Nairobi is traditionally Maasai land. They originally called this highland swamp Ewaso Nai’beri– the place of cold water.
The areas to the immediate south and north of present day Nairobi, were originally inhabited by the Kikuyu. For more information on Kikuyu Culture please Click here, and vist the Riuki Cultral centre at Githunguri in Kiambu, just outside Nairobi. The centre offers tours and homestays in a traditional Kikuyu village.
The town was born when railway construction workers reached this area in 1899 and set up a basic camp and supply depot, simply called ‘Mile 327’. For the full history of the railway, see the Related Links above. The camp became a rustic village, and then a shanty town, which by 1907 was the capital of all of British East Africa. The small town soon become known as for its wild atmosphere, a mecca for adventurers, hunters and travellers from all over the world.
From its early days as a colonial encampment, it has rapidly grown and evolved into a unique cultural and social melting pot. Nairobi represents cultural elements from all parts of Kenya and beyond its borders.
Nairobi National Museum- A good place to learn more about Nairobi history and culture is the Museum. The construction of the present Museum Hill site began in 1929 after the government set aside the land for it. It was officially opened on September 22, 1930, and named Coryndon Museum, in honour of Sir Robert Coryndon, one time governor ofKenya and a staunch supporter of the Uganda Natural History Society. With the opening of the museum, the Society moved itsextensive library into the Museum complex.
Part of this collection made the foundation collection for what is now the Herbarium. In the early forties and fifties, the late Dr. Louis Leakey made a public appeal for funds to enlarge the Museum's galleries. The result was the construction of all the present galleries to the right of the main entrance.
These were named in honour of the Nairobi community members who made their contributions for the construc-tion. Today, one finds the Mahatma Gandhi Hall, the Aga Khan and the Churchill Gallery among others. In the early sixties the Nairobi Snake Park was built with the aim to educate the public about snakes and the common reptiles of Kenya. The Snake Park continues to be a big attraction in the Museum.
In 1964, the Coryndon Museum changed its name to the National Museums of Kenya. Beginning from 1969, the Museum expanded its services and assets beyond Nairobi, and established museums in Kitale, Meru, Kisumu, Lamu and Fort Jesus in Mombasa. In addition, the Institute of Primate Research is also closely associated with the Museum. Each of these regional museums has its own identity and develops its own programmes, and are run under the office of the Director for Regional Museums, Sites & Monuments.
In the post 1969 period, the Museums have grown and diversified. The Leakey Memorial building was opened in 1976 and houses the administration, archeology and palaeontology departments. The building also houses an auditorium with a sitting capacity of roughly 300 people which serves to hold different Museum functions. Also during this period, research and development programmes were developed and initiated.
These included cooperation with the University of Nairobi and the Institute of African Studies, specialising in ethnography and cultural anthropology. The Education department initiated programmes for the thousands of school children who visit the Museums every year. The Casting Department sells casts of important fossil discoveries to Museums worldwide, both for study and for exhibition.
National Railway Museum
Beside the main Nairobi Railway Station is a Museum devoted to the history of Kenya's Railroads. Anybody interested in knowing more about the history of the famed Kenya/Uganda railway should definitely take the time to see the museum .
Many historic engines and rolling stock from the original colonial railway are on display here. One of the best known is the carriage that was used during the hunt for the Maneater of Kima in 1900. In a case not unlike the earlier tale of the Maneaters of Tsavo a lion halted the construction of the line with repeated attacks on the labour camps. A colonial officer, Captain Charles Ryall, and some other men positioned themselves in a rail carriage one night in an effort to shoot the man-eater. Unfortunately they all fell asleep, and the lion slipped into the carriage under cover of darkness, took Ryall into his mouth and sprang through a window.
This macabre tale is just one of the many stories told by the antique stock in this Museum. (For full history of the railway see Related Links above)
Karen Blixen Museum
For anyone with an interest in Karen Blixen's book Out of Africa or the subsequent film, this museum is a must see.
The author lived on a coffee estate in a house known as Bogani from 1914 until 1931. This area has now developed into the modern suburb of Karen on the outskirts of Nairobi. The house is now a National Museum, and is maintained for visitors in its original condition.
Those who have read the book, or seen the film (which was filmed on location here) will recognize the house with its sprawling tropical garden and views of the nearby Ngong Hills. Efforts have been made to decorate all of the rooms of the house in their original style. The house itself is furnished with a mixture of original decor and props from the 1985 film production.
The grounds contain displays of farming equipment from the plantation.
The museum has excellent trained staff who are well versed in the history of the house and the life of Karen Blixen. They are available to answer queries and to give personally guided tours.
The Museum is easily accessible from Nairobi, by taxi or bus.
Bomas of Kenya
The Bomas are a showcase of Kenyan cultures. Located just outside Nairobi near the National park, the Bomas have been created to encapsulate several of Kenya's traditional cultures.There are exhibits of traditional homes and artefacts, and displays of dance, music and song. The Bomas are a popular excursion for Nairobi school children, but are also open to tourists.
Nairobi's largest memorial to the struggle for Independence was built upon the spot where freedom (Uhuru) from colonial rule was declared at midnight on 12th December 1963. The monument is a 24 metre high triumphal column, supporting a pair of clasped hands and the dove of peace, high over a statue of a group of freedom fighters raising the flag.
The monument is surrounded by lush, landscaped gardens and fountains. Uhuru Gardens is located near Wilson Airport, on Langata Road.
One of the best way to discover the real character of Nairobi is to explore and experience the sights and sounds of the city streets.
Anyone with an interest in the growth of the city from its early colonial days should visit the The Norfolk Hotel, a place that played a vital role in Nairobi’s history. This was the city’s first hotel, built in 1904 to house new arrivals to the colony. The Norfolk became an important meeting point and watering hole for settlers, adventurers and travellers from all over the world. The hotel has been through many changes over the years, and where it once looked out across sweeping plain lands, it is now in the heart of a bustling city.
But the mock Tudor façade and colonial opulence remains intact, with the hotel having been recently refurbished. The Delamere Terrace and Bar is a great place to relax and watch the world go by.
Another hotel with a place in history is the The Sarova Stanley, built in 1913 and named after the great African explorer. This hotel was built at the centre of the growing colonial town, and remains a central landmark. Its reputation as an important stopover for African travellers was cemented in 1961, with the creation of the famous Thorn Three Café.
Here, a single acacia tree in the centre of the Café became a notice board for travellers, who would leave notes, letters and messages for fellow travellers pinned to the trunk. This tradition became so popular that the Thorn tree became an icon for African travel, and travellers came to rely on the tree to keep in contact with friends, pass on news and make travel plans while on the road. Eventually notice boards had to be erected to protect the tree and while the original tree died a natural death and has been replaced, the café remains a hub for travellers. Even in these days of cyber-cafes and email, the message board’s ‘tree-mail’ is as popular as ever.
Further out of town is the Muthaiga Club, a private country club popular with white settlers that also played a central role in Kenya’s colonial history. The club, with it distinctive pink façade remains a private, members only institution.
Other colonial era monuments include a pair of twin War Memorials along Kenyatta avenue, dedicated to the fallen members of the Carrier Corps and the King’s African Rifles from the two world wars. On the same street, opposite the GPO, is Kipande House, an historic building where Kenyans were once required to be registered and issued with identification cards (Kipande).
The city has several parks, including Uhuru, Central and City. These are popular places for Nairobi’s many office workers to rest and relax during lunch hour.
August 7th Memorial Park This is one of Nairobi’s most unique parks. Located in the cities Central Business District, the park serves as a symbolic place of historical and educational importance for Kenyans and the world at large as well as a memorial for the victims, survivors and bereaved families of the tragedy that occurred in 1998.
The small Jevanjee Gardens were named after A.M. Jevanjee, one of Nairobi’s first Indian businessman. A railway contractor by trade, he was also a philanthropist and donated the land to the city after the small bazaar it housed was burned down. In 1906 a statue of Queen Victoria was unveiled here by her son, the Duke of Connaught.
Today the Park is a popular place with street preachers and each lunchtime rings with the sound of evangelical hymns. This area is bordered by Biashara street, still a stronghold of Asian enterprise.
The influence of Nairobi’s Indian community, the descendants of the original colonial railway labourers and merchants, is undeniable. They play a major role in the economic and social life of the city.
There are a number of Hindu and Sikh temples throughout Nairobi, one of the most impressive being the recently constructed Swami Narain Temple on Forest Road, a massive temple complex with fine external statuary.
Nairobi is also home to many mosques. At the centre of the city is the large Jamia Mosque with attractive twinned minarets. There is a strong Ismaili community (followers of the Aga Khan) in Kenya, and their beautiful Khoja Mosque is found directly beside the main city market.
Nairobi’s population is predominantly Christian, and there are countless churches throughout the city. In the city centre are the large Catholic Holy Family Cathedral and All Saints Cathedral, a gothic style Anglican church that was founded in 1917 and consecrated in 1952.
Nairobi’s Parliamentary buildings were also built in the 1950’s. Directly beside Parliament, however, the Republic’s First President, Jomo Kenyatta rests in a respectfully landscaped Mausoleum.
His name was given to one of Nairobi’s more architecturally impressive buildings, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. This 33 storey tower overlooks a large amphitheatre, built in the traditional shape of an African hut, with a central plenary hall that resembles the ancient Roman Senate.
The real character of Nairobi is found in the life on the streets. The city never stops moving, and the streets throng with pedestrians, cars, matatus, and mkokoteni, hand drawn carts used to carry goods to market.
In Nairobi, Businessmen and women talking on cell phones walk the pavements alongside Maasai Warriors with long ochre stained hair, tourists and traders mingle with busy commuters, markets sell traditional handicrafts in the shadow of office towers, and life goes on at a frenetic pace.
The streets of the city are a parade of Kenyan life and colour. From pavement cafes and piano bars to the lively bazaars and markets the visitor to Nairobi can see the full spectrum of society here, and learn more about the unique character of the capital.
If you don't wish to explore Nairobi independently, organized city tours can be arranged.
Nairobi is very much the heart of modern Kenyan culture. The city has many theatres, galleries and cinemas. The city has a thriving music scene, and the clubs and bars of Nairobi are an excellent place to check out live bands.
Each year, a National Music Festival is held in Nairobi. Musicians from all over the country attend the festival, which celebrates Kenyan music both traditional and modern. For anyone with an interest in Kenyan music, this event should not be missed.