Monday, 31 October 2011 13:53

The Struggle to Preserve Jeevanjee Gardens

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By Zarina Patel - Reminiscences

On a bright sunny morning in Mombasa on 24 June 1991, as I flipped through the Daily Nation an article caught my eye. Headed 'City
CommissionCar Park Plots up for Sale' it reported that Nairobi Municipal councillors were planning, with others, to convert Nairobi's open spaces into multistoreyed car parks. The incredible story continued on the back page and tucked away right at the end was a paragraph thatmademe sit bolt upright. It read: 'There are reports that aprivatedeveloperhas beenallowedto construct an underground three-storey parking at the JeevanjeeGardens.'

I showed the paper to my late mother, Shirin Najmudean, youngest daughter of A M Jeevanjee, and we stared at it in disbelief. The next day's Nation confirmed the truth and even stated that the plans had been finalised. There was no time to lose.
We took the overnight train to Nairobi where I contacted Professor Wangari Maathai, now Kenya's Nobel Laureate. Two years earlier she had single-handedly fought to save Uhuru Park and turned the tide against the most incredible odds. On 2 July she wrote to the press requesting a public response to the planned project in Jeevanjee Gardens.

I walked into the offices of the Nation Group and met with Joseph Karimi, the journalist who had first brought the story to the public. It was decided to mobilise public opinion. I drew up a petition and was able to get 300 signatures of those who were opposed to the Jeevanjee Gardens Project. Professor Maathai received written and verbal messages protesting the planned development. The greatest support came from the Nation newspapers and ordinary Kenyans. Njuguna Mutonya, then a reporter in the Nation's Mombasa offices, published a lengthy interview of my mother and myself. 'The developers had given an assurance that the Gardens would be left in tact,' we were told; so all was not lost.

But on 14 July the Sunday Nation announced: 'Jeevanjee Car Park to cost Shs350 million' and went on to inform its readers that 'The project had already been approved by the Capital Markets Authourity, was to be registered under the name Jeevanjee Gardens Development Company Limited and would have room for 1,500 vehicles and a 10,000-square-metre shopping mall.' It all sounded so final.

We wrote letters of objection to the various authorities and interested parties and alerted members of the AMJeevanjee family abroad. The press was inundated with letters from the public. A handful supported the proposed development; the great majority were adamantly opposed to any tampering with their favourite park; while a few were willing to allow for the car park and shopping mall provided they could be absolutely sure that the Gardens would remain untouched.

There were well-meaning friends who warned me of dire consequences - Kenya was still a single-party state where repression was the norm and land-grabbing was a well entrenched institution. But the pessimists were very much in the minority and we felt greatly encouraged by the response of the people.We had the support of the media, the residents of Nairobi and Mombasa, the environmentalists and those who lived and worked around the Gardens. The Nairobi branch of the KANU women's league protested against the project and the Deputy Chair of Nairobi City Commission, the very body planning the destruction of the Gardens, was quoted as saying that she was 'disgusted and would hate to see the city full of concrete structures'.

Many descendants of A M Jeevanjee, scattered over three continents, helped to focus the family's opposition from abroad. Jeevanjee had donated the Gardens to the then Colonial Government in 1906 and it was his wish that it should be a meeting place for Nairobians and provide them with rest and relaxation. The family members had no financial stake in it but they were determined to ensure that his wish was honoured.
A meeting withMr Jeremitsky of Harold HWebb & Partners, the architects of the planned construction, revealed to me that all the trees and bushes in the Gardens were to be uprooted and the centre of the 'landscaped piazza' was to be taken up by a large glass dome. It was now certain that this precious patch of nature in the CBD was to be replaced by 'artful' concrete, and Jeevanjee Gardens would be no more. Jeevanjee Gardens'The statue of Queen Victoria would not be removed,' I was assured.

Cracks were beginning to appear in the determination of the 'shadowy developers' to implement their plans. Though all documents relating to Jeevanjee's handover of the Gardens had been 'disappeared', I knew of one of the clauses which stipulated expressly that the statue of Queen Victoria should never be moved. With his remarkable foresight this 'Grand Old Man' must have suspected that someday covetous eyes may be cast on this valuable piece of land. Kenyans had made their voices heard, now they could only wait for a response.
On 14 August, 1991, the seven o'clock newscaster announced: 'His Excellency President Daniel arap Moi this afternoon visited Jeevanjee Gardens. Met with scores of wananchi and ordered a halt to the proposed development. He further declared that the Gardens should remain 'undisturbed by earth-moving  equipment'.

And so it is that Nairobians can still enjoy the benefits of the only green space in the city centre. The resultant interest in 'Who was this man
Jeevanjee? Why did he donate this garden to us?' led me to write a 283-page biography of my maternal grandfather, a book which eventually captured the history of Kenya's anti-colonial struggle in the first quarter of the 20th century. The Friends of Jeevanjee Gardens (ForJ) was set up in 1998 and continues to 'keep an eye' on the Gardens.

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