History of Nairobi

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The earliest account of Nairobi's /nˈrbɪ/ history dates back to 1899 when a railway depot was built in a brackish African swamp occupied only by a pastoralist people, the Maasai, as well as the agriculturalist Kikuyu people who were displaced. The railway complex and the building around it rapidly expanded and urbanized until it became the largest city of Kenya and the country's capital. The name "Nairobi" comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nyorobi, which translates to "the place of cool waters". However, Nairobi is popularly known as the "Green City in the Sun."[1]


A Maasai man

The former swamp land occupied by the city now was once inhabited by the herding people, the Maasai, under the British East Africa protectorate when the British decided to build a railroad from Mombasa to Kisumu on the edge of Lake Victoria in order to open East Africa and make it accessible for trade and encourage colonial settlements. The Maasai were forcibly removed to allow white ranchers to use the land.[2]

In 1896, work on the railway began. A British railroad camp and supply depot for the Uganda Railway was built in the Maasai area in 1899.[3] The building soon became the railway's headquarters and a town grew up surrounding it, named after a watering hole known in Maasai as Ewaso Nyirobi, meaning "cool waters." The location of the Nairobi railway camp was chosen due to its central position between Mombasa and Kampala, as well as its proximity to a network of rivers that could supply the camp with water. Its elevation made it cool enough for comfortable residential living. Furthermore, at 1661 meters above the sea level, the temperatures are too low for the mosquitoes carrying malaria to survive.[4]

The town was totally rebuilt in the early 1900s after an outbreak of plague and the subsequent burning down of the original town.[5] By 1905, Nairobi was a humming commercial center and replaced Mombasa as capital of the British East Africa.[6] The city expanded, supported by the growth in administrative functions and in tourism, initially in the form of British big game hunting. As the British colonialists explored the region, they began using Nairobi as their first stop. This prompted the colonial government to build several grand hotels in the city for British tourists and big game hunters.

Nairobi continued to grow under British rule, and many Britons settled within the city's suburbs. The continuous expansion of the city began to anger the Maasai, as the city was devouring their land to the south, as well as the Kikuyu people, who felt that the land belonged to them. In 1919, Nairobi was declared to be a municipality by the British.[7]

In February 1926, E.A.T. Dutton passed through Nairobi on his way to Mount Kenya and, seeing the progress and the ambitious plans the city was making, foresaw a city of paved roads, landscaped avenues and parks, impressive cathedrals, museums, art galleries, theatres and office buildings. He predicted that Nairobi would become a city of beauty, although he noted that much needed to be accomplished before the ambitious municipal plan was completed and until then Nairobi would remain "a slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country".[8]


In 1915 the British passed laws restricting the ownership of land to whites. Then followed high taxes and low wages. Blacks were forced to carry identification cards. In 1921 Harry Thuku founded the Young Kikuyu Association and began organizing protests as people became more open about their grievances against the British. On March 14, 1922 he was arrested. His arrest caused a general strike in Nairobi in which thousands of Africans protested and the British government reacted by shooting 56 protesters, 25 of whom died, the massacre shocking people worldwide, even the British. Although Thuku was exiled to a remote desert oasis, this was only the beginning of unrest that continued with escalating severity. [9]

The Thuku riots reinforced a segregationist method of town planning, as a means to control the African population in Nairobi.[10]

After the end of World War II, the friction developed into the Mau Mau Uprising. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's future president, joined the Kikuyu Central Association after moving to the urban Nairobi from a small village, becoming its general secretary in three years, a step that lead to his becoming Kenya's first prime minister and then Kenya's first president.[11] Pressure exerted from the local people on the British resulted in Kenyan independence in 1963, with Nairobi as the capital of the new republic.

Because the area around Nairobi continued to be a popular attraction for British big game hunters, to protect the animals the Nairobi National Park was established by Britain in 1946, the first national park in East Africa. It remains unique in 2008 in that it is the only game reserve bordering on a capital city in the world.[12][13]


1998 embassy bombing

After independence, Nairobi grew rapidly and this growth put pressure on the city's infrastructure. Power cuts and water shortages were a common occurrence, though in the past few years better city planning has helped to put some of these problems in check.

In 1975 Nairobi was the host city of the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

The U.S. embassy in the heart of Nairobi was bombed on August 7, 1998 by Al-Qaida, as one of a series of U.S. embassy bombings. Over two hundred civilians were killed in the embassy and another 213 persons in the surrounding area with more than 5,000 people injured. The effects were widespread and devastating. The embassy was completely destroyed and another forty buildings severely damaged. A seven-story building collapsed killing at least 60 people.[9][14]

Slums in Nairobi

The growth of Nairobi has put pressure on the government to develop and maintain protected lands such as the Nairobi National Park.[15] The new residential areas for the growing human population are making inroads into lands that have been traditionally the migration routes for huge animal herds.[9]

Following the disputed Kenyan presidential election, 2007, serious violence broke out in Nairobi. In the Mathare slum, Kikuyu and Luo gangs burned more than 100 homes.[16]

On September 21, 2013, a mass shooting broke out in the luxurious Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi's Westlands neighbourhood, killing at least 68 people. The attacks were claimed by the Somalian militant group Al-Shabaab.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pulse Africa. "Not to be Missed: Nairobi 'Green City in the Sun'". pulseafrica.com. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  2. ^ Murray The city continued to grow under British rule, and many British people settled within the city's suburbs. This continuous expansion of the city began to anger the Maasai people, as the city was devouring their land to the south. The Kikuyus were also angered and wanted the land returned to them., Ocelyn (1998). Cultural Atlas of Africa (revised ed.). Checkmark Books. p. 184. ISBN 0-8160-3813-9. 
  3. ^ "Nairobi". Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  4. ^ United Nations University. "Nairobi: National capital and regional hub". unu.edu. Retrieved 2007-06-17. 
  5. ^ Blis Sites '. "Nairobi". blissites.com. Retrieved 2007-06-17. 
  6. ^ RCBowen Kenya. "Attractions of Nairobi". kenya.rcbowen.com. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  7. ^ Merriam-Webster, Inc (1997). Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. p. 786. ISBN 0-87779-546-0. 
  8. ^ Dutton, E.A.T. (1929) [1929]. "1". Kenya Mountain. Introduction by Hilaire Belloc (1 ed.). London: Jonathan Cape. pp. 1–2. 
  9. ^ a b c McNair, Sylvia; Lynne Mansure (2001). Kenya. Scholastic Inc. pp. 52–56 , 79. ISBN 0-516-21078-5. 
  10. ^ Murunga, Godwin Rapando (2012-08-01). "The cosmopolitan tradition and fissures in segregationist town planning in Nairobi, 1915–23". Journal of Eastern African Studies. 6 (3): 463–486. doi:10.1080/17531055.2012.696896. ISSN 1753-1055. 
  11. ^ "Jomo Kenyatta". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  12. ^ "Nairobi Park Introduction". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  13. ^ "Nairobi Park History". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  14. ^ "U.S. Embassy Bombings". USINFO.State.Gov. Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  15. ^ Nsanjama, Henri (2000). "Africa's Wilderness Should Be Commercially Utilized to Benefit Local Communities". In William Dudley. Africa: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego CA: Greenhaven Press. p. 165. 
  16. ^ Jeffrey Gettleman, "Disputed Vote Plunges Kenya Into Bloodshed", The New York Times, December 31, 2007.

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