• Rather than have students sit and listen to lecture, I immersed them in the history
Learning the history of Kenya has been one of the most interesting paths I’ve pursued lately.
To know what happened in a particular place some decades ago is like time-travelling to that period.
And thanks to our broad imaginative capacities as humans, our brains can picture all the scenes as they unfolded, albeit in black and white.
Well, we have history films to blame for programming us to believe that the world before 1980 lacked any colour.
A great storyteller knows how to spice up the story and make it spellbinding.
I was lucky to encounter one such storyteller during The NYrobi Book Fest last year. Hosted by Alliance Française from from October 13 to 15, it provided an opportunity for literature creatives to showcase their works.
On the second day, Ngartia, one of the most renowned historians from Too Early for Birds, was slated to have a storytelling session. And, knowing his prowess, the whole auditorium was packed 30 minutes before the start time.
During that session, he narrated the story of Patrick Shaw, one of the most-feared police officers in Kenya from the 1960s. But he didn’t do it in the ordinary style of an investigative story.
Rather, he added some twists and narrated it like an action movie, from the point-of-view of the robbers who were being hunted by Shaw.
It was one of the most interesting history sessions I’ve ever attended, and so I decided to try out his path in the event I also decide to become a history storyteller.
My first task, therefore, came this previous Sunday, when I decided to teach the history of Muindi Mbingu Street. But I wasn’t going to do it in the ordinary way, like lectures in university. Neither was I going to do it like Ngartia’s. I didn’t want my whole audience seated and just staring at me. So what did I do?
I decided to make it a Sketch Tour. What this meant was that we would walk together along the whole street, stop at important landmarks, where I would teach them the history of the particular place, and then they would sit somewhere and sketch anything around them.
I figured out that would be a rather interactive way to learn history; by incorporating it with a physical tour, as well as art.
Therefore, I partnered with Uzima, Karibu Nairobi and Nuts Kenya to curate the best experience. Uzima was the best sketcher I knew around, so he would offer assistance to anyone.
Karibu Nairobi would provide cool merchandise, such as fridge magnets with images of Nairobi’s famous landmarks. And Nuts Kenya, who pride themselves in having the best nuts in Kenya, would provide us with something to bite during the whole tour.
I had also invited Kevin Mugambi (violinist) and Wandia Kubai (saxophonist) to play us some tantalising music as we sketched. I wanted us to have that Titanic feeling.
The scope of the tour was from the UoN footbridge all the way to City Market. So we got to the top of the bridge at 11.30am, where our first lesson began.
First, we discussed the origin of the street name. During the colonial period, all the streets north of Delamere Avenue (now Kenyatta Avenue) were named after the Colonial Commissioners. There was Hardinge Street after Arthur Hardinge, Eliot Street after Sir Charles Eliot, Stewart Street after Donald Stewart, and Sadler Street, after Sir James Sadler.
With the rush of Africanisation after Independence, all these streets got African names. Hardinge Street became Kimathi Street, Eliot Street became Wabera Street, Stewart Street became Muindi Mbingu Street, and Sadler Street became Koinange Street.
MAN BEHIND THE NAME
So who was Muindi Mbingu? In 1938, the colonial government enforced a destocking policy in Ukambani, seizing 2,000 cattle from the people after claiming that the overgrazing had led to environmental degradation.
One man, Muindi Mbingu, mobilised residents to walk 60km all the way from Machakos to Nairobi. The aim was to negotiate with the then-Governor, Robert-Brooke Propham, who finally agreed and the cattle were released back to their owners.
Muindi Mbingu, however, was immediately detained for 15 years, and upon release, died in the hands of the Mau Mau, just 10 years before Independence, after allegedly becoming too cosy with the colonial government.
On one side of the footbridge, we could see Central police station, built back in 1904 to serve as the headquarters of the British Colonial Police. On March 14, 1922, Harry Thuku was arrested by the police and detained in these cells. For the next two days, around 7,000 to 8,000 members of the East African Association marched to the police station to demand his release, but they were told that Harry Thuku would have to be arraigned in court for a hearing first for his fate to be determined.
The men in the crowd gave up and started walking away, before one Muthoni Nyanjiru ran to them, took off her dress, and told them, “Take this dress and give me your trousers, because you men are cowards.” This action caused a scene at the police station, and the men got back to protesting, prompting the police to open fire.
Other settlers who were at the Norfolk Hotel also joined in the fire, killing 21 people, among them four women. Muthoni Nyanjiru was among the deceased, but was immortalised for her action of bravery. After Independence, the street was renamed ‘Harry Thuku Road’, in remembrance of this incident.
On the other side of the footbridge lies Kingsway House. After Independence, this building housed the Special Branch offices. One notable incident that happened here was the murder of JM Kariuki in 1975.
JM Kariuki is remembered for saying that, “Kenya has become a country of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars” during a rally in 1974.
Afterwards, 700 acres of wheat were burned down in Rongai in a farm belonging to Jomo Kenyatta, and the perpetrators were alleged to have been incited by JM Kariuki’s remarks.
Therefore, his life was in danger, and in subsequent weeks, there were two failed assassination attempts. On March 2, 1975, while leaving Hilton Hotel, JM Kariuki was abducted by the then GSU Commandant, Ben Gethi, and escorted to Kingsway House, where he was to be questioned regarding his incitement. There, JM met Wanyoike Thungu, who was Jomo Kenyatta’s rogue bodyguard.
Wanyoike asked JM Kariuki why he would insult the President as if they were age-mates, and before JM could answer, he was met with a blow that knocked down his front teeth. The two got into a fight, and as JM reached out for the pistol in his pocket, Gethi shot him in the shoulder.
Knowing that they had done a mistake since news about this could leak if JM was taken to hospital, Gethi decided to finish him off and dump his body at the Ngong Hills Forest. It was there that his body was finally recovered 10 days later.
After this history lesson, I dismissed everyone to different corners of the footbridge, where they were free to draw anything around, be it the footbridge itself or the towering buildings on University Way. Gauging the sketches made, I believe Lisa had the best one.
After half an hour, we proceeded to our next stop, which was Jeevanjee Gardens. Thankfully, the garden had enough trees and grass, so we could just sit down like a picnic and sketch. And so began the history lesson.
In 1895, just as the Imperial British East Africa Company was departing from the East African Coast due to bankruptcy, a 40-year-old man was arriving from British India.
Armed with the basic English necessary for conversations, he convinced the British colonial government that he could supply them with labour to help in the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway. The British officers agreed, and by 1901, the Indian had supplied 31,985 coolies, propelling him to wealth. His name was Albhai Jeevanjee, and he was the first Asian to be appointed to the LegCo.
In 1906, while at the height of his wealth, he began the construction of a garden, which he gifted to the people of Nairobi as a place to rest. Thanks to him, therefore, we had some shade to lie under as we sketched our surroundings.
Ruth took this chance to showcase her prowess, when she even pulled out some watercolours to paint the sketch she had made of the public toilet. We were all baffled, wondering why she had come with an assault rifle to a knife fight. Kwani hajui jokes?
Once we were done, we moved on to City Market, which was to be our final stop for the day.
Back in 1904, before Jeevanjee had constructed the gardens, he built a market around the same area to boost the trade of European produce. Four years later, however, the bubonic plague struck the city, and the unhygienic market was deemed to be the cause. The Europeans, therefore, declined to use it, and it was left to the Indians and the lower-class Africans. In 1932, it was demolished and replaced by the shinier City Market, which attracted European traders back.
Rather than sketch it, Wango and I preferred to sit on its steps and sketch the Jamia Mosque, which is on the opposite side. A group of butchers gathered behind us, and we could hear them say, “Eh, ona hawa watoto wanaangalia tu kitu na wanachora venye iko. We Njoro unaweza ivi?” And then they would laugh. I couldn’t tell whom exactly among us they were praising, so I presume we both drew well.
That marked the end of our tour, and so we proceeded to the Jamia Mosque, where we had our final group photo before bidding each other farewell. It was a lovely tour, and we hope that next month’s may be even better. For those interested, you can check us out on social media as Qwani.