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Kaloleni may have had its last dance

Monday March 28 2016

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The legendary scientist, journalist and filmmaker, Hilary Boniface Ng’weno, is a happy man. 

His daughter, Dr Bettina Ng’weno, a trained anthropologist and founder of Odd One Out Films, has followed in his footsteps. 

Last week at the Phoenix Theatre, she premiered her first film, The Time Is Now, a short film that juxtaposes the politics of the fifties with love and dance.

The short movie is a teaser for a full feature film which the same team is developing, titled Last Dance in Kaloleni.   

At the launch, Bettina, who directed the film, introduced the sense of place, music and political drama that will drive the story line of the full-length movie.

The haunting original score, composed by Njane Mugambi, evokes the Latin roots of much of the dance music of 1950s Nairobi, with an African twist.

The action moves back and forth between the singers in the present time, to the dancers who inhabit a past where the future is uncertain.

“I wanted to know more,” says Winnie Machuki. “I wonder what happened at the end.” She will have to wait until the full feature film is complete to find out.

Njane Mugambi introduces his symphony as a prelude to the show. A narrative discourse on the railway, it is composed of all cultures along the railway as it snakes through into Uganda, featuring  instruments from inhabitants of all the regions along the way.


An interlude is provided by Tayiana Chao’s photo essay on Kenya's historical railway stations, which are now being decommissioned. It elicits catcalls, yet these places tell a love story that is going sour before our very eyes.

Most of the architectural masterpieces still stand, albeit in a dilapidated state, while others have been partially destroyed. 

Few people see value in this iconic history of our country.  It is this past that will inform our future, but we are destroying it.  Tayiana’s call to preserve the railway resonated well with the packed theatre but who will listen? 

A dilapidated Taveta station. PHOTO | TAYIANA
A dilapidated Taveta station. PHOTO | TAYIANA CHAO

Like many countries in the world, we can preserve our railway as a heritage monument and use it to attract tourists.  See the call for preservation at Thee Agora.

It is an idea that we can commercialize.  History, beauty and nostalgia collide as you roll down into Naivasha on the lunatic express past the scenic escarpment, or watching wildlife through the Tsavo as you head into Mombasa. 

Clearly, we do not know the treasures we have. It will take all of our collective efforts to leverage history for a better future.

It is true that many of us may not see the benefits of preserving the railway, but Taiyana’s explanation is unparalleled:

I remember in Taita Taveta station, a gentleman who had been observing what I was doing, walked up to me and said, “Madam kwa nini unapiga picha hizi vitu bure, si unipige mimi.”  At that time, we both laughed at this remark, he and I both stunned at the profundity of his statement or lack thereof.

Later that evening in the solitude of my thoughts, I pondered deeply over what he said and what it meant if the ordinary Kenyan saw no use in what I was doing. But it dawned on me that this was the exact kind of encouragement and motivation I needed to continue; because at the end of the day, we don’t raise awareness because people know too much about something, we raise it because they don’t know enough.

At the theatre, the audience wants a repeat of the show not once but several times.

Mugambi conducted with remarkable interactivity, as he drove us into a chorous to sing along, as Uzele got on with the Rhumba tune. 

The star cast demonstrated the fifties salsa dance.  Although we applauded, it was nothing like in the movie where we fell in love with the umbrella dress (Malinda) that Wangari wore.

Although the movie is set in Muthurwa railway housing, much of the activities those days used to happen in Kaloleni Social Hall, within what were middle income housing estates at the time

Unlike Muthurwa, the residents of Kaloleni enjoyed great freedom and it was the only place where chan’gaa could be legally sold in what used to be Kaloleni Public Bar that is today called Wood Park. 

The history of Kaloleni or Ololo, as it is known today in Sheng, is the history of Eastern Africa politics. 

It is in Kaloleni Social Hall where legends like Jomo Kenyatta, the founding President of Kenya, Milton Obote the former President of Uganda, Tom Mboya the former Economic Planning Minister, former vice-president Moody Awori and former Nairobi Mayor Charles Rubia honed their political skills. 

Others like Barack Obama Senior, and many other professionals, provided background support to the politicians.

Many dance competitions were held at Kaloleni Social Hall.  Indeed, as Mama Sarah Obama would confirm in Obama Senior. A Dream Fulfilled, Barack won many dance competitions here.

Rachel Keeton in her article, Kaloleni: a Kenyan Garden City, for the International New Town Institute, said that Kaloleni was designed in 1927, to house 3000 bachelors in single-dwellings and duplexes. 

Yes, bachelors, because colonial regulations barred African workers from migrating into the city with their wives.

It was actually built between 1945 and 1948 by Italian prisoners of war. Princess Elizabeth of England opened a clinic in Kaloleni in 1952 , and Senator Robert Kennedy gave a speech here in 1969.

Today Kaloleni stands desolate, its lush gardens ignored, and residents having no clue of the estate’s glorious past.

What is remarkable, however, is that the beauty is still intact, with no encroachment on where it stands. 

The services that were once closer to the citizens are becoming rare, and the library and the clinic still hobble. 

Perhaps the only thing that is testament to the nostalgia of the place is the Post Office, which has defied vandalism and arrogantly stands with the beauty of the past amid the shambles around it.


Kaloleni Social Hall and the Post Office. 
Kaloleni Social Hall and the Post Office.  PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

The utter neglect of monuments like Kaloleni Social Hall suggests that we define ourselves in terms of political and social dimensions of the past.

We must use the venue today to tackle economic and social dimensions of today and the future. 

While we desire to preserve the past, nothing stops us from using the facility as an entrepreneurial incubator to stimulate discourse on poverty reduction and wealth creation. 

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, once said, “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” 

Let us preserve our past to secure our future.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito