While at Alliance High School, once every month we were permitted to go to Nairobi in what had come to be known as “Nairobi Saturdays”.
Of course, some of the more creative boys went on a frolic of their own elsewhere, but as long as you came back to school on time nobody made too much of a fuss.
The transport of choice was the country buses plying the route between Thogoto and Nairobi, although if you were early enough you could catch the passenger train at Kikuyu Station.
I recall each time the bus approached Adam’s Arcade the conductor, hanging perilously on the door handle with one leg swinging outside the bus, would whistle, bang the side of the bus and shout “koronia, koronia!” for those intending to disembark there. That was in 1968.
For a long time I was puzzled as to the meaning of the word “koronia” but I later learnt that before Adam’s Arcade came into existence there was a shop known as Colonial Stores at this very spot and “koronia” was the Kikuyu’s best effort for “colonial.”
Colonial Stores was established at the beginning of World War 11 and served as a logistics depot for the British Military. After the war the facility fell into disuse as much of its functions were scaled down and moved elsewhere, notably Eastleigh Air Base.
Concomitantly, there was a large influx of a European working class into Nairobi including military personnel who opted to remain, no doubt emboldened by the success of the war effort and the favourable climatic and investment conditions in Kenya.
This development created rising demand for middle-income housing in Nairobi.
The first Municipal European Housing Scheme was launched in 1948 on a site off Ngong Road, near the location of Colonial Stores and was known as Woodley Estate Scheme.
It was named after Mayor Alderman F.G.R. Woodley who was in office at the time. The scheme consisted of the following:
Woodley Estate: Ten two-bed roomed houses, 14 three-bed roomed houses and 41 one-bed roomed flats. It was completed in early 1949.
Woodley Flatlets: 41 flatlets completed in 1949.
Woodley 11: 50 two-bed roomed and 20 three-bed roomed houses completed early 1950. The estate was occupied by European middle-level municipal officers, secretaries and personal assistants.
Abdul Habib Adam was an Arab trader running a successful business under the name Reliance Motor Transport. It is claimed that he transacted a great deal of business with the military during the war years, but unfortunately the government fell into heavy arrears on payment.
It is said that Adam was friendly with Mayor Woodley and through his good offices a compromise was reached wherein the government granted him the land on which Adam’s Arcade now stands in settlement of monies owed to him.
This would explain how Adam managed to obtain land in an area reserved exclusively for Europeans. Apparently, Mr Adam was a very enterprising gentleman.
Immediately seeing an opportunity, he sketched a plan for a one-stop shopping centre, the first of its kind in East Africa, to serve the neighbouring Woodley Estate and other through-traffic on Ngong Road.
After securing the services of an architect, the plans were approved and the first structure to appear on site was a Total petrol station in 1954.
He then struggled to finance the first phase of the development which was completed in 1959, comprising nine shops and nine three-bed roomed flats with balconies.
The first tenants were a bakery, a post office, a Deacons shop, a Bata shop, a greengrocer, a chemist, a Standard Bank branch and a butchery. The nine flats were occupied by British Army soldiers and their wives. The development was named Adam’s Arcade.
The bakery, known as Bachelor’s Bakery, was run by an Italian couple and, as was to be expected, their pastries were exceptionally popular drawing customers from as far as Nakuru.
Flagship cinema hall
Further development took place over the years culminating in the flagship cinema hall, Metropole, which was opened in 1964 by the first African Mayor of Nairobi, Alderman Charles Rubia, in a grandiose ceremony.
Soon after independence, Europeans quickly left the country or settled elsewhere in white- dominated areas like Karen, Westlands, Kitisuru and Lavington. Senior African civil servants and politicians moved in and occupied Woodley Estate.
Some of the notable names include Barack Obama Senior, Ramogi Ochieng Oneko, CMG Argwings Kodhek, Jesse Gachago, Onyango Midika and Otieno Ambala.
Woodley Estate was the victim of much publicised large-scale land grabbing in the 1980s and 90s some of which ended up in gruesome murder.
Some time in the late 1960s, a rather large gentleman (he was well over six feet tall) Juma Tumbo opened a bar on the lower ground floor known as Tumbo’s Club, which proved to be popular with senior civil servants.
As the name would suggest, he had a huge pot belly which he was very proud of, much to the amusement of his patrons whom he knew by name.
There was also another popular shop on the upper ground floor known as Daily Visits which opened until quite late and proved useful if one ran out of supplies in the evening, including cigarettes and alcohol!
Unfortunately, both premises closed in the late 1990s and Adam’s Arcade runs a no-alcohol policy today. Metropole, like many other cinema theatres, was rendered obsolete by the digital revolution but I still hold that it was a great way of socialising, particularly with the family.
Adams Arcade received a major makeover towards the end of the 1990s and the upmarket coffee house, Java, opened their first outlet in 1999 in the premises formerly occupied by the ubiquitous Tumbo’s Club.
Today the supermarket chain, Tusky’s, occupies a large portion of the upper ground floor. There is a mosque at the rear of the property and plenty of secure parking.
Although Adam’s Arcade is today facing severe competition from modern malls proliferating in Nairobi, the fact that it has survived this long is a testament to the genius of Mr Adam whose original concept was way ahead of its time and is the template upon which today’s malls are based.
I hasten to add that knowing people in high places does help one’s cause, now as it did then. Mr Adam passed on at Nairobi Hospital on March 4, 1974.
The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. e-mail [email protected]