Cry, the felling of leafy suburbs by 'progress'

Founders of Nairobi envisioned a green city in the sun, not a grey concrete block in the sun

In Summary

• A majestic fig tree is to be sacrificed to the demons of that cult they call progress

Fig tree in Nairobi that was set to be cleared before authorities made a U-turn under pressure
Fig tree in Nairobi that was set to be cleared before authorities made a U-turn under pressure

There are certain factors in our lives that we take for granted and sometimes don't realise what an absolute privilege they were until we are about to lose them.

For instance, I grew up in the once literally leafy suburb of Riverside Drive in Nairobi, just a brisk 20 minute walk from the city centre.  

I say a “once leafy suburb” because the last time I had the chance to drive through the area, it was more concrete jungle than leafy suburb. 

Some might say that is the price of progress, but others would term it a betrayal of the ideals of those who believed Nairobi, the place of cool waters, should be a green city in the sun, instead of a grey concrete block in the sun.

Thanks to my father’s work, I grew up adjacent to the Chiromo campus of the University of Nairobi. 

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and looking for my own place to live that it really dawned on me what a tremendous privilege it had been to spend the best part of 24 years just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Nairobi Arboretum.

The main thing here is that I had the chance to live in a green part of the city. Not many people I knew who like me were born and bred in Nairobi, lived the same kind of lifestyle. So I must say I appreciate that I was immensely privileged in that sense.

When I was a boy, my friends and I spent our weekends and school holidays breaking into the Zoology department to tease and marvel at the caged blue testicled vervet monkeys. 

Often, we would go to play in the Arboretum, where at the weekend, there would be randy exhibitionists having sex in the bushes. 

There would also be members of various religious groups having praise and worship sessions under the trees, and believe it or not, actual tree-huggers.

On other days, we would take what is now Ring Road Westlands Lane, but what was then was a narrow path bordered by cactus plants, to the site where the Parklands Baptist Church now stands.  

Before the church was built, that plot was a children’s playground. But corruption, as we know, does not care for such frivolity as City Council playgrounds on public land. Neither are religious organisations exempt from participation in corruption, whether wittingly or unwittingly. And anyway, how can it be a corrupt deal when it is done for the church? 

Nevertheless, seeing that we were already in the neighbourhood, we would take a quick run through the Westlands shopping centre. 

In the days before the Sarit Centre was built, Westlands or Kirungii was a small shopping centre.

The Uchumi at the roundabout was the biggest shop in the area. Where the Mall now stands, there was a row of shops. One of them was owned by future First Lady Lucy Kibaki, another, Slater and Whittaker, belonged to the family of Nairobi-born singer Roger Whitaker.

If we walked in a straight line from Slater and Whittaker, past the Caltex filling station behind the bus stop, we found ourselves at the Westlands Self Service Stores (WSSS). On the same street as the post office and Oven Door bakery, once an Nairobi institution.

Outside the WSSS, there was a traffic circle or roundabout, and in the middle of that stood a majestic fig tree. 

Now I hear this tree is to be sacrificed to the demons of that cult they call progress and I want to cry like Dogmatix, the environmentalist dog from the Asterix and Obelix stories.

If you had the privilege to read those comics, you’d know that the dog cries each time he sees a tree being cut down, or carelessly pushed over by his master, Obelix.

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