by Tim Dawe
Kenya’s capital Nairobi is the bustling, burgeoning economic powerhouse of East Africa and the continental centre for UN agencies and many NGOs. It’s a magnet for capital and people, swelling the city to 4 million and straining its infrastructure and society. It is fair to say it is not on many lists of must-see great cities of the world. In fact living here, or even visiting, can be quite challenging – even putting aside the horrendous traffic. But it does have places of interest from the popular to the out-of-the-way, quite strange. I visited five.
Many visitors to Nairobi are directed to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see the baby elephants at feeding time. These little orphans are cute beyond description. The small reserve is situated at the edge of Nairobi National Park, right on the city’s doorstep. Visitors congregate around an enclosure of red earth containing some playtime mud pools. At 11am green-coated keepers ceremonially walk a dozen or so babies down from the bush to assembled “oohs” and “aahs”. Feeding from outlandishly large milk bottles is a fast and furious affair as the babies jostle for more. There’s a detailed commentary and each animal’s situation is discussed in detail. It’s not long before the babies turn from hungry to naughty, pushing and chasing each other. Then there’s the competition for the mud bath. The keepers lose the battle to parade their charges amongst the shoving antics. Baby elephants step on trunks – theirs and other’s – in some strange ritual. Many visitors on the rope are rewarded with spots of red mud…and endearing photos.
No one leaves unhappy. It’s a heart-warming, entertaining and memorable visit. It also highlights the need to look after orphaned elephants, vulnerable and at risk often as a result of poaching.
Out of Africa
I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. Some may recognise this opening line of Danish author Karen Blixen’s famous 1937 book, Out of Africa, much later to be a popular film. Kenya has taken to the plucky colonial settler and her fame naming the entire district around her farm Karen. The house she shared with her aristocratic husband from 1914 until her return to Denmark on the accidental death of her lover in 1931 is now the Karen Blixen Museum. It is a lovely colonial farmhouse set in expansive gardens, even containing the farm’s disintegrating coffee dryer.
Movie fans will love it with the knuckle-shaped Ngong Hills on the horizon, but it seems a little deficient for the considerable (foreigner) price and prohibited photography. The house is set out with furniture and fittings of the early twentieth century but many of the “artefacts” are props from the movie.
The giraffe hotel
The Giraffe Centre was established in 1983 to protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe. The centre offers a large (and high), circular viewing platform. It is a favourite of children and those who like their wild animals tame enough to accept food pellets by the handful. It is a wonderful experience to feed an adult giraffe while maintaining eye contact. Within the viewing platform are small lecture theatres and considerable information set out on boards. A separate gift shops offers all things giraffe – and other animal curios.
The stately Giraffe Manor can be glimpsed through the trees. It is an ivy-clad, luxury hotel, set within the Nairobi National Park and clearly designed to capitalise on the habituated giraffes walking on the front lawn while guests take breakfast. Open an upstairs bedroom window here and you are likely to have a giraffe poke its head in.
Nairobi National Museum
It’s on forested land cut by the trickling Nairobi River and surrounded by major roads with suicidal pedestrians playing chicken with kamikaze truck and matatu drivers – surprisingly without a peep of a horn. Established in 1930 from an earlier naturalist society, this museum was led by the world-renown palaeontologist Louis Leakey from 1941 until he established his own centre on the grounds in 1961.
This is a serious museum spread over several floors, reopened in 2008 after a two-year modernisation, that focuses on the history and ethnography of Kenya including, “the cradle of mankind”. The ground floor displays more than 900 East African birds and there are many historic documents relating to the colonial period and Kenyan independence, currently marking 50 years. A courtyard replica of Ahmed, the giant tusker and pin-up for anti-poaching, and a symbolic fountain of gourds grabs the attention. Elsewhere is a gallery featuring local artists.
Museums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and many in East Africa are poorly curated, but this high standard explanation of Kenya – and of mankind – is worthy of a couple of hours visit.
The lunatic line museum
At the grotty end of town, down a crater-filled dirt road, along a 500m lane is Nairobi’s Railway Museum in a disused rail-siding building. It’s not so much a museum as a warehouse of old objects relating to East African railways and ports, jumbled together without reference to time or place. I think it’s wonderful. It’s a lucky dip on my latest fascination – the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, a venture so hazardous, difficult and improbable it was dubbed by Whitehall as the lunatic line. Despite the considerable odds the 931km line was completed in 1901 but not before the death by malaria or accidents of 2,493 workers, mostly indentured Indians, at a rate of 38 per month – including 150 taken by man-eating lions. After five and a half years the British spoils from Uganda were railed to Mombasa and shipped around the world and, in the process, established Nairobi and eventually Kenya. In the words of colonial administrator Sir Charles Eliot, “It is not an uncommon thing for a (railway) line to open up a country but this line literally created a country.”
As a footnote, a few blocks away is 7 August Memorial Park on the site of the US Embassy bombed by terrorists in 1998, killing 218 and injuring thousands. It is a tranquil spot amidst busy streets, and very moving.