My first memory of Uhuru Park is of a political rally back in 2002, specifically one by the then National Rainbow Coalition with the thousands in attendance chanting in unison, “Yote Yawezekana Bila Moi”, signifying the end of an era.
There are many more memories I have of Uhuru Park, but my favourite one takes me back years ago when my friends and I ushered in a New Year, spectacular fireworks lighting up the sky, illuminating the buildings in the central business district amid rapturous joy from revellers.
HUSTLE AND BUSTLE
A place of tranquillity for many Nairobi dwellers, and a mere stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Uhuru Park is one of the few green recreational spaces in the city where one can relax and enjoy themselves free of charge.
Kenya’s founder president Jomo Kenyatta opened the park to the public on May 23, 1969. However, the 12.9-acre land — it was a lot bigger then — was initially envisaged by the colonial government as part of their master plan for the city.
It contains an artificial lake, various monuments, amusement park rides for children and benches for those looking for a place to unwind on a day.
In her autobiography, Wangari Maathai laments the shrinking size of the park, having been split by the building and development of a hotel, a road, a members-only golf course and a football stadium on the land that was initially set aside for the park. By her account, these developments had taken place by 1989, at which point the park “covered only 34 acres.”
The government of the day was not done eating into the park. That same year, they broached the idea of a 60-storey complex to be built within the park.
The Kenya Times Media Trust Complex was expected to house the headquarters for Kanu, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading centre, offices, an auditorium, galleries and parking space for about 2,000 cars.
It would have been the tallest building of its kind in Africa at the time and was expected to cost around Sh4 billion (about Sh108 billion today) to erect.
“Most of the costs would be funded through a loan guarantee from the government to the private investors involved. The plan also called for a huge statue of President Moi,” she added. She began writing letters to government offices in October 1989, asking about the plans. Getting no response, she wrote to the British High Commissioner at the time, posing: “Surely, the British and Americans wouldn’t tolerate a tower block in the middle of Hyde Park or Central Park, so why then should the people of Nairobi?”
Her persistence rattled the government, which responded through the media, calling those opposed to the building of the purported “landmark”, among other things, “ill-informed” and an “ignorant few”.
A series of ad hominem attacks on Wangari followed, which included interruption of a parliamentary debate in which a procedure reserved for national emergencies was invoked to express their anger at her actions.
She then wrote a letter to Phillip Leakey, her constituency MP and Assistant Minister for Environment at the time, in response to the vilification.
In response to claims that she was anti-government for penning the letter to the High Commissioner, on the 25th anniversary of independence from the colonial power no less, she insisted that she was acting in the spirit of Uhuru (freedom). “When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there,” she wrote.
She also wrote to President Moi, who did not respond directly. However, in an ironic statement delivered at the same park, he claimed that those opposing the construction had “insects in their heads.”
As the battle against building a skyscraper in the park gained momentum, she went international in her appeal — pleading for solidarity in pressuring the government against the plans.
It worked. In January 1990, the government announced that plans for the complex had changed.
A fence that demarcated the area it would have occupied was destroyed by February 1992, to the joy of all that stood with Wangari’s Green Belt Movement.
Today, Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park stands as a reminder of the battle Wangari fought to keep the recreational space for posterity.
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