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.

THESE words describe the Nairobi of a little more than a century ago, 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 327 miles [530 km] of track stretching from the coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi had been laid. By this time, the construction workers were smarting from their encounter with the famous “man eaters of Tsavo,” two lions that had killed many of the men’s colleagues, and the crew was facing the formidable terrain of the Great Rift Valley. Because 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. Instead, 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 helped make way for it later 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. Advance planning would have helped the budding city. Instead, 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.

Diseases soon took their toll on the new settlement. An outbreak of plague was the first real test for the new administrators. A quick remedy? The affected areas of the town were burned down to curb the spread! In the next half century, Nairobi would slowly shed its unsightly past and rise to become the commercial and social hub of East Africa.

How the Modern City Developed

Located at an elevation of approximately 5,500 feet [1,680 m], Nairobi enjoys an impressive view of the land around it. On clear days one can easily spot two significant African landmarks. To the north lies Mount Kenya, at 17,058 feet [5,199 meters] the nation’s highest mountain and the second highest in Africa. Farther south on the Kenya-Tanzania border is Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet [5,895 meters] Africa’s highest. The perpetual presence of snow and ice on Kilimanjaro, which lies near the equator, intrigued European geographers and explorers 150 years ago.

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.

A Melting Pot of Cultures

Acting like a large magnet, Nairobi has attracted a wide spectrum of mankind. The population of the city now totals over two million. The completion of the railway gave a good reason for people to settle in the region. Indians who helped construct the line remained to establish businesses that grew and spread around the country. Other entrepreneurs followed from Australia, Canada, and several African lands.

Nairobi is a melting pot of cultures. In the streets one may encounter an Indian lady with a flowing sari heading for the shopping mall, a Pakistani engineer rushing to a construction site, an immaculately dressed flight attendant from the Netherlands checking in at one of the hotels, or a Japanese businessman hurrying to a crucial business meeting, likely at Nairobi’s thriving stock market. Added to this, local residents can be found waiting at bus stops; doing business at stalls, open-air markets, and shops; and working in offices or the many industries found in Nairobi.

Paradoxically, few of the Kenyans living in the city can be termed true “Nairobians.” Most have come from other parts of the country, searching for “greener pastures.” In all, the residents  of Nairobi are friendly and welcoming. Perhaps it is such hospitality that has made the city a host to world and regional bodies. The world headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme is in Nairobi.

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 six miles [10 km] 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. And as recently as September 2002, a full-grown male leopard was caught in the living room of a Nairobi home, having strayed from a nearby forest!

A few minutes’ walk from the city center is the Nairobi Museum. 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 too, its speed notwithstanding, 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”!

Different Waters

While the river that Nairobi owes its name to continues to flow, its waters are contaminated by industrial and domestic effluent, so common in many developing cities. However, over the years Nairobi residents have been supplied with “water” issuing forth from a higher source. This is the Bible’s message of life taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.​—John 4:14.

In 1931, long before Nairobi attained its present-day proportions, Gray and Frank Smith, two brothers from South Africa, visited Kenya with the aim of spreading Bible truths. From Mombasa they followed the same route as the railway, braving many dangers​—at times even sleeping in close proximity to wild animals. In Nairobi they managed to distribute 600 booklets in addition to other Bible literature. Today there are about 5,000 Witnesses in the 61 congregations in metropolitan Nairobi. Through congregation meetings, assemblies, district conventions, and international conventions, Nairobi residents are now familiar with the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many have gladly accepted their Bible-based message of hope.

A Brighter Future

“Industrialized cities frequently suffer from lack of adequate housing . . . Factories tend to pollute air and water resources,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica. Nairobi is no exception. And since people are migrating daily from rural areas, these problems may even increase. With such constant battering, the luster of the gem that Nairobi has been can easily fade.

Happily, though, a time is coming under God’s Kingdom when all people will enjoy life to the full​—life that will not be marred by the ills that make city life today difficult.​—2 Peter 3:13.


^ par. 5 For a full description of the construction of the railway line, see the article “East Africa’s ‘Lunatic Express,’” in the Awake! of September 22, 1998, pages 21-4.

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Mount Kilimanjaro

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Mount Kenya

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Duncan Willetts, Camerapix

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Open-air market

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Frank and Gray Smith in 1931

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© Crispin Hughes/Panos Pictures