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Landmark that measures distances from Nairobi

Tuesday August 27 2019

Galton-Fenzi Memorial

An image of the Galton-Fenzi Memorial in Nairobi taken on March 3, 2016. It is a focal point and geographical beacon in the city from which distances to other parts of the country are determined. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAMES KAHONGEH
By JAMES KAHONGEH
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On a chilly Tuesday morning, the Nation meets Sharon Okoth, 23, a journalist, on Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue.

We ask her where her village is. She mentions a village in Migori County.

But does she know the distance from the city to her village? She casually answers, "420 kilometres". To her, this is a no-brainer. After all, she has travelled the route countless times.

However, Ms Okoth does not factor the approximate 17km from Utawala, where she lives, to the city centre. “I just know that my home is that far, nothing more,” she says confidently.

While she is right, Ms Okoth is not sure where this distance is measured from. “Is it from Machakos Country Bus terminus?” she throws the question back to me, grinning.

FOCAL POINT

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If you asked many Kenyans the distance from the city to their village, they might fumble a little, but ultimately get the answer right.

Asking them where this distance is measured from is a different question altogether.

Ms Okoth, like millions of Kenyans, is oblivious of the existence of a focal point and geographical beacon in the city from which distances to other parts of the country are determined.

Sitting at the intersection of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Cardinal Otunga Plaza, the Galton-Fenzi Memorial monument is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the city.

Surrounded by a steel fence, the 12ft by 4ft monument features a concrete globe on top, marked Northerly, Southerly, Easterly and Westerly.

FOUNDER

Yet, for most Kenyans walking or driving past this critical item, the Galton-Fenzi Memorial passes for just one of the hundreds of monuments found in Nairobi.

Few stop to study it. Yet, this 80-year-old monument is important in the country’s history, particularly the establishment of road routes to other parts of the country from the city.

It is from this stone, nicknamed “Nairobi Milliary Stone”, that distances from Nairobi to the rest of Kenya are measured in miles. There are also possible coordinates to the various destinations.

Engraved on the stone are distances to local towns and cities, including Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa. The distances to Kampala, Juba, Khartoum and Dar es Salaam are also listed.

This is not where it all started though. But first, who was Galton-Fenzi? Englishman Lionel Douglas Galton-Fenzi was a pioneer in the motor industry in Kenya, recognised for founding the Nairobi branch of the Royal East Africa Automobile Association (today Automobile Association of Kenya) 100 years ago.

CAR TEST

In an act of valour, he drove from Nairobi to Mombasa and back in 1926. At the time, all that existed of the route was a dirt track.

Galton-Fenzi drove a Riley 12/50 car donated to him by the Riley Motor Car Company Limited of Coventry, United Kingdom.

This journey was more than an adventure to him. Being a loaned car, borrowed to test its suitability in the rugged conditions of the then East Africa, Galton-Fenzi understood the enormity of his challenge.

To date, little is known about the particulars of his trip, but on the return journey, Galton-Fenzi spent 48 hours in the wilderness before arriving at Nairobi’s central business district.

He had not only made history in East Africa, but also proved that with minor mechanical modifications, vehicles imported from Britain could actually prevail on the local terrain.

On arrival from the epic road test, Galton-Fenzi placed a stone at what is today the Nairobi Gallery.

ROAD TRIPS

It is from this beacon, called Point Zero, that future distances from Nairobi to other parts of the country and the rest of East Africa would be measured.

Under an octagonal dome at the Nairobi Gallery, the Point Zero exists to date, marked by a black marble tile and surrounded by artwork from all over the continent.

“This point has been preserved from 1926,” assistant curator Beatrice Wangechi says. “Even after the beacon was moved to its current location, we have continued to preserve the original point.”.

In the intervening years, Galton-Fenzi would make trips to other parts of the country, establishing courses that would become the accepted routes for motor vehicle transport.

MEMORIAL

In May 1937, he died at 56. Two years later, the Royal East Africa Automobile Association, where Galton-Fenzi had served as honorary secretary, erected the monument in his honour.

Upon completion, this monument became the new focal point from which distances and directions from Nairobi to other destinations would be measured.

A plaque at the site reads that it was renovated in 1992 with support from Barclays Bank.

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