I’ve always cherished the culture, heritage and exciting history of the Kenyan coast, the whole East African Coast actually. How the earliest of visitors – Romans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks – came to a place with almost nothing known about. ‘There be dragons’ was the actual term used by most.
How a thriving dhow trade governed by the monsoon winds came into place with peoples from the East, mostly Arabs, bearing goods never seen before in this East Coast from as far as China and Persia. In exchange for this, they took gold, slaves and ivory. Funny enough however, hundreds of years later, this trade doesn’t sound so unfamiliar – especially with the latter product.
It’s fascinating to me also, how the Portuguese came and took over for 2 centuries and of all these, none seemed to venture in towards the mainland. What stands out however, is this clash of culture at the East African Coast. 3 continents, tens of cultures, thousands of kilometres apart spanning almost a Millennium; merging in one melting pot, the East African Coast.
So when I got some free hours in between exams a few days ago and I couldn’t come up with something to free my clogged mind, I accordingly thought of this one place worth going to then. A place where Kenyan history is embroidered into this city of Nairobi. A sneak peek into the past – even centuries ago – yet stack in the middle of the present-day CBD. An archive few care to check into – the Kenya National Archives.
It stands out, located between the city’s two busiest streets, Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya street. Yet this only seems to draw many to stand out too, stand outside it that is. Choose to pass time inside it next time you’re around and you’ll only part with sh. 50 if you’re a Kenyan citizen and sh. 200(a mere USD 2) if you’re not.
It got me to understand the trade in even deeper detail, from seeing some of the actual commodities – daggers, porcelain, Persian glass and textiles and reading some of the inscribed explanations. It left me wondering how I could pass by there each day, sometimes even wondering where I can spend some idle time. Yet, most do not even think of it to be more than a beautiful piece of architecture meant to draw foreigners and not us; but I assure you the detail in the artifacts, weapons and every piece of art will astound you just as it will take you body, heart and mind into these cultures. As I gazed at the Swahili cupboards made of quality hardwood,antique in nature fashioned with rustic copper handles; the throne for noble families made of enduring metal that’s obviously seen many a generation; the architecture and even cooking items like the mbuzi for grating and the uteo – a shallow winnowing basin – I felt truly in the place.
But that’s not all, cultures from all over Kenya and even Africa are well represented from textiles such as Ghana’s famous Kente fabric, wooden carvings from Mali and Ethiopian art and weaponry. One particular Abyssinian painting that portrayed the meeting of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba fascinated me. It goes beyond the Biblical story to tell an Abyssinian legend of how the two knew each other and begot a child – a child who became the first ruler of Ethiopia in the Menelik dynasty – Menelik 1.
Then followed contemporary Kenyan art from colonial Kenya with the suave English gentlemen given much preference of course and some with stories of how they fell in love with this wild and free country then to post colonial Kenya with the art here being uniquely hopeful, lively and with a strong spirit of Kenyan freedom and nation-building.
Heroes here also have special places with the corner I had now gotten into highlighting the life and times of two Kenyan heroes who had built this nation two different ways and seemed worlds apart but both had the same hard hitting effects on the people of Kenya and the whole world at large. One of these two is Kenyan politician and trade unionist Tom Mboya after whom the adjacent street is named.His cast-bronze statue is also just a stone throw away from the Archives. The other is celebrated environmentalist Wangari Maathai who became the first African woman and environmentalist to recieve the esteemed Nobel Peace prize.
Adjacent to Tom Mboya’s section is a window, I gazed out and was shocked to see the liveliness and business of the street below. I had become too engulfed in all these to remember I was still inside this sphere. It was like a time capsule. Before I could make my way up to the first floor, I realized my exam time was almost here and I had to walk all the way down Tom Mboya street to get to my exam center. I hope you’ll have visited it before I think of writing what’s up there on my next visit to the archives. The beauty is in the detail, and if you have a liking for detail, I assure you you’ll like it – in fact LOVE IT!
PS : Did you know where Noah kept bees in the Ark?
The Ark-hives I presume.