Kipande House – Embracing History and Modernity

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Kipande House – Embracing History and Modernity



Today, while held up in traffic, I took a photo of Kipande House and realised how little I knew about it. When was it built? Why has it been preserved in original state while surrounding buildings had been torn down and replaced with modern taller buildings? Well, curious me had to google for some more information.

“…it was initially Nairobi’s tallest building until Solel Boneh & Factah completed the Kenyatta International Convention Centre 38 years later. Built in the 1930s, the Kipande House was originally used as a railway depot. In addition, African, called “locals” at the time, who were visiting Nairobi either for work or some other business would go there to be registered and issued identification cards (ID). It was from this that it derived its name. Kipande is a Swahili word meaning identity card. The ID card consisted of a little red book, put in a metallic case and hung on a rope on the neck.

Many people who pass by have no idea it once stood tall as Nairobi’s skyscraper. Majority had never read the connection with the railway line and the colonial Kipande system. I have previously written on how Kipande was used by the British colonial government to restrict our grandfathers and grandmothers from moving freely in their own country.

Thanks to Kenya Commercial Bank (KBC), the structure of this historic building has remained intact. It is however used as a banking hall. An ATM lobby was added on the outer wall and many KCB customers have used this KCB branch with little knowledge of its place in our shared history. A mix of the old and the new. A rather pragmatic approach to conservation.

I hope to see many more historical monuments maintained in a sustainable way. This serves as a lesson for all of us who cherish our heritage while embracing progress.

I would encourage Kenyans to read #BritainsGULAG by Prof. Caroline Elkins that gives an account of colonial atrocities. A few findings are below:

“After forcefully grabbing African land & creating the racially exclusive “White Highlands”, the British colonial government & white settlers pushed Kenyans to the wage economy by denying them their land.

To ensure supply of cheap labour for the white settler community, they further established regulation to force more stubborn Kenyans to become labourers. The regulations included:

1) Creation of “African Reserves” (to limit access to land & force Kenyans to become cheap labourers). This was also a divide & rule strategy to limit interaction between communities.

2) Hut tax & Poll tax (66% of income) to force more to seek wage labour by controlling income.

3) Kipande pass (to restrict movement of Africans) that indicated a record of employment history & other personal details.

4) Restrictions on Cash Crop Production & Price Controls: In an attempt to defeat the more efficient Kikuyu farmers who were able to sell their produce cheaply, the colonial government banned Africans from growing cash crops such as tea, coffee and sisal. They also set price controls to make the settler produce more competitive.

The witty Africans discovered loopholes and devised ways around the restrictive rules by negotiating with struggling settler farmers in the ‘White Highlands’ to become ‘Squatter Farmers’ on the expansive land that the poor white settlers could not manage. In exchange for efficiently farming and helping the settlers exploit their land, the ‘Kaffir farmers’ received portions of land where they farmed, bred their livestock and cared for their families.”

The teaching of our history may no longer be taught in class and ganerations are losing sight of where we came from but we must take it upon ourselves to teach the new generation how to face the future with perspective of our shared past.

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