Nairobi—A “Place of Cool Waters”
“A bleak, swampy stretch of soggy landscape, wind-swept, devoid of human habitation of any sort, the resort of thousands of wild animals of every species. The only evidence of the occasional presence of human kind was the old caravan track skirting the bog-like plain.”—The Genesis of Kenya Colony.
where lions, rhino, leopards, giraffes, deadly snakes, and myriads of other forms of wildlife made their home. The brave Masai brought their beloved cattle to the fresh waters of a stream located there, a welcome sight for the nomadic communities. In fact, the Masai called the river Uaso Nairobi, meaning “Cold Water,” and the location Enkarre Nairobi, meaning “Place of Cool Waters”—thus providing the name for the area that would completely alter Kenya’s history.
An important event in the development of Nairobi was the construction of the Kenyan railway, once known as the Lunatic Express. By mid-1899, the 530 kilometers (327 mi) of track stretching from the coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi had been laid. By this time, the construction workers were agonizing from their encounter with the famous “man-eaters of Tsavo,” two lions that had killed many of the men’s colleagues, and from the formidable terrain of the Great Rift Valley. The rail line was to penetrate farther into the interior. Mombasa, which had been the main depot, was no longer viewed as a viable location. In spite of its inhospitable appearance, Nairobi was deemed the best location for a resting-place for workers and an inland depot for construction materials. This made way for it to become Kenya’s capital.
Early in the 20th century, Nairobi was chosen as the administrative center for the newly created East Africa Protectorate, as Kenya was then known. A jumble of rough structures sprang up around the railway station. Made of wood, corrugated iron sheets, and other local materials, the structures made Nairobi appear more like a shantytown than a future international center. The few buildings in Nairobi at the turn of the 20th century were hardly designed with an eye to such a possibility. Also there remained the ever-present threat from the wild animals that roamed the vicinity.
How the Modern City Developed
With a city history spanning over 50 years, Nairobi has undergone a complete metamorphosis. Its growth is evident in its ever-changing skyline. Today’s tall and imposing buildings of glass and steel sparkling in the light of the setting tropical sun are a sight to behold. A visitor to Nairobi’s central business district may wonder in disbelief upon learning that the very ground on which he is walking was a lurking place of wild beasts—a dangerous area for humans—just a hundred years ago.
In time, that changed. Exotic flora that included beautiful bougainvillea, blossoming jacaranda, fast-growing eucalyptus, and wattle was introduced. Thus, formerly dusty trails were slowly turned into tree-lined avenues, which continue to provide pedestrians with shade during hot seasons. An arboretum near the city center contains at least 270 species of trees. We can imagine why another writer stated that Nairobi “looks as if it might have been built in the middle of natural forest.” The luxuriant vegetation has greatly helped regulate Nairobi’s inviting temperatures—warm days and cool nights.
What Attracts Visitors?
Kenya is a country with a vast and varied array of wildlife. Its many national parks and game reserves continue to attract thousands of visitors annually. Nairobi is the base from which many tour excursions are organized. Yet, Nairobi is also a tourist destination in itself. Very few cities in the world have animals roaming at their doorstep. Nairobi National Park, located less than ten kilometers (6 mi) from the city center, is a visitor’s haven. Here one encounters Nairobi’s former residents firsthand. Only a few strands of wire separate animals from the human population. In 2002, a full-grown male leopard was caught in the living room of a Nairobi home, having strayed from a nearby forest!
The Nairobi Museum is a short walk from the city center. Hundreds of visitors come here daily to learn about Kenya’s rich history. A snake park within the museum plays host to many species of reptiles. The crocodile hardly seems disturbed by a visitor’s stare. A nearby tortoise, its speed notwithstanding, also appears unmoved by the busy world around it. Of course, the main residents here are the slithering type—cobras, pythons, and vipers. With such creatures around, be sure to take note of the sign: “Trespassers Will Be Poisoned!