The Nation (Nairobi)

Kenya: How Nairobi Came Up With Names of Its Streets, Roads

Nairobi — Did you know that before Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, streets and roads in Nairobi bore mainly English and a few South Asian names and that this situation lasted for at least a decade until founding President Jomo Kenyatta got around to ordering some changes?

James Gichuru Road was St Austins Road; Ronald Ngala Road was Duke Road; and Mama Ngina Street was Queensway. The (in)famous Koinange Street was Sadler Street, then famous for being the site of the first Unga Group flour mill.

Margaret Kenyatta, daughter of the President, was mayor of Nairobi, and the City Council asked citizens to suggest new names. According to documents in the National Archives, the exercise was not without difficulties. In January 1975, Ms Kenyatta objected to changing the name of Forest Road, arguing that it had no colonial or racial connotations.

City Hall eventually turned down a request believed to have come from the office of influential Kiambaa MP and Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange to rename any road leading to that constituency Kiambaa Road.

"As you will no doubt agree, Nakuru Road and Limuru Road have been with us for a long time and to change either would seem inappropriate," City Planning Director J. Swai wrote to Town Clerk John Mbogua.

Mathu's plea

City Council apparently never listened to Mwangi wa Mathu's plea that Ngingiri was the proper spelling of Gigiri and the name of the road in the Muthaiga neighbourhood should be changed to respect that.

"What prevents us from writing down the name correctly?" Mr Mathu asked. "I do not know how you take it, but I can assure you this is a very serious thing."

In 1976, Mr Mbogua reluctantly agreed to switch the names of Kinyanjui and Ngotho roads in Dagoretti -- even though he argued it would confuse people -- because the family of colonial-era paramount chief Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu insisted that the main road to the homestead in Riruta of the first indigenous Kenyan to own a car had been erroneously named after his servant, Ngotho.

Many new names were suggested and adopted during the renaming exercise. Many streets were named either for former local freedom fighters or renowned pan-Africanists with whom President Kenyatta had interacted during the struggle for freedom. James Kangangi Njuguna argued forcefully for the preservation of history in the renaming process, even though it could recall bad things.

He said Waiyaki, one of the first Africans to be executed for resisting British expansionism and kipande, the hated metal identification plate Africans had to wear around their necks when travelling outside their home areas, deserved to be remembered with street names. "How else do you remember the political struggle that surrounded the weapon of subjugation?" he wrote.

And on July 29, 1973, the council renamed Queen Elizabeth Way Waiyaki Way, and created Kipande Road and changed Queensway to Mama Ngina Street, after President Kenyatta's last wife. Then Archer Road was renamed Kabarnet Road where then Vice-President Daniel arap Moi had his home.

But Mr Kenyatta did not appear very eager to have anything named after his political rivals, who included former Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the father of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Assistant Director of City Planning James Maina said one of the basic principles in street and road naming is to make sure the names are widely acceptable. The names could be those of wild animals and birds, livestock, and places, as well as local and international heroes (mainly the ones who passed on).

He said President Kenyatta evidently influenced the naming of major streets for his friends or associates in the pan-African freedom struggle, including Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

The city that eventually became Kenya's capital was founded in 1899 at Mile 317 of the Mombasa to Lake Victoria railway line where the British contractors decided to establish a base before heading west towards the escarpment.

They named it Nairobi after the nearby Maasai watering hole, Maasai Enkare Nairobi, or "cool water". The camp grew into a small town and in 1905 it was declared the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate. Beginning today, we bring you the story behind the names of some of the city's streets and roads.

Tubman Road

The road links Moi Avenue and Koinange Street, cutting across Muindi Mbingu Street. Equity Bank and The Bazaar, which formerly housed the Teachers’ Service Commission, stand on either side. Jamia Mall was built on the site of the old Kigali curio market. William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman (1895 -1971) was the longest-serving president of Liberia. His tenure spanned 27 years from 1944 to 1971.

Luthuli Avenue

The road connects Tom Mboya Street at the National Archives and River Road, the street now home to electronic goods shops. Major landmarks include the famous Ramogi Studios. Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli was a Zulu chief and president of the ANC (1952–60). Chief Luthuli, who was frequently imprisoned for his non-violent anti-apartheid activities, became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1960. He died in 1967 when a train hit him.

Mokhtar Daddah Street

The road links Moi Avenue at Ufundi Plaza and Loita Street. Major buildings on the street include Nakumatt Lifestyle, Nginyo Towers and Uniafric House. Mokhtar Ould Daddah (1924-2003) was the first president of Mauritania from 1961 to 1978. Daddah established his reputation before the country obtained independence from France in 1961 as someone who could create consensus among political parties.

Denis Pritt Road

Formerly Caledonia Road, Denis Pritt Road runs from State House Road to Silver Oak Kindergarten. Major buildings include Caledonia Estate, Caledonian shopping centre, Mitihani House, which houses the KNEC offices and Iranian Embassy. Denis Nowell Pritt (1887–1972) was the British defence lawyer for Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei and Achieng Oneko, the famous Kapenguria Six.

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