Published: Saturday Nation newspaper magazine 28 June 2018

It was the coldest of days in Nairobi. A June Sunday with a sky pasted in white cloud dropping a fine drizzle on the earthlings. But being the third Sunday of the month it could not be wasted because that’s the day when we, the Nature Kenya members, set out to discover all the intrigues of nature in and around Nairobi. For me personally, it’s also a work-out in the wild, fresh air.

Uhuru Gardens monument copyright rupi mangat (800x450)
Uhuru Monument at Uhuru Gardens – Copyright Rupi Mangat

So in the drizzle we stood brainstorming where to go, donned in layers of sweaters and jackets.

And it was decided – Uhuru Gardens National Monument in the very heart of Nairobi.

Here’s the spiel on Uhuru Gardens. It is here – at the very spot that a mugumo (fig) tree was planted on 12th December 1963 – when the Union Jack was lowered at midnight and Kenya’s flag was raised to usher in Uhuru – freedom at midnight from colonial rule.

Stepping out of the cars, with the cold and the fog hiding Nairobi’s ever-rising skyscrapers, the open fields of Uhuru Gardens looked magical. On every blade of grass, hung dewdrops like diamonds in a field. In a word, spectacular.

Uhuru – freedom in Kiswahili – Gardens is a jewel in the urban city. Apart from it being a national heritage site decked with three monuments, it’s a microcosm of a world that was before Nairobi, the city happened.

Uhuru Gardens grasslands (800x450)
Uhuru Gardens grasslands – Copyright Rupi Mangat

Trampling through the narrow paths between grasses as tall as some of us, Fleur Ng’weno, the legendary lady of the walks who started these forays from the car park at Nairobi Museum in 1971 – that have since continued come rain or shine – explained the importance of the grasslands.

“Here is the place where two major habitats in Nairobi intersect,” explained Ng’weno. “One was the northern section which was the hilly part of Nairobi which was all forest leading up to the farmlands and the Aberdares.

“Then the southern part towards Nairobi National Park had grasslands all the way to Kilimanjaro.”

At that point my imagination opened up to a Nairobi of more than a century ago that was a lush grassland and forest teeming with swamps and wildlife. The very word Nairobi is derived from the Maa language – Nyarobe – for ‘a place of cool waters’ simply because it was like that.

In this microcosm that is a remnant of that age – 64 acres – on this Sunday morning we walk into the woodland of tall Yellow-barked acacia that leads to a wetland. Just at the edge there’s drama. A pair of predators swoop into the trees – it’s the Gabar goshawk – a small bird of prey that’s found in Africa and Arabia. With its short rounded wings and fairly long tail, it can fly in and out of trees easily.

Brachystelma lineare by M Gilbert (1)
Brachystelma lineare by M Gilbert

Past the wetland in the woods, we follow the path that allows for a single file along the wall of the Gardens with the city’s traffic whizzing past along the Southern bypass. When a section of the gardens were hived off for the bypass, there was concern over one of the rarest plants, that only surface in seasonal wetlands during the rains. It’s the Brachystelma lineare. Had it not been for people like Ng’weno and the National Museums of Kenya, this important population would have been wiped out. Instead it was carefully transferred to similar part of the gardens.

And then we’re in the midst of the tall grasses of different kinds and shapes, some spun with spiders’ webs laden with dew. In this ethereal magical surroundings where Red-collared widowbirds – relatives of the weavers – build their nests in the grasses, now the males in full breeding plumage and the females in duller tones, are busy collecting the seeds off the grasses to feed the new fledglings.

Uhuru Gardens warthog copyright Rupi Mangat (800x450)
Uhuru Gardens – warthog waching people – Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s why l love Nairobi. It’s a city that has what every other city has but with an extra edge: the last of the wild. By the end of the morning in the Gardens that in 1963 raised the Kenyan flag and ushered in independence, we’ve listed 63 species of birds, plus warthogs, seen the spoor of mongoose and enjoyed interesting conversations with friends.

And also – grasslands are as important as indigenous forests because they are carbon sinks, water catchments and habitats for the wild. May Uhuru Gardens keep its green space for eternity.

Enjoy Uhuru Gardens

Uhuru Gardens 25 years independence monument copyright Rupi Mangat (800x450)
The Fountain Monument 25 years of Independence – Copyright Rupi Mangat

Walk it. It’s the largest memorial park in Kenya with three monuments:

Uhuru Monument: the 24-metre high independence monument designed by the architect Hamid Mughal.

Mashujaa Square: beyond Uhuru Monument to honour Kenya’s heroes and heroines.

A fountain monument to celebrate 25 years of independence.

It’s open daily at 8:00am to 6:00pm. For more info contact Janet Kinyanjui, the manager on
Entry fee is KShs 200/- per vehicle. For events, contact above.