Kirinyaga Road is the path of transit for many Nairobians as they enter or leave the Central Business District, packed in matatus.
It is also the automobile spare part hub of the city, with many cars whizzing by day in day out.
Little do they know that the most important building in the country’s fight for independence is nestled along this road, a one-storey tale of the first building owned by an indigenous Kenyan man in the history of Nairobi that inspired the emancipation of a nation from colonial rule.
Kiburi House, described by trade unionist Bildad Kaggia in a 1971 issue of DRUM magazine, spelled ‘dread and fear for the colonial authorities’, it was a physical statement of defiance and a reminder that Kenyans would eventually reclaim their property.
In 1948, the Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company did exactly that. Founded on May 2, 1946, the company, then chaired by Kiburi wa Thumbi, is one of the first limited liability companies owned by indigenous Kenyans as well.
Prominent shareholders of the company include the late Jomo Kenyatta, Wahu Kenyatta, Peter Muigai Kenyatta and Uhuru Kenyatta, listed as a transferee in his youth.
The company acquired the building for Sh8,000 and named it after the founding chairman.
Kaggia writes that in 1950/51, their managing director, Richard Macharia, offered a room to the Kenyan African Union (KAU) that became their branch office.
The Transport and Allied Workers Union soon moved into the building as well. This transformed it into a hub of trade union and political activity.
Interestingly, the house became a meeting place for Africans visiting Nairobi.
A female trade unionist saw the opportunity and opened an eating kiosk, where people could get “tea, gruel and roast meat” (nyama choma).
Politicians and trade unionists alike from all over the country communed at this establishment, as news of KAU’s achievements spread.
The building also became the centre of the Mau Mau movement. As Bildad Kaggia documented, KAU meetings would take place in the evening and thereafter, the most prominent initiated leaders of KAU would begin their meetings to discuss the growth of the movement and the administering of oaths.
Meetings of the Mau Mau War Council also took place here.
According to a variety of reports, in July 26, 1952, at a KAU gathering in Nyeri that saw at least 50,000 people attend, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta publicly denounced the Mau Mau and its activities.
He was known for his moderate politics, hence his statement was directed against the radical nature of the Mau Mau and his worry that it threatened the democracy that KAU was working towards.
“Mau Mau has spoiled the country. Let Mau Mau perish forever. All people should search for Mau Mau and kill it,” he is quoted saying.
The Mau Mau, of course, did not take kindly to Mzee’s call for their demise. He was summoned to Kiburi House and given a stern warning to cease from speaking against the militant group. However, Mzee was instrumental in the management of certain offices on the first floor of the building, including the construction of a few extra rooms.
The media was instrumental in the spread of information concerning KAU’s activities, hence vernacular newspapers grew in popularity as a reliable source for Africans. Kiburi House was the publishing centre for Wiyathi, Inooro ria Gikuyu and Afrika Mpya newspapers.
Representatives of Western media, who had previously shunned KAU, suddenly displayed renewed interest in their activities, and subsequently went to the building for interviews with some of its most prominent politicians.
Kirinyaga Road is not known to be a secure area. The building, says Perpetua Wanjiru, a clerk with the Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company, has been compromised in more recent years and is especially vulnerable due to the presence of two safety deposit boxes, the contents of one arcane to its current tenants.
They are large steel boxes, built into the walls with a large steel handle, and certainly impenetrable. In 2006, burglars attempted to weld open one of them open, recovering about Sh. 3000 in coins, property of the company that owns the building.
The other box is located in a restaurant within Kiburi House, though it has since been sealed with cement and will continue to remain a mystery.
The building to date houses the headquarters of the Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company Limited, a restaurant, as well as a few hardware shops.
A far cry from the centre of politics and trade unionism it once was, it is quite easy to miss and blends in around the rest of the buildings in the area.
Kiburi, a Kikuyu name, loosely translates to “a big goat”. In Kiswahili, however, the same word translates to “pride”.
A symbol of the humble beginnings of democracy in this country, the story of Kiburi House, though relatively unknown, is an interesting tale of reclamation that should be relayed for generations to come.
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