I first heard of Mtego wa panya (a rat trap) from my uncle in 1963 after he had come back to our village in Kibichoi, Kiambu District, from a school trip to Nairobi.
It was a frightening tale of a place surrounded by a high hedge where people got lost trying to find their way out. However, it appears that unlike us in the rural areas, those children who lived in the big city were quite familiar with this facility.
Bettina Ng’weno writes, “As a child growing up in the 1940s and 1950s my father, Hilary Ng’weno, would visit City Park regularly.
Part of a gang of children from Muthurwa, Pumwani, Shauri Moyo and Kaloleni he would walk across town on a Sunday to hear the Police or Army marching bands play in the Bandstand. The children would then head for the Maze. This was one of their favourite activities.
At the Maze would be Kenyans of all walks of life, Africans, Asians, Europeans, the young, the old, in families and couples and of course his gang of children.
The children, being regulars at City Park, had figured how to get to the middle of the Maze and how to get out again. They loved to see adults get lost in the Maze and be unable to find their way out. How clever they felt”.
City Park is a roughly triangular expanse of greenery sandwiched at the fork between Limuru Road and Forest Road.
A canalised permanent stream, Kibagare, traverses the Parks lower reaches while the affluent suburb of Muthaiga, across the Mathare River, separates the park from Karura Forest to the north.
The Nairobi Township Committee was formed in 1901 under John Ainsworth the Sub-Commissioner. One of its first tasks was to carve up the town into residential neighbourhoods along racial lines.
In a rare departure from tradition, an area of forest next to Parklands measuring about 90 hectares was declared off-limits even for white settlers ostensibly “for the recreation of the town’s future citizens” and was to be known as the Nairobi Forest Reserve.
The real reason for the creation of this and the Karura Forest Reserve was a tacit acceptance that indeed there were people living on the land before the coming of the White Man.
In this particular case the ancestors of the Kikuyu living here had willed that the forest be left intact.
Notwithstanding the above concession, white settlers would go to the forest to hunt for meat especially during World War 1 for fun and later to feed the troops.
By this time, with the rapid expansion of Nairobi the town had been elevated to the status of a municipality and the Nairobi Forest Reserve became the Municipal Forest.
After the War, the Garden City Movement had gained traction worldwide and Nairobi was no exception. The city fathers and the governor were not to be left behind.
In 1923, concerted efforts were made to open up the Municipal Forest for public recreation. To begin with it was given a new name, City Park, and a pavilion was erected.
A network of public pathways was established and the park was launched in a lavish ceremony presided over by Governor Coryndon.
Further development took place and by 1926 the park featured a Bowling Green, a Bandstand and the swamp-lined river had been canalised. The park became a magnet for outdoor activities and leisure. Unfortunately the Great Depression and World War 11 curtailed any additional growth.
In 1947, Henry Powell (“Peter”) Greensmith, the man with green fingers, was appointed Parks Superintendent.
Over the next 18 years, Peter would go on to create the luxuriant formal gardens, including the Kei-Apple Maze and the fishpond for which the park became globally acclaimed.
Important guests from around the world, including in 1959, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, of Britain, and later Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then first Vice-President of India would stream in to see and marvel at the spectacle of City Park.
Peter Greensmith, as he was popularly known, created a nature lovers paradise with the most beautiful array of fauna and flora, manicured lawns, neatly cut hedgerows, tarmac pathways radiating from the central pavilion, a large variety of birds, flowers, butterflies, animals and a tree nursery with more than 1,000 species.
The park is also home to a European Cemetery on the northern side and Goan, Jewish and World War 1 cemeteries across the Kibagare River on the southern boundary fronting Forest Road. The graves of Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second Vice-President, and that of the human rights activist Pio Gama Pinto are situated next to the European Cemetery.
Over the years various parts of the park were excised legitimately to make way for public use such as the hawkers market, Simba Union, Premier Club, Premier Academy, Swaminarayan Temple, a hockey stadium and a housing estate.
But in the usual Kenyan tradition land grabbers were lurking in the shadows and large portions were also excised illegally for the personal benefit of individuals. The park also faced threat from dumping of waste on site and upstream on Kibagare River.
In response to these threats a group of Nairobi residents formed Friends of City Park (a project of Nature Kenya) to lobby against the conversion of public land to private property. After many years of lobbying the remaining 60 hectares of City Park was eventually gazetted as a national monument in 2009.
Today, City Park is a pale shadow of its halcyon days and I am sure Peter Greensmith would turn in his grave if he were to see the pathetic state of his creation.
The management of the park falls under the Nairobi County government but the workers walk around with a lethargic gait looking totally demotivated having witnessed illegal activity at the park taking place with impunity.
Attempts have been made to rehabilitate the park by the County government with little impact. It is a massive undertaking requiring a large budget and above all the political will to push it through.
Although City Park is a gazetted national monument, only two weeks ago, some as yet unknown people had the audacity to put up four beacons at night right next to the county offices at the park. The relevant authorities have been informed officially by the Friends of City Park and action is awaited.
Kenyans, can we sink any lower than this? We have sold our souls to the devil for the love of money.
The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast.
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