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Nairobi is a completely modern, colonial creation and almost everything here has been built in the last 100 years. Until the advent of locomotive transport in the late 19th century, Nairobi was just a boggy waterhole for the Maasai people and of little interest to the European colonialists. When the Maasai were devastated by civil wars and a litany of diseases, including rinderpest, cholera and smallpox, the laibon – chief or spiritual leader – of the Maasai was forced to negotiate a treaty with the British allowing them to march the Mombasa-Uganda railway line right through the heart of the Maasai grazing lands. As the rails of the East Africa railway fell into place across the nation, a depot was established on the edge of a small stream known to the Maasai as uaso nairobi (cold water).
Curiously, the Maasai’s end-of-the-world myth spoke of an ‘iron snake’ that would one day crawl across their land. Nairobi quickly became a tent city and a supply depot, and soon enough developed into the administrative nerve-centre of the Uganda Railway. The place became a convenient and relatively cool place for the Indian railway laborers and their British overlords to pause midway before tackling the arduous climb into the highlands.
With the completion of the railway, the headquarters of the colonial administration was moved from Mombasa to the cooler, small settlement of Nairobi. Now, as the capital of the British Protectorate, the future of the city on the swamp was assured. Once the railway was up and running, wealth began to flow into the city. Immediately, the colonialists began to show an interest in touring the country, and a stay in the relatively cool capital became a standard part of the trip to Kenya. The colonial government built some grand hotels to accommodate the first tourists to Kenya – big game hunters, lured by the attraction of shooting the country’s almost naively tame wildlife. There was even a special chair on the front of the train to enable visiting dignitaries to bag lions and elephants on the trip from Mombasa to the capital.
White settlers soon began to move into the fertile highlands north and then south of Nairobi. This led to friction with the local Maasai and, later, the Kikuyu. Mixed agricultural farms were set up, with coffee plantations established at about the same time by new arrivals that included Karen Blixen and her husband, Brer. The number of white settlers rose to 9000 by 1920; by the 1950s it was 80,000. Alienated from their land, many Kikuyu people migrated to Nairobi during the same period, became part of the colonial economy, and formed associations whose principal aim was the return of land to the Kikuyu. One such person was Johnstone Kamau, who later changed his name to Jomo Kenyatta.
Until after WWII, Kenya’s white rulers were in no mood to accommodate the demands of the Africans. However, African troops returning from the war were equally in no mood to accept the status quo and the bloody Mau Mau Rebellion, which mainly involved the Kikuyu, raged until 1956. Soon afterwards, Kenyatta was jailed and later placed under house arrest until 1961,although there was no evidence to link him with the rebellion. Pressure continued to build on the British and, on 12 December 1963 Kenya gained independence, with Kenyatta as its first president. Throughout the 20th century, Nairobi continued to grow. Almost all of the colonial-era buildings were replaced by bland modern office buildings during the burst of new construction that followed Uhuru (independence) in 1963. Nairobi is now the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg. This growth has put pressure on the city’s infrastructure. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is also the capital of East Africa in many ways.
It is the financial and business center, as well as a transportation and communications crossroad. With well over one million inhabitants and growing rapidly, Nairobi has benefited greatly from Kenya’s overall stability on a continent known mainly for its lack of stability. As the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg and the UN’s fourth “World Center”, Nairobi is an often frantic mix of businessmen, diplomats, tourists, and locals. In 1998 the US embassy on Moi Ave was blown up by militants linked to Osama Bin Laden, killing more than 200 Kenyans.
Today it’s a bustling city in the grip of a seemingly endless crime wave, and heavy-handed policing and political disputes often result in violent demonstrations, particularly when the government embarks on one of its slum-clearing sprees. Religious violence is also on the increase. Nairobi is best characterized by the variety of locally-given descriptive names, representative of the city’s contrasting images – of wealthy spacious suburbs, charming flower-lined streets and a refreshing climate, alongside crime, corruption, filth and poverty. Names like ‘Green City in the Sun’, ‘City of Flowers’ and the Masai name ‘Place of Cool Waters’ attempt to overshadow the all too real version of ‘Nairobbery’ that stands as a well-found warning to newly arrived Kenya safari tourists.
It is a place of enormous energy, a tireless and thriving bustle of people, and a city of differences. Assorted races, tribes and origins are all a part of its make-up. Rural immigrants and refugees are drawn by the hope of wealth and opportunity, international businessmen are attracted by profitable business prospects, and tourists are promised the makings of the perfect safari. The city centre buzzes with the energy, aspirations and opportunism of moneychangers, safari touts, would-be thieves, food vendors and trinket sellers, prostitutes, shoppers, security guards, and sharp-eyed shoe shiners assessing the footwear of the hurried throngs. Among them are the disillusioned faces of the unemployed, the beggars and the destitute.
Kenyatta Avenue is the city’s favorite tourist image, a broad avenue fringed by trees and flowers that was originally designed to allow a twelve-oxen team to make a full turn. There are several museums and places of interest in the centre, including the National Museum and Snake Park. There are numerous markets selling traditional crafts, especially the appealing Masai market. Just outside of the centre is the Nairobi National Park, and the nearby Bomas of Kenya host performances of traditional dancing and singing both for Kenya residents and those on Kenya safaris. The Langata Giraffe Centre offers visitors the chance to hand-feed the Rothschild giraffes who inhabit the area. Is is also the safari capital of Africa and a good base for travel in Kenya. From here excursions and safaris can be arranged to any of the national parks or reserves in the country. Presidential elections in December 2002 were expected by some to be the spark to ignite the Nairobi tinderbox. Mwai Kibaki became the country’s third president when President Moi – contrary to all expectations – relinquished power without a struggle after losing the poll.