“When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.”- Wangari Maathai
Uhuru Park is a 29-acre recreational park, adjacent to Nairobi’s Central Business District and opened to the public in 1969. In 1989, retired President Moi mooted a plan to build a 60-story office complex to house the headquarters of the then ruling party, KANU, and to also serve as the headquarters of the party’s newspaper, Kenya Times. There was widespread opposition to the plan, spearheaded by Prof Wangari Maathai. Dismissing her as a “crazy woman” and labeling those opposed to the project as people with “insects in their heads”, President Moi went ahead to break ground for the construction. Wangari’s attempt to get a court order to stop the construction was dismissed. However, as a result of Maathai-led protests, and the media coverage it attracted, the foreign investor cancelled the project in January 1990.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Jubilee government announces that they want to hive off part of Uhuru Park in order to build the proposed Sh65 billion JKIA-Westlands expressway. The 27 kilometre road will cost 2.4 billion shillings per kilometre and will exclusively serve the rich. Motorists will pay a toll fee per kilometre to use the road. You won’t be able to walk or cycle on that road. Instead of building a light rail system to serve the millions who don’t have cars, the government is wasting money on a road that’s not needed and will most likely experience congestion several years down the road. It’s another scandal. 70% out of 6.5 million people in Nairobi walk or take a Matatu to work. That is seven out of every ten people. Those millions of commuters have no need for an express highway; they want footpaths, cycling paths, public parks and a reliable, safe mass public transport system. Why does the government want to spend so much money to build a road that will only be used by a minority wealthy class? When part of Central Park was grabbed in 1971 and given to the Aga Khan to build Serena Hotel, the hotel wasn’t for the poor park users, but for the rich.
Uhuru Park, one of the few remaining green spaces within Nairobi’s concrete jungle, is the people’s park. It’s the park where we congregated on December 27, 2002, to say goodbye to Moi after 24 years of his dictatorship. It’s the park where Nairobians go to eat air burgers and rest after walking around the city looking for work. Uhuru Park is the only recreation spot that Nairobi’s poor have left; from the preacher, the activist, the watchman, lovers, slum dwellers, the house help, the jobless and even the middle class who come there to escape their concrete estates. Our estates and slums have no playgrounds, they have all been grabbed. Uhuru Park is the only open, green space accessible to all, irrespective of your social class. You can go on boat rides, camel and horse riding, merry-go-round, watch kids skate, or just sit and enjoy the space. The park is a meeting point for people from all social classes. If the Nairobi County government had any common sense, they would make the park more attractive, secure and safe to use, day or night.
This Sunday, from 12pm there shall be #IamWangariMaathai celebration and reflection at Uhuru Park, Freedom Corner. Join us.