On August 7, 1998, terrorists struck Nairobi. 205 Kenyans and 12 Americans were killed when Al-Qaeda terrorists hit the US embassy in the city. An estimated 4,000 were wounded. Ufundi House, next to the US embassy, was reduced to rubble.
Fast forward to 2017 and the 1998 bomb blast site is no longer the gloomy place it once was. The grounds, now referred to as August 7th Memorial Park, opened in 2001. Individuals, corporates, the US embassy, and President Daniel arap Moi funded the transformation of the blast site into a park.
It is now a peaceful spot in the busy capital. Here you will find small groups of people holding meetings in tents. There is even a class going on in one of the tents.
“When you compare a classroom environment and this, the open environment helps students to express themselves freely,” said Mr Dan Onyango, a lecturer holding his class here.
He cited orderliness and peace and quiet within the park. “We like it in the morning when nature is fresh,” he said.
This system of teaching, Mr Onyango said, has become popular in western countries such as Italy, “where professors fancy teaching in open air.”
Holding classes under the green tents to ‘chama’ meetings, not to mention the lively conversations on the benches and scores asleep on the contoured grassy landscape is testimony to the peace and tranquillity here.
The park has a perimeter hedge around it and is manned by security guards around the clock. Here, your mind somehow tunes away from the noise in the busy streets outside.
Our guide, and the park’s general manager, Ms Natasha Mbugguss, tells us that all the plants in the park are indigenous and come from different parts of the country. The rocks lining the brick-paths were collected from different river beds in the country. At the centre of the park is the memorial wall where names of those who perished are engraved. In front of it is a fountain designed in Chinese Yin Yang sign, the symbol of life.
“I come here to refresh my mind after a busy day in town. Having lost a cousin who was travelling in a bus hit by the bomb, the memorial park serves to refresh the memories we shared,” says Mr Wilfred Kimary, a pensioner who used to work in the neighbouring Solar House, located behind Ufundi House. He was lucky to escape the blast because he was on leave.
Next to Mr Kimary is a group of four students from the German Institute of Professional Studies. For them, convenience makes the park suitable for holding group discussions.
“I come here daily, it is peaceful, quiet, and clean, and it has Wi-Fi. I’m always here by 7am,” says Redempter Kalewa, one of the students.
“In a way this space creates a sense of appreciation for the peace and tranquility we are enjoying today,” says Redempter’s classmate, Magdaline Gitau.
The memorial park was created from the land on which the Ufundi Cooperative Building and the former US Embassy once stood. It has attracted several dignitaries, among them former US President Barack Obama. It does not receive any funding from the US or Kenya and is run by the August 7th Memorial Trust.
However, the park is yet to be recognised as a national heritage site, which makes it ineligible for government funding. Mr James Kiragu, chairman of the trust, says the park is crippled by inadequate resources and has often struggled to stay afloat.
“All the money that is collected at the gate, from rent of the few shops and hiring out the facility for concerts and events goes into paying salaries for the security personnel and staff,” says Mr Kiragu. The park charges Sh30 per per person.
Inside the museum, hand-written messages of peace and solidarity from local and international visitors are pinned on the walls. Survivor stories, pictures of the blast, an audio-visual room hosting a 45-minute documentary called Seconds to Disaster, done by National Geographic, and debris from the blast can be found in the museum.
Visitors who pay Sh100 get to watch the documentary.