Above: Bird of Peace soapstone sculpture by maestro Elkana Ongesa at Murumbi Peace Memorial Garden Nairobi City Park. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published 6 April 2019
I got Bruno Mars ringing in my ears…l don’t feel like doing anything today…It’s a Saturday morning and l’m in no mood to work or go to the gym. All l want to do is escape the city and the best escape from being in the city is actually within the city that is Nairobi. It’s the third Saturday of the month and there’s a guided forest walk in Nairobi City Park Forest.
Here’s something l didn’t know about City Park. There’s free yoga on Sunday afternoons for anyone interested. Patrick Ngotho who is a member of just about every nature group in Kenya leads me to the patch of green space for yoga and shows off a couple of stretches.
A few steps away is the space for sculptures. And not ordinary sculptures but those sculpted by maestros that were in the collection of Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president between May and December 1966 and one of Africa’s greatest art collectors.
So now we’re in the Murumbi Memorial Garden admiring sculptures by famous artists like Elkana Ongesa and the late Expedito Mwebe Kibbula hailed as Africa’s Picasso in the open air gallery. Murumbi wasn’t just a collector but an amazing collector of all things African.
His vast collection include rare books including those written in the 18th century by freed African slaves in America, stamps, paintings, jewellery – all Afro-centric – some at the Nairobi Gallery, the National Archives and Nairobi Museum. With his long-time business partner Alan Donavan of the African Heritage fame, the two founded the largest pan-African art gallery suitably called the African Heritage.
It was also Murumbi’s wish to be buried by his mentor, Pio Gama Pinto the radical Kenyan journalist, politician and freedom fighter. Pinto became independent Kenya’s first martyr in 1965 shot a few minutes’ drive from the park.
On this quiet morning we pay our respects to Murumbi and his wife Sheila, both buried in the memorial garden close to Pio Gama Pinto. As the cemetery was full, Murumbi could not be buried next to Pinto. Walking out of the beautiful memorial, Pio Gama Pinto’s pictures are framed at the entrance with the smell of freshly cut grass by Donovan’s gardener, Zak Osimbi who maintains the park.
It becomes quite a memorial walk because Pio Gama Pinto’s grave is in a picturesque graveyard overgrown with grass but dotted with tombstones that are also works of art. Most date from the early 1900s including the neatly laid out Commonwealth graves from the First World War.
Across the road we enter the lush forest of indigenous trees walking along quiet paths and enjoying the fresh forest air till we get to the river. It’s surreal.
In the midst of city, we’re in an ancient forest that once covered Nairobi. Ngotho points to more endemic trees like the Brachylaena huillensis or silver oak that’s a threatened hard wood. As the morning warms, light dapples through the leaves on to the forest floor. A pair of Paradise flycatchers flit in the lower canopy. “We have recorded 120 species of birds here,” states Ngotho.
We’re by the sunken garden now but it’s overgrown with the Kibagare River flowing through it. The river is one of the many tributaries of the Nairobi River and flows into Mathare River that is a larger tributary of Nairobi River. There’s also a natural maze that’s being redone by Friends of City Park and Kenya Horticulture Society. It will be fun to try and find the way out through the maze once it’s done.
Finally we’re at a landmark in the park created in the 1930s for Nairobians to enjoy some music in the garden. It’s the bandstand where kids play while Sykes monkeys groom themselves.
By now we’ve walked three kilometres and I’m feeling brand new again. It’s been a great escape from the city.
City Park Forest
In 2014, 14 title deeds of illegally allocated plots were revoked in the garden. The threat from land grabbers is always there. The park measures 60 hectares from the original 90 hectares and is a National Monument under the Government of Kenya’s National Museums and Heritage Act (No. 6 of 2006). It was gazetted in 2014.
The forest entrance is on Limuru Road.
Friends of City Park (FoCP) created in 1996 is a group of volunteers working to restore City Park to its past glory for future generations. Join it to protect our green spaces in the city.