As a child growing up in Nairobi 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 favorite 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 out 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.
The children loved to come to City Park to see the monkeys and squirrels. It was their escape into nature. My father remembers the sounds of birds as the sound track of the park, providing atmosphere and novelty for the children as they explored. Heading home at the end of the day they would pick zambarau and loquats from the trees at Pangani long ago planted by Indian Kenyans as they settled this part of Nairobi.
Declared a free public park in 1932 City Park is Nairobi’s only municipal park with indigenous forest. City Park also has planted gardens, rivers, hiking trails, a bandstand, and cemeteries for Catholics, Anglicans, Jews and veterans of the First and Second World Wars, providing diverse outdoor interests to visitors. This biodiverse park with 1000 different species of plants and animals is also rich in history as the final resting place of the freedom fighter and socialist Pio Gama Pinto (assassinated in 1965) and our second vice president Joseph Murumbi. Murumbi’s love for African art is celebrated with the Murumbi Memorial Sculpture Garden.
City Park exists today because in the 1990s Nairobi residents took action against a grab of the park. Forming Friends of City Park, they protested the conversion of public land to private land in newspapers and government offices. This public action finally led to the gazettement of City Park as a National Monument in 2009, protected under the Museums and Heritage Act. Today people from the City Center, Embakasi, Kibera, and Kasarani make up the majority of the visitors to City Park. They still come to be amused and amazed by the monkeys. To experience the greenery so absent from their everyday lives. Sadly the bandstand is silent as the last band played there in the late 1970s. And even more sadly the maze, entertainment for so many over the years, is still under threat of being grabbed. Almost 20 years ago some Nairobians stood up so that we would be able to enjoy this free public park as they did. Would you do the same?
By Bettina Ng’weno