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Is Nairobi’s Storied History Quietly Disappearing?

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If distinctive architecture marks a great city, then, Nairobi, chief among the great capitals of the continent, has plenty to appreciate. Unfortunately, faced with the urgent needs of development, the preservation of its historical buildings has often been overlooked. 

Nairobi, as some may know it, presents a bewildering range of architectural styles. Influences conflict from religion and the decadence of imperial culture to the studied modernism of post-independence and the synthesized futurism of late.

Yet, even in this dazzling array of constructed expression, the city’s architecture will not be recommended by many, if any, of its locals.

One might notice that a lot of the older buildings, some survived from the colonial era and others erected in the fleeting euphoria of post-independence, are taken for granted. Their relevance now narrowly defined by current occupants and not by what they were and how they came to be.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

The more anonymous international-style towers made of glass and steel that define the city skyline enjoy more frequent limelight, locating the ambitions of a modern African city in an increasingly globalized world.

This attitude has been explained by a popular theory frequently offered in the niche but studied debate within Kenyan architecture. One that often dominates any headline to do with the designs of the capital.

Evelyne Wanjiku, an aficionado of African architecture and co-author of a book on the history of Nairobi’s buildings, lambasted the tastes of her fellow countrymen as a crisis in the city’s property fashions.

“Buildings in Nairobi are a testimony to the influences of various industrialized countries. A walk around the city reveals buildings of British, Indian, and even Dutch influence,” she notes in a particularly disgruntled article in one of the papers of record, Daily Nation.

Beyond the alien persuasions of the Nairobi skyline, she says that even the well-to-do homeowners in the country reinforce this pattern through the “Victorian houses or fancy Tuscany structures” that they have built for themselves.

The assertion is heavy. Kenyans as, consumers of architecture, are all too willing to be swayed by those of an ‘imported culture’.

The reality, however, is a lot more complex.

In just a number of decades, Nairobi has spread, from its traditional center, to a sprawling network of settlements. In this frantic urbanization, the designs of architecture have been subordinate to the needs of development; conditions that the discipline has traditionally tried to avoid.

This phenomenon inspired a tangent in a conversation with Dr Bitange Ndemo, a popular newspaper columnist and professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

“The beef I have… is that once we are all dead, nobody will say that architecture existed in Kenya!” he laments.

To those new to the argument, the beef is two-fold.

Nairobi’s history is quietly disappearing. Some of it claimed in a recent spate of demolitions such as those of the colonial-era bungalows in and around the neighborhoods of Kileleshwa and the famous Kariokor Estate, home to the African porters of the ‘Carrier Corps’ during the first World War.  

Their replacements, brutally modern apartment blocks, allegedly erected for immediate commercial return that the professor, and other proponents, maintain, do not redefine these areas in any language but instead deprive them of all identity. Worse still, with average rental prices per month averaging upwards of $800, only a small slice of the city’s inhabitants can now afford to call these places home.

Nairobi, often dubbed as the ‘green city in the sun’, has a storied history which is told rather vividly through its buildings.

Founded at the turn of the 20th century, as a depot on the Uganda Railway, it quickly rose to prominence as a trading post in what would become British East Africa. It was the industrial center of the country’s colonial economy – the main artery in the trade of coffee, sisal and tea. Eventually, in 1907, it was declared the capital of that region of the British Empire, a title furtively snatched from the bordering town of Machakos.

As such, Nairobi’s architecture cleverly accommodates the country’s diverse indigenous and settled cultures along with their individual histories.

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Even today, monumental buildings, commissioned by the colonial government of the day, show a pride in Kenya’s position within the empire. Designed by a ‘rebel’ architect from the British School of the Arts in Rome, Parliament House, the home of the country’s legislature, is not a carbon copy of its archetype as was intended. Instead, it is a cheerful interpretation of Westminster, showered by the equatorial sun and in constant conversation with the towering palm trees around it.

The South Asian community, among the city’s early settlers, is responsible for a large part of the architectural kitsch. Forming the  bulk of Nairobi’s established merchant class, they have left an indelible stamp in the Art Deco styles prominent in some of the older downtown blocks such as Nanak House, which resembles a distant cousin of London’s Commonwealth House on New Oxford Street. An example of the generous extravagance of 1930s design, it is today better known for the upmarket hair salon on its first floor, than the conditions that inspired it.

While overshadowed by a clustering of modern towers, Jamia Mosque, in the center of town, is a beautiful specimen of Islamic architecture in the Arab tradition typical of the period of its construction, the first decade of the 20th century. Now a central place of worship for Nairobi’s sizable Muslim population, it is also well known for the businesses that have sprung from it, including an eponymous shopping mall several yards away.

Even as antiquated foreign fashions identify some of its streets, there are vernacular interpretations of them shrouded in the edifices of Nairobi. The Catholic Parish of St. Austin’s, at the edge of the middle class Lavington suburb, is a glorious showpiece of Gothic Revival with an African accent.

With its colossal mabati (corrugated iron) and timber roof trusses, it is a firm favorite of Ndemo.

“I get satisfaction from good architectural design… and if you go inside [the church], you can feel that someone put their thoughts together to do this,” he says.

The preservation of these Kenyan relics is not a recent concern. There is, in fact, a government agency dedicated to this crucial mandate at the National Museums of Kenya. However, for many of these buildings, the costs of safeguarding them for posterity far outweigh those of constructing anew.

Perhaps no one in the country is more aware of this conflict than the Head of the Directorate of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, Dr Purity Kiura. While adamant that the task of preservation, in an effort to conserve history and memory in Kenya is important, she insists that there are other factors that weigh the equation.

“There is agriculture, there is education, there is health…and all of these are competing with other needs for the nation so monuments are not a priority,” she says.

She does admit that attitudes are slowing changing. With so many of the buildings in need of protection poignant reminders of a difficult period in the country’s past, the need to conserve them is often set against embittered sentiment.

A younger cosmopolitan population, a few generations removed from that time, lends a more sympathetic ear to the obligations of architectural conservation.

 “We are starting to see a more positive response… they seem to be understanding their history and accepting that history,” she continues.

Outside of public office, there has also been, in response, a modest movement building. Sometime in 2013, the Architectural and Heritage Advisory Committee (AHAC) was convened. The group, comprised of an eclectic mix of brand name architects, lay enthusiasts, a prominent journalist and an architect-turned-photographer, set out to protect Nairobi’s built heritage.

Its architect, an economist by trade, Aref Adamali, was compelled to organize it after returning home in 2008. Having lived in some of the world’s great architectural cities, among them New York and London, he was met with a fast-changing metropolis in the midst of a property boom.

To him, these developments were not convincing evidence that it was heading in the right direction.

“We were losing older buildings… not just old colonial buildings made of stone but [some] from the ’60s and ’70s with post-independence modernist architecture and even cool buildings from the ’80s… that we could [never] recover,” he recalls.

After a number of conversations, Adamali began the initiative that would form AHAC. Looking to avoid the taxing listing procedures of the National Museums, they took their campaign to the interwebs.

“Listing can be contentious [so] we decided not to take the regulatory approach… our interest was in casting our net further than the city center and into the neighborhoods that were quickly changing,” he explains.

The result was an online poll open to all of Nairobi and a blog cataloging the capital’s aging architectural gems. After a period of voting, AHAC compiled a list of 50 of the city’s most treasured historical properties informed by a broad spectrum of its residents. They also collaborated with local artists and photographers to immortalize these structures in exhibitions that appealed to the greater public.

The committee is still contemplating a longer term approach but they do have a few ideas.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

“We’d want the owners of these buildings to be, in effect, the unofficial custodians of them,” Adamali proposes.

Some of the buildings that feature on the list include some of Nairobi’s most photographed landmarks like the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

Inspired by the vernacular structure of an African hut and constructed using locally-sourced materials, it was designed by Norwegian, Karl Henrik Nøstvik, in close consultation with the country’s first architect, David Mutiso, in 1968.

The exercise was a particularly important one for Nairobi. As the architectural debate blares on, in local newspapers or in intellectual salons, along with its interpretations of identity, it remains far removed from the wider Kenyan public.

Offering locals and laymen an opportunity to locate and share their own ideas of the city’s heritage gives the preservationists some support and a lasting shot at success.

Nairobi is host to not just one but a cornucopia of cultural connotations through its buildings. Each making conversation, in the language of design, about their origins and place in the city. Taken for granted as they are, these monuments of old will continue be lost without memory by the modernizing nation around them.

As Adamali insists, this cannot be allowed to happen.

“We’ve got to appreciate what we’ve got and together try to do what we can to preserve them for future generations,” he says.

-Marie Shabaya

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The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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