Achola Rosario goes down Kenya’s memory lane


By Achola Rosario, Contributing Editor at

(Posted 26th April 2021)

It was a sunny day when I stood at the crossroads of Tom Mboya and Mama Ngina streets, desperately trying to figure out a plan in this COVID lockdown enforced shut-down. As I lugged my camera-bag and tripod on an aching back, I sat down in front of a building I had not only passed countless times in my daily hustles, but had also used as a reference point when lost or orienting a friend in Nairobi CBD, yet like most, I never knew what lay inside.

I looked up from my position in the semi-circle seating area opposite the building’s entrance with a majestic colonnade, and a ray of sunlight shone on a banner that said Kenya National Archives is making a public appeal for donations of items of historical and cultural value. I thanked my lucky unicorn and prepared to deploy my Artful Dodger side. Luckily, convincing the friendly staff to let me meet the smiling Director was pretty easy, who amiably gave me an appointment to come film the next day. There is a God.

I came the next day ready to tackle every exhibit in the 3-story building and ask as many questions as I could, because this was an opportunity to delve into unexplored history and be part of it’s making as well. Many of us were taught European and not African history at school so the ignorance of our legacy in the world has had a profound impact on our global contribution, as well as how we see ourselves. It is only by recognizing the personal treasures that we have in our homes and securing them for future generations will we learn that this is the key to saving ourselves from complete consumerist oblivion.

Take for example Paramount Chief Wangu Wa Makeri, a woman who ruled amongst men for only one year between 1909 and 1910, whose rule is still a subject of salacious discussion today. A Kikuyu woman (which used to be a matrilineal society if I am not mistaken), she took a paramount chief for a lover, with the full knowledge of her husband, who declined the offer of chiefdom from his wife’s lover. She took it up instead. She was known as a ruthless tax collector and a fearless woman, who apparently never travelled with a stool to sit on for meetings, preferring instead the back of the strongest man present to prostrate himself and carry her for however many hours the meeting dragged on for.

She was eventually emasculated when she danced the forbidden Kibata dance, a rousing tribute to fallen heroes and the 4 mountains surrounding Gikuyu land, a dance reserved only for men. The story is that she was so aroused by the fierceness of the dance, and by her lover the Paramount chief’s dancing, that she stripped naked and joined the dance. Others say that her enemies twisted her sword at her waist so that it cut the belt holding them together when she joined the dance, leaving her naked as the day she was born. In any case, they used her sexuality against her and watered down the legacy of a woman who held her own ground.

The Mau-Mau veterans and the movement as a whole is also well documented, with the entire archives being collected and curated by founding member Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi (18 June 1911 – 22 June 1990), who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kenya from 1964 to 1966, and its second Vice-President between May and December 1966.

Murumbi became a member of the Kenya African Union (K.A.U.) political party after returning from England, a party formed with the specific aim of supporting the Mau-Mau movement for Independence politically. It was effective and saw the birth of a nation, led by Jomo Kenyatta, whose seat, regalia and coat of arms are all displayed at the archives.

His wife Sheila, of German origin, was an avid stamp collector and her collections are all a testament to the marketing prowess of a mere stamp. Those who remember the analogue days would remember the intense pleasure of not only receiving a long-awaited letter, but also steaming the stamp off the envelop and adding the colorful little ambassador of a foreign land to your scrap-book collection. It is this kind of archiving and documenting that is actively encouraged in this building, with all kinds of documents available on the 3rd floor for researchers doing their degrees/PHDs or even writing a book, as well as contemporary art on the ground floor by Ugandan sculptors like Elkana Ongesa (a personal friend of my late father’s which was a startling find), sitting comfortably next to genuine Benin Bronze figures in the Lost Wax Method. Turkana fertility utensils sit outside a mock Swahili kitchen, where there are allocated cubby-holes in the walls for each of the wives’ crockery, in order for the polygamous marriage to be enjoyed without unnecessary bickering and strife.

When you get tired of trip-hopping around history, you can come back to the present, and photograph yourself outside of one of the most Instagram-able buildings in Nairobi.

Entrance is free and research fee is a mere Kshs200 a year according to the Kenya National Archives Director Francis G. Mwangi, a gregarious institution himself, having been working at the archives for 30 years and been the Director there for 10 years. He therefore wants to leave a legacy that befits the grandeur of the place. He is opening up the Kenya National Archives to all those who want to donate any item that they think has historical value, for them to confirm, restore and exhibit for all posterity.

To contact Kenya National Archives:

Okumu (guide): +254 720 644 819

Email for donations:

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