Learning the history of Westlands

McMillan had the national railway route moved just because his wife complained

In Summary

• Storytelling tours ends with more than the usual sketches after meeting street kid

Ruth's sketch of Lower Kabete Road
Ruth's sketch of Lower Kabete Road

As we all know, Nairobi was initially a swampy area before the arrival of the colonialists.

If you’re keen enough when travelling on Waiyaki Way, you’ll notice that all the roads on either side end up either in ascents or descents within a few metres (for example, Ring Road Kileleshwa, James Gichuru Road, Redhill-Link Road, and so on).

This is because the whole area is hilly. Westlands was also a hill, known as the Kirungii Hill back then.

Having covered two streets in the Nairobi CBD, we decided to visit Westlands for our March Sketch Tour. Westlands is currently rivalling the Nairobi CBD in terms of development, but how did it start?


In April 1892, the Imperial British East African Company sent an expedition team to Kabete to construct a fort. Led by Major Eric Smith, they constructed a new fort just a few miles from where Captain Frederick Lugard had built his, and named it Fort Smith.

The British occupants of this fort were hostile to the locals, and so bad blood brewed between the two groups. On August 14, 1892, the British had made plans to raid the village of Riuki in Githunguri, but Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga got wind of the plans, and so he stormed into the fort to cause chaos.

The soldiers manning the fort overpowered him and hit him in the head. He was then chained on the neck to a flagpost outside the fort for the night, and then the next day, he was tried in a makeshift court and sentenced to deportation to Mombasa.

He was handed over as a prisoner to a Coast-bound caravan, which followed a cattle track from Kabete and passed through the Nairobi swamp on its way to Mombasa. When the caravan got to Kibwezi on September 6, 1892, his head wounds had gotten so bad that he was left in the mission hospital to die.

In 1896, the colonial government tasked Civil Engineer George Whitehouse to build the Kenya-Uganda railway, and when he got to the Nairobi swamp in 1899, he designed it to follow the cattle track that had earlier on been used by Waiyaki from Kabete. This track passed the foot of the Kirungii Hill.

At the time, the original road from Nairobi to Busia was the current Naivasha Road (in Dagoretti), thanks to an ox-cart track designed by William Mackinnon and Captain Sclater in 1890.

The project left Nairobi within the same year, and so merchants started moving in. The first person to construct a house close to Kirungii Hill was Col Ewart Grogan, who, after finding South Africa unfavourable to him, came to Kenya in 1904 and bought 113 acres of land in a woody area that was surrounded by two rivers, River Kirichwa and River Nairobi.

He commissioned London architect HO Creswell and a firm of local Indian contractors to build his home, which he named “Chiromo.” The name came from the village in Malawi where he almost died while volunteering as a soldier during the Second Matebele War in 1896. It means ‘joining of the streams’.

When it rained, the Nairobi CBD became muddy, and so Grogan suggested that the city be moved to Kirungi Hill. Well, wherever he is, he must be smiling now that the modern-day Kirungi Hill (Westlands) is a CBD in itself.

The architect built a proper stone house, but Grogan never resided in the house due to his adventurous lifestyle. Therefore, in 1910, he sold it to American businessman William McMillan, after whom the McMillan Library in town is named.

McMillan and his wife Lucie gladly moved in, but it wasn’t long before Lucie started complaining about sleepless nights. The train would loudly bellow at night when passing next to their home, and this was made worse by the fact that there was a watering point where the train would stop just before taking the Kirungi Hill climb.

Therefore, McMillan had the railway route re-aligned and exchanged with the road route. Hence, the railway line was taken to Dagoretti, while the official road to Western Kenya now became the cattle track that Waiyaki walked on, eventually being named Waiyaki Way.

That went on to show how powerful McMillan was, that he would have the national railway route moved just because his wife complained. Lucie McMillan eventually died in 1957, and the house was donated to the government in 1958, and lies in present-day University of Nairobi Chiromo Campus, housing the Institute for African Studies.


In the 1940s, the British demarcated the area known as Parklands to be a residential area for civil servants. At the time, most of these civil servants were Kenyan Asians of Indian descent. Within a decade, Parklands became very congested, and so the people kept moving westwards, till they got to Waiyaki Way, and this area became known as Westlands.

To start us off, we made sketches of The Mall and the One Africa building, with Nyambura winning this round with the most realistic sketches.


In 2019, the China Road and Bridge Corporation successfully won the tender to construct the Nairobi Expressway. Within a year, all 2,500 trees along the road, among them 13 rare species, were felled. The list would’ve read 14 rare species, if it weren’t for the efforts of some environmental support groups such as Daima Coalition on Green Spaces, as well as the Wangari Maathai Foundation.

At the forefront was one Elizabeth Wathuti, who was the Head of Campaigns at the Daima organisation. Through their activism, they were able to save the fig tree at Mpaka Road from being cut. The reason for the respect of this fig tree is that it is more than 100 years old. That makes it one of the oldest trees in Nairobi.

In 2020, the NMS even took it upon themselves to adopt and take care of the tree. When CRBC were constructing the Museum Hill exit from Westlands, they erected a barrier right next to the tree, and now it’s only accessible from Mpaka Road.

On weekdays, some matatus park under it, but on weekends, like during our Sketch Tour, it was unoccupied. So we lay under its shade for a while as one of us, Ruth, sketched the tree from a distance, and Master Okello climbed up.


On the morning of February 24, 1965, Pio Gama Pinto was preparing to take his daughter to school. He had just opened the gate to take the car out of the driveway, when he was shot at close range and died. This happened right outside their house in Westlands, and so, that particular road was named in his honour, as Pio Gama Pinto Road.

Living on Lower Kabete Road, just behind Pinto’s house, were two businessmen, Vidhu Shah and Manelklal Rughani. Shah owned a bookshop in Murang’a, while Rughani owned a bookshop in Karatina. One of their neighbours, Sat Guru Pujya Bapa, advised them that they should merge their businesses and shift operations to Nairobi.

Therefore, on the same year that Pio Gama Pinto died, so was the Shah and Rughani joint business born as Text Book Centre on Kijabe Street. The business grew substantially. And in 1973, the neighbour once again advised the two to buy the neighborhood in which they were currently living, and establish their retail store there.

In 1976, Rughani visited London and got to see the Brent Cross Shopping Mall. Its architectural design impressed him, and so he sought to replicate it in Kenya. Therefore, after consultations with Shah, they decided to construct a shopping mall in the land they owned on Lower Kabete Road.

Construction works began in 1981, and quite a number of investors, seeing the opportunity that lay ahead, booked some of the stalls in advance. However, due to the attempted coup in the following year, resulting in insecurity among the Asian community, most of the investors pulled out.

Therefore, when the mall was finally opened in the year 1983 as Sarit Centre, it only had two tenants: Text Book Centre and Uchumi Supermarkets. It was only at the end of 1984 that other tenants moved in, and they did so in droves, to the point that it was fully occupied within the same year.

In 1994, it was Shah’s time to go on benchmarking tours, and this time, he found himself in Singapore. There, he saw the versatility of different malls. When he came back to Kenya, he commenced the construction of a Phase-II of the mall. This involved the addition of a food court, cinema and gym.

In 2017, Sarit Centre started construction of a Phase-III, and this was primarily retail. Sarit Centre has gone on to uphold its status as one of the biggest malls in Kenya, hence the tagline ‘A city within a city’.


As I was explaining about Sarit Centre while standing next to the gate on Lower Kabete Road, a street kid joined in and listened keenly. I thought I had won over an extra soul, but once I was done, he got to begging us all for money. One of us, Bantu Mwaura, dismissed him by saying that we were struggling artistes and had nothing in our pockets.

The street kid then borrowed Bantu’s sketching tools and told Bantu to dare him to draw anything. Bantu, looking around for the simplest thing, told him to draw the city clock on the Ring Road roundabout. Within a minute, the kid was done, and had even traced the advertisements on the clock.

Challenged by the kid, Bantu now dared him to draw 9 West. The kid, without sitting down or breaking a sweat, drew the building as if he were the original architect. Then he went on to sign off as ‘Zombie’, but Bantu encouraged him to drop that pseudonym and go by his real name, after which he signed off as ‘Marto’.

We were all impressed by his artistic skills, and now went on to give him the little we had. I really wished I could get him an artistic job that could get him out of the streets because he clearly had talent.

Once we were done with this part, we took a walk inside Sarit Centre to experience the feeling of getting lost by going in through one gate and leaving through the other, on an entirely different road.

After that, with our Sketch Tour completed, we went our separate ways, having learned the history of Westlands.

To join us on our next Sketch Tour, make sure to follow us on our socials as ‘Qwani’ so you may be aware of the date.

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