In Summary
  • I had lived in Nairobi for several years, had been to Uhuru Park countless times I passed through the park daily on my way to work.
  • But all this time I had been numb, preoccupied, harried. The marabou, some almost my height, minded their business, sometimes scouring the water for fish, at other times roaming the grounds on their spindly legs.
  • The soul of Uhuru Park is entertainment; it’s in the flair of a lone preacher in a pink suit, or skaters zipping across the tarmac near the main dais.

The city of Nairobi is many things to many people, and there is no end to the adjectives you can use to describe Kenya’s capital to try and make sense of the soul of the city.

It is every fashion faux pas, every knock-off, every failed model's catwalk. A million burning cigarette butts, life ordered and disordered. It is every dream realised, every truth questioned; it is every city from Beijing (China) to New York City (United States) to South Africa’s Cape Town. It is bustle.

And as if to counter the narrative, adjacent to the central business district is the country’s largest recreational park: Uhuru Park and recreational ground, a haven of tranquillity amid the din of noise, the endless traffic and madding crowd.

I had lived in Nairobi for several years, had been to Uhuru Park countless times I passed through the park daily on my way to work. But all this time I had been numb, preoccupied, harried. The marabou, some almost my height, minded their business, sometimes scouring the water for fish, at other times roaming the grounds on their spindly legs.

Always, a white man would be sitting in his cubicle by the boat hangar or dredging leaves and other debris from the water. He would nod my way, smiling a hallo. He must be the manager, I surmised, and he sure must love his job. He wore football jerseys bearing the names of Italian teams, his face and clean-shaven head burnt puce by the African sun.

I followed the same route on my way home in the evening, on auto-pilot, numb from work, my shadow long in the gloaming light of the sinking sun.

First time a charm

And then I noticed it; I noticed Uhuru Park for the first time after one-and-a-half years. It was Idd ul Fitr, the day after the end of the Muslim holy month or Ramadhan, a public holiday. I had just come from watching a basketball game at the nearby Railways Club. It was already dark, but a carnival mood filled the park: families sat on mats spread on the grass, feasting, toasting the night. Small children darted around mischievously.

Maybe it was the night air, maybe it was the holiday, but I paused to watch. The water was still there, and so were the trees and the walkways, but something was different, as if a wand had been waved over the night, sprinkling stardust. I decided I would return the next evening, with a camera.

Children on a camel in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, on June 1, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Children on a camel in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, on June 1, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The park was empty; the nest-less marabou had long retired in the trees. The park’s lights shone amber in the velvety blue water. In the distance, the neon light of billboards blinked. The place now was a painting, a distant likeness of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. Later, while reviewing the pictures, I decided I had been bat-blind all along; how else could I have not seen this?

Opened by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969, Uhuru Park sits on a 12-acre piece of land, and features an artificial lake. Over the years, the park would come to embody the tagline that sold Nairobi City as “The City in the Sun”, with the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) looming in the background.

Before it slowly fell into disrepair and insecurity, the park was a must-stop site, especially for local visitors. Pictures from that era feature subjects in hilarious postures-with the photographer directing, the outcome would be someone holding the crown of the KICC.

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