How Haile Selassie Avenue got its name

Ethiopia had never been colonised and was renowned for its literacy rate

In Summary

• The street starts from the roundabout at Muthurwa market and ends at Community

Central Bank of Kenya headquarters building on Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi
Central Bank of Kenya headquarters building on Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi
Image: FILE

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country,” were the words of Sir Charles Elliot, who was the commissioner of British East Africa between 1900 and 1904.

These remarks came when he observed how Nairobi, and the whole region by extension, were growing exponentially simply because of the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway.

In 1897, railway chief engineer George Whitehouse was scouting for a route through which the railway would pass. Considered to be Mile 327, or the halfway point of the Ugandan railway, Whitehouse earmarked 'Nyrobe' for a railway depot, and where the builders would rest before embarking on the Kikuyu highlands.

In 1898, Albert Church was commissioned with designing a layout for the railway depot. It comprised only two streets intended to run north from the railway station: Station Street and Victoria Street.

In 1899, the railway builders finally reached Nairobi, and from then on, houses, shops and hotels started being built. This necessitated the construction of another road, and that’s when the first avenue was constructed.

At first, just like all the other avenues that followed it, it was named based on numerals. Thus, it was known as First Avenue. But then, with the completion of the railway, they decided to name it in honour of the chief engineer, who was George Whitehouse. Therefore, it was known as Whitehouse Avenue.

This went on until Independence, when the Africanisation process followed. This entailed restoring all the ‘white’ things back to Africans, including land, businesses and even street names.

Among the guidelines for street names were Kenyan nationalists who had fought for independence, pan-Africans who had supported Mzee Kenyatta in the Independence struggle, and finally, African capital cities.

Whitehouse Avenue, being the longest avenue in the Nairobi CBD, even longer than Delamere Avenue (now Kenyatta Avenue), held much importance. And so, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta decided to name if after his Ethiopian counterpart Haile Selassie. Some sources claim that he named it specifically after him due to the fact that Ethiopia had the highest literacy rate in Africa.

Others say it was because Ethiopia had never been colonised; therefore, the street would be a representative of their long period of autonomy. And others say it only happened because Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Haile Selassie were best buddies.

The Diesel Mobile Unit at the Nairobi Central Railway Station.
The Diesel Mobile Unit at the Nairobi Central Railway Station.
Image: NMS


At the heart of this avenue was the initial railway station. Initially built as a mabati structure in 1899, when the railway builders arrived in Nairobi, it was later upgraded in 1912 to the architecturally impressive station that it is now.

Right ahead of it is the Kenya Railways Headquarters. Right after the completion of the construction of the railway in 1901, the headquarters was moved from Mombasa to Nairobi. For a while, the offices were housed at the mabati structure, then upgraded to the stone structure in 1912.

In 1924, the officials decided to build an impressive building to manifest the power the railway held, since it constituted the biggest portion of the colony’s economy at the time. Sir Herbert Baker, one of the best architects of the time, was commissioned with designing it.

Just as his other designs in the city, such as State House, Nairobi School and the Supreme Court, the Freemason architect employed the neo-classical style of architecture in constructing the new Railways Headquarters, with three pillars at the corner and one at the side. It was and still is very beautiful.

In 1971, the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation established the Railways Museum, which is now operated by Kenya Railways in conjunction with the National Museum.

It exhibits images and artefacts of the whole railway construction, with some tracks that are still connected to the main railway line. There are also restored locomotives displayed on the yard, from the time of the original Lunatic Express.


Haile Selassie Avenue was also the spot of the August 7, 1998 bombing of the American Embassy, which resulted in the death of 213 people.

At around 10.30am, two members of al Qaeda, Azzam and Al-Owhali, approached the American Embassy in their Toyota Dyna lorry. Loaded at the back of the lorry was a bomb made of 500 cylinders of TNT. The explosives were then packed into 20 specially designed wooden crates that were carefully sealed.

When the truck approached the gates of the embassy, the security guard, Benson Bwaku, was commanded by those in the truck to open the gate. He declined. The plan was that al Ohwali would alight the truck and shoot at the guards, but then, he realised that he didn’t have his gun with him once he had alighted, and so, he turned and ran away instead.

Benson Bwaku tried calling out for reinformncement immediately, but at that moment, the bomb in the truck was detonated.

The explosion was so bad, it damaged the Embassy building and brought down the adjacent Ufundi Co-operative House with everyone in it. The heatwave from the blast was so high that even a bus passing by Haile Selassie Avenue burned down.

Co-operative Bank Headquarters remained standing, but it had all its windows blown out. Most of the people sustained injuries simply because of the glass shattering, particularly those who ran to the window.

The Co-operative Bank Headquarters was later repaired and restored to its original form. For a while, it was nicknamed ‘Bell Bottoms’ due to how its shape resembles that of the trousers that were in fashion back in the 90s.

On the other hand, the site of the embassy was converted into a Memorial Park, and every year on August 7, a memorial is held on behalf of the victims.


In 1970, Cobb Archer & Partners were tasked with designing the Central Bank of Kenya, and so they came up with the brutalist structure on Haile Selassie Avenue.

Two decades later, there was a need to expand offices, but instead of building more floors, they decided to construct another building in entirety.

That’s when Triad Architects were called in to design the new building. At 140 metres tall, it became the tallest building in East Africa, consisting of an office tower with 38 floors, as well as a seven-storey multi-storey banking complex.

This tall building alone had so many offices that it threatened the office supply balance at the CBD at the time. It was actually considered to have a totality of all the offices in the CBD. This was a surplus to the requirements of the Central Bank of Kenya, and so they decided to pass up on the building.

It was eventually renamed The Times Tower, and allocated to the Kenya Revenue Authority in 1997.      

The street starts from the roundabout at Muthurwa market and ends at Community, at the junction where NHIF and the National Library stand.

Other buildings on the street include the Government Printer, the Technical University of Kenya, Ex-Telcoms House, Coffee House, NCPB House and even Pr Ng’ang’a’s church.


Our Sketch Tour was on the exact day when the Mashemeji Derby was being played (April 21), so we even incorporated them as part of our tour. They had so many vuvuzelas, however, and so they interrupted our lesson. Mutinda, our photographer, tried recording them as they passed by, but they threatened to steal his phone. 

Despite being a medical doctor, Keith Tukei was our best sketcher around, with his sketch of the Nairobi Railways Station being very ealistic.

We even nudged him to quit medicine as the government had refused to meet doctors' pay demands, and switch careers to architecture, seeing as he and Sir Herbert Baker were at par. He, however, responded, “I’ve wasted my 20s in school studying medicine. I am not ready to waste my 30s as well in school.”

We tried taking a group photo outside the Co-operative Bank Headquarters, but the security guard approached us and warned us that we may be arrested on suspicion of surveillance terrorism.

He looked us straight in the eye and asked, “Nyinyi ndio mnapiga picha hapa ndio mkuje kulipua baadaye?” and then we had to spend the next five minutes explaining that we are just artists learning about the history of the city. This came right after my explanation on the August 7 bombing. Maybe I should have asked him to tell us more.

By the way, the Ex-Telcoms building next to it is one of the most beautiful building in the CBD, if not the most beautiful, thanks to the mural painted by Viktart Mwangi a few years back. It is quite unfortunate, though, that they do not allow people to take photos of that building. Photos would honestly do much in showcasing its immense beauty.  

All in all, it was a great lesson on the First Avenue… sorry, Whitehouse Avenue… sorry, Haile Selassie Avenue. The next time you pass there, make sure to remember all these details. See you on the next Sketch Tour.

Downpour on Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi on April 4
Downpour on Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi on April 4
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