Ithink I’ve passed outside this historic monument in Nairobi more times than I can count. I remember my lecturer one time saying the building divides the city’s third world (Tom Mboya Street and downtown) and second world (Moi Avenue and uptown). Prior to housing the National Archives, established in 1965 by an Act of Parliament, this grand building housed the Grindlays Bank, which built it in 1931.
Later on in the 70s, the Central Bank of Kenya owned it, but later handed it over to the Government. It has over 40,000 collections of public records accessible to public and is under the office of the Deputy President and Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture.
The Archives is located next to the famous Ambassadeur Hotel, Hilton Hotel and Kencom bus terminus. Soon after alighting from the matatu, I head straight to this place that is a melting pot of all things Nairobian. It is mid-morning and the CBD is starting to fill up.
On one end, a man sells herbal medicines on a temporary stand and on the other a preacher animatedly preaches to men seated on City council’s street benches, hardly paying attention. I busy myself on phone as I wait for a friend accompanying me for a visit to the Archives.
This does not buffer me from overzealous hawkers determined to make a sale. A guy with camera in hand approaches me asking if he can take a photo of me besides the magnanimous Tom Mboya monument outside the Archives. He insists of showing me some of his work in an album, but I move away to express my disinterest.
On the other end a mukorino woman with all sorts of paraphernalia displays a variety of vegetables in a circle and in the middle a bottle of coke soda and a sachet of Royco stands.
A crowd is fast gathering and I can hear her saying how coke has a lot of chemicals and she is about to prove to them how.
This abruptly comes to an end as my friend arrives and we head for the Archives. A board at the entrance displays the entry fees; Sh50 for students and residents and Sh200 for non-residents. An exhibition of African Art and craft, labelled ‘Murumbi Trust Exhibition’ welcomes us.
It states that Joseph Murumbi’s family sold the art collection to the National Archives in the 80s. Murumbi was Kenya’s first foreign minister and the second Vice President. He was an avid collector of African art.
His collection on display here is all about traditional African crafts such as weaponry, masks and cooking ware. You will also get to see some of the ancient African crafts that inspired and influenced some of the world’s renowned artists like Matisse.
Apart from that, Murumbi also collected rare African history books, which are available at the National Archives library. There is a sterility of huge collection of Kenya’s history in the vast space inside. For a minute, it felt like the Nicholas Cage’s movie, National Treasure.
The first floor is dotted by historical black and white pictures and paintings, which provide a deep historical reflection of Kenya, from pre-colonial times to date. From freedom fighters and other iconic leaders. I was attracted by a picture of Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta from when he was a young man, his family life and in leadership.
Beside this picture stands another iconic picture of Mzee Kenyatta shaking hands with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie while enjoying some breeze at some beach alongside other several leaders. Another interesting one was of Maasai’s in Nairobi, when the city was nothing more, but a trading centre.
It was then known as ‘Enkare nyrobi’, which loosely translates to mean a place of cool waters in Maa language. Basically, there’s a lot of rich educational information you can get for research purposes here.
I was so impressed at the end of my trip, but wondered whether or not Kenyans knew about their national heritage. If you haven’t been to the Archives, perhaps it’s time to give the place a visit. You won’t be disappointed.