A sculpture is a three-dimensional object with a message. It could be a statue thriving in the context of a city like Nairobi, watching over people coursing through a life that is damn so daily.
Sculptures have a life of their own since within every block of wood, iron, or stone lies a spirit waiting to be carved.
Nairobi’s latest is the statue of nationalist Tom Mboya on Moi Avenue. It was unveiled by President Mwai Kibaki on the eve of Mashujaa Day this October as a tribute to Mboya’s “remarkable contributions” to this country, and to “honour the departed hero and remind the nation of whom he was” and “what he stood for”.
Tom Mboya’s is the second statue to be gazetted as a national treasure, after that of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi in 2007.
That was the year the government created a task force to carry out countrywide data collection to establish criteria for identifying, recognising, and honouring national heroes and heroines.
Mr Gideon Siundu, a lecturer at Masinde Muliro University, wrote in a local newspaper then that such monuments “act as public sites of memory, complementing in useful ways the narrative of resistance, visionary leadership, and embodiments of national aspirations.”
Statues and monuments commemorate the historical in eternal present, beside adding to a city’s aesthetic beauty.
Indeed, towering statues and monuments contribute to a country’s history, much like its antiquated and contemporary architecture, the rhyme and reason of its national anthem.
The world over, streets, highways, public places, and spaces are punctuated by brooding statues of decorated literary giants, military heroes, freedom fighters, and political liberators to remember triumph and tragedies, hardships and hark work, heroes and heroines.
The Tom Mboya statue
It took 42 years and Sh20 million for Kenya to finally honour one of its greatest fallen heroes in cast bronze. “TJ” was assassinated on 5 July, 1969 as he stepped out of Channa’s Chemist, a few metres from where his statue stands.
The three-year effort of self-taught sculptor Oshoto Ondula shows Mboya in flowing Ghanaian kente robes, a gift from President Kwame Nkrumah, which he wore during his campaigns for Nairobi Constituency (now Kamukunji) during the 1960 General Election.
His right hand is stretched out to symbolise a leader reaching to his people and not looking down at them.
The statue stands on what symbolises Rusinga Island, where he was buried.
The fountain and flamingoes under the statue represent the aeroplanes used by Kenyan students in the now famous Mboya-fronted Airlift Africa educational project that saw Kenyan students study on scholarships in American universities in the late 1950s and 1960s.
The Ministry of National Heritage commissioned the statue’s tendering. Ondula was short-listed out of 20 hopefuls as he got Mboya’s face correct. The family approved.
The Dedan Kimathi statue
This piece of art was unveiled on 15 August, 2007 to mark 50 years since freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi — the most defining character during the armed struggle for independence — was captured, hanged, and buried in an anonymous grave inside Kamiti Prison. Kimathi, who embodied the Mau Mau resistance, sacrifice, and commitment to ideals of nationalism, holds a rifle in the right hand and a dagger in the left.
The statue was created by sculptors from Kenyatta University’s School of Fine Art.
It cost Sh4.5 million but was criticised for portraying Kimathi dressed in military fatigues interpreted as the uniform of the imperialist army.
Materials got scarce during its creation and Kimathi ended up standing a few inches shorter on the street named after him.
Celebrated artist Elimo Njau was quoted as saying the statue was not true to life and Kimathi “could be mistaken for Bob Marley”.
The Pope’s pyramid slab
This was erected to mark Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1980 and for the African synod in 1985 at Uhuru Park, Nairobi.
The World War memorial statues and pillar
These stand opposite each other on Kenyatta Avenue in memory of “native troops” and “our glorious dead”, who perished during both world wars.
They were erected after 1918 and re-erected in 1945. One of the statues at the far left is identified as Kapombe Ngumbao.
The Nyayo Monument(s)
The Nyayo Monument in Central Park was erected to commemorate 10 years of former president Moi’s rule in 1988 and 25 years of independence.
The ceremony featured 10 heads of state at a cost Sh300 million.
The Nyayo monument has provided visitors with a memorial backdrop during photo sessions, besides being a reminder of the Moi administration.
The four-sided monument cost Sh18 million, Italian marble and all. Never mind that they started peeling off barely a year after it was unveiled. They have now been repaired.
The Sh100 note issued by the Central Bank of Kenya in 1989 featured the monument on one side.
Those who desired to make political statements defaced it. But others went further.
Raila Odinga, the then Ford Kenya deputy director of elections during the 1992 general elections, vowed that it would be demolished “once Ford Kenya comes to power.”
Other Nyayo monuments (with Kenyatta’s fly-whisk crisscrossing Moi’s fimbo to blend their two eras) included The Nyayo Fountain at Uhuru Park.
Others were erected in all major towns in Kenya, prominently featuring President Moi’s ubiquitous “fimbo ya nyayo” and Kanu’s single finger salute, besides the two goblets resembling his rungu along the Malindi-Mombasa Road.
Jomo Kenyatta statue, KICC
James Butler is an 80-year-old British sculptor who has been commissioned to work on, among others, the statue of Her Majesty the Queen Mother and King Richard III.
But it was after he was commissioned to create the double life-size, 12-foot, seated statue of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969 that his life changed.
Butler quit teaching at the City & Guilds of London Art School and became a full-time sculptor.
“The demand for public commissions has continued from here (England) and abroad,” he wrote in his CV.
The cast bronze statue was shipped from England by container to Mombasa and driven by truck to Nairobi.
It was unveiled in 1973 (when KICC was opened) to mark 10 years of independence.
The Naked Boy
The original was replaced by the Naked Blind Boy donning a wig and peeing into a fountain while clutching a fish to portray justice as naked, blind, and slippery like a fish.
In 2009, however, Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume (Mawe) complained that the statue, erected in honour of lawyer Alexander George Hamilton, who died in 1937, “does not portray naked justice. Instead it portrays naked injustice”.
The Uhuru Monument
Uhuru Gardens on Lang’ata Road, Nairobi hosted Kenya’s independence celebrations in 1963 and has two national treasures: a mugumo tree planted on the spot where the Union Jack was lowered as Kenya’s flag was hoisted and the 100-foot Uhuru Monument designed by Hamid Mughal at a cost of over Sh15 million.
It features the sculpture of a man standing in front of the Kenya Court of Arms ready to “protect our interests and resources”.
At the centre of the monument is a pair of white marble palms embracing a heart and a dove on top to symbolise the Nyayo philosophy of “Peace, Love and Unity”.
The fourth monument has people raising the flag to exemplify the harambee spirit.
It was built in 1939 in memory of Galton Paul Fenzi, who founded the East African Automobile Association besides devising Kenya’s road system.
It is also called the Nairobi Milliary Stone as it was at the point from which distance from and to Nairobi and other parts of the country was measured.
It is situated at the junction between Kenyatta Avenue and Koinange Street. The monument currently resembles a grilled tomb.