at the door. “You must be the Kenyan?,” he inquired. “Habari yako?” “Nzuri,” I responded. My trained ear spotted an authentic Kenyan accent hidden in an American drawl. He told me his name was Jeff Wacira. That was a surprise. Jeff, a lawyer by training, had been helping out at the centre. It was there that I also met Okelo, who did his graduate studies at Stanford University in the eighties and decided to settle in the area.
Meda currently publishes a community magazine called El Ravenswood. Just like me he had been surprised to find a place called Nairobi when he first arrived. He regaled me with stories of his connection with East Palo Alto, including how he met Bob, but it was his serendipitous recount of when he first heard about Nairobi that I found most interesting. “Well, as we were waiting for the Stanford vehicle to take us to the university, this bus arrives and its destination is Nairobi Shopping Centre,” Meda recounted, almost lost in reverie. “I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, that there was a place in California called Nairobi.”
As I spoke to the people from East Palo Alto, who had helped to campaign for the incorporation of the city and its name change, I learnt of a fascination with reconnecting with African culture. All of this was taking place in the wider context of the Black Power movement and civil rights movement, a time when African Americans across the country were growing in awareness of a desire to reclaim their lost African culture.
Kalamu Chache, who was a member of an East Palo Alto performing arts group called the Nairobi Messengers, captures in a poem the aspirations of a people’s desire to find its roots, to reconnect with a lost culture, to belong:
In my travel to many places
I have met many black faces
And in visiting or living in some of black ghettos
Everyone is always originally from some place other
Than the place where they have settled.
But what we all have a tendency to forget to say
Is that we are originally from Africa.
By no means did all African American residents of East Palo Alto share this vision of making a tangible and meaningful connection with African culture. Some felt that to do so would be a step backward, and others were uneasy with the name ‘Nairobi.’ In fact, in my research I found that those who opposed renaming the city felt that “Nairobi’ was associated with living in a ghetto. Driven by a sense duty and desire of restoring honour to my home city I asked Bob if this was true. He told me that the African American community was going through some identity crisis and there was deep division in the community.
The vote to rename the city was a victim of these divisions in the community. In this case the divide was between the old and the young, with the latter driving the name change. Despite the failure to change the city’s name, the spirit of Nairobi was born. “Everything was called Nairobi. There was Nairobi Day School, Nairobi High School. We had a Nairobi coop. The concept of Nairobi, having a connection to Africa, really meant a lot to us even though none of us had been there,” Lakiba Pittman told me. Pittman was a singer and dancer for the Nairobi Messengers, and is still active in the community as a teacher and mentor. She was always curious about Africa and was driven by the desire to reconnect. Pittman was among the first to adopt piercings, adorn African dress and even change her name after undergoing an elaborate naming ceremony. “ I don’t know if it really was a traditional African naming ceremony... everybody came and represented the village, the women stood on both sides, kind of replicating the womb and then I stood at one end and then they covered my head and I backed through and then when I turned around I was born.” It wasn’t just Lakiba. All across the community you’d hear African names: Tumani, Ariba, Asani, Ekondayo, Omawali, Lakiva, Sakisa, Navantu, Vulalayla, Nuzipo, Imani, Osasifo, Okili, Mudoda, Mwanza, Zolili, Zolikomo, Delani and Nayuo.
But to some, the adopting a new name came at a cost. “A very close friend of mine called Jahi Mirembe changed his name... his name was Simon Jones when I met him at Stanford, and his wife’s name was Laura Mace. But when they decided to get married they decided that through that process they were going to acquire a new name jointly. They had to fight their families who refused to accept that name change. But then Jahi ran for political office and he ran with the name Jahi Mirembe,” Meda told me. “Part of the reason he probably didn’t make it... he was not as successful as Obama because people totally refused to accept that name.”
Kiswahili became the adopted language. Dr Faye McNairKnox who taught the language at Nairobi College told me that it was felt that there was need to speak an African language. The community was divided between Kiswahili and Yoruba. “I think in the end Kiswahili won out because of Kwaanza. It became sort of the lingua franca. And I really took it to heart, I decided that I wanted to teach it, I wanted to create a whole curriculum, I wanted to make it available. I studied it from beginning levels through graduate. I even went to university in Dar es Salaam.”
The Nairobi experience didn’t not go unnoticed, and attracted Africans who were living in the area or were students at Stanford. They were taken by the movement and volunteered at Nairobi College as teachers and African culture ambassadors. Malonga Casquelourd was probably one of the most influential. He was Congolese and came to the US in 1970s. A choreographer, dancer and a skilled drummer he is still praised as a cultural icon. Tumani Onabiyi, who joined Malonga’s drumming group Fua Dia Congo, was effusive in his praise.
“Malonga made it real. It was the drum, it was the song, it was the dance. And that stuff was infectious. And it started right down there in Nairobi,” Onabiyi said. Malonga’s life was abruptly cut short in a car accident in 2013. His legacy however is secure and still looms large. Malonga Casquelourd Centre in Oakland is run by his children, and honours his memory.
Dr McNairKnox has especially very fond memories of Malonga. “He brought another aspect of East African culture song, dance and drum. He moved to Oakland eventually. East Palo Alto was not large enough to contain him but he had a bigger world to spread his message based in Oakland, and he did very well. He just really brought that whole cultural scene to the Bay Area and established it. Fua Dia Congo lives. My daughter who is Malonga’s daughter is the artistic director of Fua Dia Congo. Malonga was just a legend living among us and we didn’t really recognise him as such at the time that he was alive we were just all enjoying what he was bringing to us and sharing in it.”
Bob Hoover, now in his eighties, also wanted to build a community for African Americans in East Palo Alto that would allow its people to flourish and realise their potential.
“We had a dream of building this major African American community. We were going to build a community that we could all be proud of, that would have great schools, that would have all the great things that we needed to raise families,” Hoover told me.
In 1969, Hoover started Nairobi College, a community education initiative to cater to the needs of the African American community. “The college catered for students because it was a community college, other schools nearby were highly discriminatory,” Calvin Beckum, who was a student at the college, says.
Nairobi College offered 25 courses on everything from physics to black legal problems to Kiswahili. The college and Nairobi Day School, which was started in 1966 by Gertrude Wilks, inspired a book titled The Nairobi Method. It championed an African-centred methodology for teaching and motivate people of African descent to reverse the pattern of failure.
Despite the best of efforts the dream of Nairobi began to fall apart. In 1992, East Palo Alto was branded the murder capital of the United States. Hoover firmly believes drugs were to blame for the breakdown of the society they were trying so hard to build up. He put its changing fortunes into context: “Between the late 60s and mid 70s, probably 80 per cent of the kids were graduating from high school in this community and at least 50 per cent of those were going to college. In 1983, the high school dropout rate was like 70 per cent. Thirty per cent of our kids were graduating from high school and only three percent of those were going to college... We are still trying to recover from that today.”
The community tried hard to reverse the tide which was destroying it. Hoover and other leaders worked with the police to keep watch in the street corners to dissuade drug trade in the city. But for many, their efforts were too late.
The sad irony is that Hoover, decades after he started Nairobi college, is now working with the same kids he tried to mentor, helping them reintegrate back in the community after decades in prison. Hoover remembers one young man fondly:
“This guy David Lewis, who the centre was named after, was on my little league baseball team when he was nine years old. He’s a classic example of how powerful the attraction of drugs and money were. A lot of the guys who are coming back to the community have been in and out of prison for 20 years... There were a large number of young men and women that I worked with in the early sixties who ended up caught up in the whole drug scene and spending a good part of their life in prison.”
After his release from prison, Lewis became an anti-drug campaigner, but he was tragically killed. Hoover says Lewis had just returned from visiting Kenya and he had encouraged him to visit. Hoover tells me visiting Nairobi remains on his bucket list. Hoover is still active in the community, teaching golf and mentoring the youngsters. Even though the demographics of the community have now changed to 80 per cent Latino, Hoover is still as involved as ever teaching the same values and mentoring the young ones. He says he has thought of slowing down but he dreads the alternative — doing nothing.
I was curious about the legacy of the Nairobi movement. “It’s our children,” Dr McNair Knox told me. “One of the things that is very apparent is that those children who we raised in the context of Nairobi College have all gone on to be very successful adults. And so the legacy lives on through them... I think that we laid the foundation that enabled an Obama to become the first president. Although none of us thought that it would happen in our lifetime.”
Even though the African American population now stands at 15 per cent of the community, the Nairobi experience remains an important part of the history of this city. Sadly there’s little left of the Nairobi movement in East Palo Alto today.The bricks and mortar Nairobi College closed in 1984, but still exists as a scholarship programme. Everything else — the day school, the coop, the shopping mall — have long since disappeared.
Drugs almost destroyed East Palo Alto, but Hoover suggests it’s eventual destroyer will be the booming tech industry.
“Silicon Valley is going to swallow us because we can’t generate internally the kind of mindset and enough of the population to understand what we have to do as a people in order to save ourselves. The financial power primarily of Silicon Valley will eat up this community and will swallow it, and will turn it into a Palo Alto.”
Whatever this community faces next, the Nairobi experience is forever etched in its history. The vibrancy on the movement, the songs, the dance and the poems, the dresses and the names will eternally be part of East Palo Alto city.