A LONG MORNING WALK ALONG MOI AVENUE REVEALS KENYA'S COLORFUL PAST

Published: Sunday, June 17 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

I left the Nairobi train station and the memorable "Iron Snake" behind. I began to walk north along this city's main thoroughfare, Government Road. However, the street sign now reads "Moi Avenue." As I had found in Mombasa, almost all of the streets in Nairobi had been given the names of famous African political leaders - Haile Selassie Avenue, Nkrumah Lane, Tom MBoya Street. Only occasionally would a pre-independence street sign remain unchanged - Standard Street, Chambers Road, City Hall Way and Parliament Road.

The commercial district, government offices, parliament buildings and conference center are all at the south end of the city. As I progressed north, trees and gardens became more the distinctive features of the city than the towering high-rise buildings.I learned later that the first settlers in Nairobi planted all of these trees in an effort to find as quickly as possible some shade from the intense rays of the sun. None of the trees in Nairobi are indigenous. The fast-growing blue gums, grevilleas and wattles came from Australia. The graceful jacaranda trees with their October lilac-mauve blossoms came from the Americas. The bougainvillea, with their most inconspicuous flowers and brilliant red, purple and orange leaves, somehow arrived by way of India and Ceylon.

The long morning walk along Moi Avenue was an interesting study. The most numerous of the city Africans are Kikuyu. Nairobi borders the traditional homeland of the Kikuyu. Without these people and their rich farmlands, this city could not survive.

The sidewalks were crowded with them on their way to work in the government and private offices. But the sidewalks were no more crowded than the streets with large convoys of lorries (trucks) and small Japanese pick-ups loaded with fresh food products from the Kikuyu farms that daily sustain this city.

The population of Nairobi is slightly in excess of 1.5 million. It is projected to reach four million by the year 2000. Each year hundreds of thousands of native Kenyans leave the countryside and migrate to the city. There is often only poverty and homelessness for them in the city, but no one starves. The rich soil of Kenya more than adequately provides for the burgeoning population. Kenya has the highest birthrate on the African continent.

Employment opportunities in the city are rare for these people which accounts for the hundreds of shoeshine boys I encountered at regular intervals along the pavement. They are completely surrounded by brushes, bottles and tins of polish. These young men never look up. Their eyes are fixed only on the shoes of the pedestrians. The slightest scuff or blemish on a shoe would illicit an immediate and loud response from them. I could only imagine what critical and obscene utterances they passed among themselves when they spotted my thread-bare New Balance running shoes.

I had read about the beggars in downtown Nairobi. They were much like those one observes on Calcutta's streets. Almost all of them are seriously maimed. A few were lepers, but the majority were victims of a calcium deficiency that left them with severe bone malfunctions. Each had a clearly demarcated area to importune the public. The most senior beggars worked the busiest intersections or tourist shop entrances. They only left these spots when the chill of the Highland nights became too much for them.

At the north end of Moi Avenue there are a dozen or so tall Australia blue gum trees. It is here that this avenue, named after its second president, gently curves to the left and becomes University Way. This is altogether appropriate because the main campus of the University of Nairobi is on the immediate right. Even though I asked several native Kenyans and a number of British expatriates, I could not find out the size of the studentbody or the faculty.

I veered right just beyond the gum trees onto Thuku Road. The Norfolk Hotel was at last in view. There it was - the only remaining embattled outpost of settler civilization in all of East Africa. With its tudor-style black beams and white stucco it better suggests Edwardian England than Africa. The long veranda with its trellis of bougainvillea partially conceals the world-famous Lord Delamere Bar at the front of the hotel.

I was told at five o'clock in the afternoon of each working day the Lord Delamere Bar becomes the most sought-after watering hole in all of Nairobi for the better British and the wandering would-be colonials.

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