The city of Nairobi is many things to many people, and there is no end to the adjectives you can use to describe Kenya’s capital to try and make sense of the soul of the city.
It is every fashion faux pas, every knock-off, every failed model's catwalk. A million burning cigarette butts, life ordered and disordered. It is every dream realised, every truth questioned; it is every city from Beijing (China) to New York City (United States) to South Africa’s Cape Town. It is bustle.
And as if to counter the narrative, adjacent to the central business district is the country’s largest recreational park: Uhuru Park and recreational ground, a haven of tranquillity amid the din of noise, the endless traffic and madding crowd.
I had lived in Nairobi for several years, had been to Uhuru Park countless times I passed through the park daily on my way to work. But all this time I had been numb, preoccupied, harried. The marabou, some almost my height, minded their business, sometimes scouring the water for fish, at other times roaming the grounds on their spindly legs.
Always, a white man would be sitting in his cubicle by the boat hangar or dredging leaves and other debris from the water. He would nod my way, smiling a hallo. He must be the manager, I surmised, and he sure must love his job. He wore football jerseys bearing the names of Italian teams, his face and clean-shaven head burnt puce by the African sun.
I followed the same route on my way home in the evening, on auto-pilot, numb from work, my shadow long in the gloaming light of the sinking sun.
First time a charm
And then I noticed it; I noticed Uhuru Park for the first time after one-and-a-half years. It was Idd ul Fitr, the day after the end of the Muslim holy month or Ramadhan, a public holiday. I had just come from watching a basketball game at the nearby Railways Club. It was already dark, but a carnival mood filled the park: families sat on mats spread on the grass, feasting, toasting the night. Small children darted around mischievously.
Maybe it was the night air, maybe it was the holiday, but I paused to watch. The water was still there, and so were the trees and the walkways, but something was different, as if a wand had been waved over the night, sprinkling stardust. I decided I would return the next evening, with a camera.
The park was empty; the nest-less marabou had long retired in the trees. The park’s lights shone amber in the velvety blue water. In the distance, the neon light of billboards blinked. The place now was a painting, a distant likeness of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. Later, while reviewing the pictures, I decided I had been bat-blind all along; how else could I have not seen this?
Opened by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969, Uhuru Park sits on a 12-acre piece of land, and features an artificial lake. Over the years, the park would come to embody the tagline that sold Nairobi City as “The City in the Sun”, with the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) looming in the background.
Before it slowly fell into disrepair and insecurity, the park was a must-stop site, especially for local visitors. Pictures from that era feature subjects in hilarious postures-with the photographer directing, the outcome would be someone holding the crown of the KICC.
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Uhuru Park is buzzing with energy. The swings spin in manic rotation, the children on board screaming in frenzied excitement — and horror. Several young couples, probably on a shoestring budget, picnic on the sheared grass, while in the water, foot-pedalled boats, closely monitored by park attendants, carry clients. A weary camel draped in a chequered shawl sits by the pavement, its minder waiting for the next client to clamber aboard.
It must appear unthinkable now, but there is a time, a dark period in the 1990s, when Uhuru Park almost vanished. Had plans gone by the script authored by the powers of the day, the park would today be most likely occupied by drab, yellow government buildings and a 60-storey business complex, the water and the boats, the grass and the swings only distant memories.
It took the peerless courage of Prof Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel laureate, and other activists to stop the plan, but at a cost. In 1989, she led a protest against the construction of the business complex. She was forced out of office but her dogged fight caused foreign investors to cancel the planned building.
Later, church groups would almost hijack the stands, with preaching meetings every weekend before the former management of the now rebranded County Council of Nairobi intervened and returned the park to the people.
The heart and soul
At its core, the soul of Uhuru Park is entertainment; it’s in the flair of a lone preacher in a pink suit, or skaters zipping across the tarmac near the main dais. And occasionally, a musician.
Not too long after I rediscovered Uhuru Park, I encountered one; a dread-locked young man in his 20s. He carried a contraption rigged with nearly every musical instrument: drum, guitar, even a harmonica. He sampled several numbers for a medley: he segued from EB King’sStay by MetoRedemption Songsby Bob Marley.
A slight breeze scuffed the water, as if in agreement. He had once been a university student, he told me between breaks, but he had discovered that he didn’t belong in the lecture halls, and so halfway through the four-year course, he quit, just got up and left, and assembled his one-man band and took to the road, touring the country.
A crowd had gathered and they requested song after song, all obliged. Here, I remember thinking, was a man completely in concert with his art; afreeman. Freedom. Uhuru.
The July of the year of “my” Uhuru Park was agonisingly cold. But finally, the ghost of July crawled out of its dreary enclave into the waiting arms of the August sun. And there could never have been a more eloquent endorsement than the sight of yellow blooms sprouting from the floating hyacinth, which had invaded the upper section of the lake.
Later that month, as I walked across the curved bridge straddling the main lake, I stopped briefly and took in the sight. It was an inky night, hauntingly beautiful and I remember thinking about Prof Maathai and others who had stood in front of the government machinery and dared it to tear down the park.
There was something about the water, that hard-to-define breath of life found wherever water flows. Thanks, I muttered. What if …? It was an unbearable thought.