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Visiting Nairobi National Museum to Revisit Kenyan History

Najwa Gaines

Najwa enjoying the morning sun

I’ve always read books about African history. Books about the continent, individual countries, individual individuals and anything else about how Africans got to where they are today. Naturally, a lot of the books focused on colonialism, the civil wars that broke out after independence, the “Big Men” and the heroes.

Kenya’s past has been relatively free of the strife other countries have endured, some to this day. No Idi Amin, no Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, no Charles Taylor or Robert Mugabe. No genocides, no military dictators or coups, no militia takeovers.

But, there was the Mau Mau uprising.

To keep it simple, the Mau Mau uprising occurred from 1952 to 1960 when Kenyans fought back for their rights, their land and their dignity in general. They fought the British and the British’s allies, other Kenyans who thought they were on the winning side. Eventually the British did put down the rebellion, in about as an inhumane way possible as the British has done ever before; but three years later, the Union Jack was lowered for good and replaced with the Kenyan flag.

When Nduku and I went to the Nairobi National Museum, I was looking forward to learning more about Kenyan history and get the Kenyan point of view of the Mau Mau, colonialism and the history of Kenyans before the British called them all Kenyans.

Nairobi National Museum

Nairobi National Museum


Nairobi National Museum

When we got inside, there was the historical stuff I was looking for that you rarely find in books. The tribes that existed before the British showed p and claimed they were all the same. The way they lived, the way they viewed themselves as different from each other, their individual histories and cultures.

They slept with headrests, which looked like little uncomfortable stools, made of wood instead of pillows. Some of the ear plugs looked impossible to put in your ear, but they all did it because it was customary where in America today, it’s looked at as, well, just being different.

Kenya is the cradle of mankind. There were skeletons and skulls from the first discovered human beings and the “species” that existed before homo sapiens. There’s the story of Phillip Leaky, the famous anthropologist who made many of the discoveries that propelled him to the top of the food chain when it comes to discovering where mankind started.

While we were in the exhibit about the founding of mankind, the power went out. It got pitch black. I was thinking someone accidentally turned off the lights. Nduku said power going out isn’t that uncommon. It took several minutes before the lights came back on. I was thinking maybe they found the light switch to turn them back on. Nduku told me they probably turned on a generator.

Eventually, we get to the part about the Mau Mau. Granted the Mau Mau doesn’t define Kenya nor is it an apocalyptic event that’s studied by historians around the world, but it did have an impact on Kenya’s history in a way that if it never occurred, things may have turned out different. Kenya may have become the next South Africa. Or Hong Kong. Or maybe the next Rwanda or Somalia.

The issue I have about the entire Mau Mau content of the museum is how it was portrayed more like a disturbance of unruly Kenyans rather than the brutal treatment of tens of thousands of innocent people for the sake of defeating a smaller band of poorly equipped rebels suffering in the forests.

Dedan Kimathi, one of the leaders of the Mau Mau uprising, had a small mention in the museum. The clothes he was wearing when captured and killed. There was a map of where the detention camps were all over the country, but nothing about the tens of thousands of families forced into these camps while their land was stolen just because they belonged to a particular tribe.

Whatever. Life goes on.

There’s a display of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, an Indian merchant who played a role in Kenyan history.

Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee (1856-1939) was an Indian merchant who was born in what was then India but now Pakistan. He moved to Mombasa in Kenya a country in East Africa in 1890 after having stayed in Australia for a few years. He started his entrepreneurial activities at Karachi in Pakistan before moving to East Africa. In 1895, A.M. Jeevanjee of Karachi — as he was called at the time, was awarded the contract to supply Imperial British East Africa Company with labor as they built the Kenya-Uganda railway.He imported his workforce from the Punjab people. The first lot to arrive had a total of 350 men and the number grew for the next six years to have reached a total of 31,895. Most of them were Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims who worked as skilled laborers, artisans, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, tailors, motor mechanics and electrical fitters.

He later followed this up by opening a branch of his Karachi office in Mombasa. His newly set office in Mombasa ventured into other business interests in the region after overseeing the construction of the railway. It started supplying materials and provisions which included food for the imported labor workers.His firm further undertook contracts to build government offices, railway stations and post offices all along the Mombasa-Kisumu railway. Jeevanjee spearheaded the Indian opinion after facing the fledgling hostility of the white settlers and he was even served at the colony’s legislative council.

Later we would pass by Jeevanjee Gardens, the only park in the city that is directly owned by the people, having been donated to the poor people of Nairobi as a resting area (the park was private property and it is held in trust for the people of Nairobi).

There’s a photo of what’s called the Lancaster House Constitution Conference where the Kenyan leaders met with the British to finalize the British handing over of the country back to the people who were there thousands of years before the Europeans even knew it existed. In the photo is Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, ironically whose sons are both running for president today.

The museum also has a Snake House with exotic snakes and other animals. Snakes, crocodiles, turtles. That’s when I learned Nduku isn’t a big fan of snakes looking in her direction. In the middle of the Snake House is a little area with harmless reptiles. No reason to want to jump in the exhibit, but just in case anyone does get any fancy ideas, there’s a warning sign of why you want to think twice about.

Trespassers will be poisoned

Then as we were leaving, I saw a plaque on the wall about when the Foundation Stone was laid for the museum. And the plaque shed some light on why not much light was shed on the Mau Mau uprising. The museum got a financial injection from the European Union, and you know the EU isn’t going to let former subjects just throw dirt on the name of one of their members.

Foundation Stone

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