Discrimination and Sanitation in a White City: Nairobi during British Colonial Rule

By Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim

Not long after the horrifying murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020, protesters took to the streets in cities across the United States and the rest of the world demanding justice and a redress of decades of police brutality, systemic racism, and inequality.  In London, Bristol, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Sydney, Lausanne, Pretoria, Accra, and Brussels, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched and took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. They sprayed the statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square with graffiti, tossed the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, and vandalized the statue of King Leopold II, seeking to reecho the racism, brutality, and injustice the monuments promote. Through their actions, the protestors in Europe brought the ramifications of colonial rule to the fore which in turn evoked the history of racial segregation in colonial cities and the violence it unleashed against colonial subjects in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As a colonial capital in East Africa, Nairobi witnessed one of the most brutal racial injustices in the history of colonial rule. Taking Nairobi, which was under the control of British colonial officials and European settlers from 1899 to 1963, as an example, the essay examines the role of the United Kingdom in spreading racial inequality. Despite recurring outbreaks of plague and other infectious diseases, Nairobi developed into a relatively prosperous city at the expense of the overwhelming majority of Africans and Indians who were forced by the settlers and British officials to live in extreme poverty in the most unsanitary conditions.

This essay uses sanitation, the infrastructure, services, and regulation required to move waste away, keep the city clean of filth, and maintain a decent degree of public health in the communities, to demonstrate racial inequality in Nairobi’s development. Sanitation in Nairobi reveals the ways that white minority rule diverted infrastructure and resources for their own benefit as well as a means by which to disadvantage Africans and Indians. The policy of British colonial officials and a settler-dominated municipal council had a far-reaching health implication on Nairobi’s Africans and Indians whose neighborhoods received inadequate or no municipal service. While pursuing an uneven policy amid residential segregation, the privileged class of western officials and settlers inaccurately rationalized their unjust practices that Africans were vectors of diseases.[1] Writing about the Cape Colony in South Africa, Maynard Swanson describes the use of diseases as a metaphor to justify discriminatory policies by people of western descent in the same period against Africans as a “sanitary syndrome.”[2] Several historians have revealed the inequity in colonial sanitation and the disproportionate impact of sanitary-related diseases, like yellow fever and malaria.[3] Curtain writes about sanitation as the basis for architecture and city planning, which manifested in better housing and infrastructure for Europeans in exclusive segregated residential areas.[4] The scholarship on sanitation provides insights into the clarion call by protesters in United Kingdom regarding injustice in British colonial history. With the demands of the protesters in mind, the essay examines sanitary discrimination in Nairobi as part of a much larger process of creating inequality in the world.

One story frame houses with wooden front porches line a dirt road with stone gutter. Planks provide access from roadway across the gutter to wooden front porches. People stand on the porches, a man rides a bicycle in the street, a dot sits in the street.
Street Scene, Nairobi, Kenya. [D.V. Figueroa (between 1900 and 1923), Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress]

Before Nairobi became the capital of Kenya, which officials named the East African Protectorate in 1895 and Kenya Colony and Protectorate in 1920, its importance in East Africa was evident. Within a year of British imperialists founding the town in 1899, the government of the territory relocated its provincial agent to the colonial city in order to control the large and diverse population, which was converging there. To govern and facilitate development, the government constituted a committee in 1900, but its policy on sanitation proved inadequate to prevent plague outbreaks. Because of the outbreaks medical experts declared Nairobi a threat to public health and proposed a relocation to a more salubrious setting. It became apparent officials would not be moving Nairobi when the protectorate’s government moved its headquarters there in 1905, and the small town became the colonial capital. While plague persisted, almost becoming an annual recurrence, the government and the committee continued to wrestle for autonomy in disposing of property and making financial decisions. In managing the fast-developing urban environment, the committee evolved in its representation, role, and power. Nairobi became a Municipal Council with corporate rights in 1919.[5]

Ranging from high-profile visitations to wars, multiple events globalized Nairobi. The Duke of Connaught was the first the royal visitor when Nairobi was only seven years old. In 1924, the Duke and Duchess of York (later to be King and Queen) also visited. Four years after that, the Duke of Gloucester and the Prince of Wales called on the municipality during a hunting trip in East Africa. Nairobi was an important military base in the two world wars. It played a critical role in the war against Germans in Tanganyika (Tanzania) during World War I. During World War II it functioned as an operation base against Italians in Ethiopia, and later as a training ground where forces prepared for missions in Madagascar and Burma. A new international airport augmented its global standing in the postwar era.[6] Nairobi received a charter officially designating it as a city in 1950. The National Geography Magazine advertised it as an international destination in that same year.[7] While the city council was celebrating the new prestigious status and all the benefits which had flowed to it, a strike by Nairobi’s poor, most of whom were Africans, was brewing. The very discriminatory policies and practices decried by the strikers would be repeated during a violent uprising against the British colonial regime by the Kenya Land Freedom Army (KLFA). Known by officials as “Mau Mau Emergency,”  the uprising gave white minority rule and the racial injustice they perpetuated international publicity and set in motion a chain of events that would end that authoritarian and discriminatory rule.[8]

History of Nairobi and Infrastructure

In 1899, the Ugandan Railway Authority constructed railway infrastructure at Nairobi’s current location providing the foundations for the city’s growth. Before the railway, Africans had always known the location as “Enkare Nyrobi” (the Place of Cold Waters). They made regular use of the water available in the area but considered the land unsuitable for building a settlement. The British government’s idea to construct a railway line followed sustained pressure by a variety of interest groups, like missions and humanitarians, to establish parts of East Africa as a Protectorate. What eventually drove the government to declare the protectorate was Germany’s territorial stake in the region. To establish a presence, the government granted the Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) a charter, but had to bail out the company a few years later when it failed to control trading in the region. The British government handed over IBEAC’s responsibility to its Foreign Office, which oversaw the installation of the railway line from the coastal city of Mombasa to Uganda.[9] Under the supervision of the railway authority the government built a railway camp,  consisting of its headquarters, workshops, and other supporting infrastructure, in the last open area before the Kikuyu escarpment.[10] To construct the project the railway authority used the labor of Indians whose presence in the East African region stretches back many centuries before Europeans’ arrival. Wealthy Indians also provided the capital for the building of Nairobi. Sudanese soldiers (Askaris) provided security for the railway officials and property. The small community of railway workers were supported by other “camp followers”—traders who built up temporary shelters and trading posts. It would sprawl to be the largest city in East Africa, with a teaming population of Africans, Asians, and Europeans.[11] 

Nairobi witnessed a continuous stream of settlers, from Britain and South Africa for example, who the British government encouraged to provide customers for railway service and defray the heavy cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure. British officials intended to use the settlers to establish the economic machinery by which to develop the new town. Its settler policy neglected African entrepreneurs and produce. The policy inspired the most repressive and discriminatory system against Indians and Africans while promoting privileges for the class of European settlers.[12] The European population believed Nairobi to be a “white city” and the colony a white man’s country. However, Nairobi’s population was predominantly African. A record of the non-African population in 1906 showed 642 Europeans and 2,581 Indians. By 1921, the number increased to 2,339 Europeans and 8,914 Indians. That was a growth of 1,697 (264%) in the European population and 5334 (149 %) in the Indian population in fifteen years. A census in 1926 revealed a slight increase in Europeans to 2,665 and Indians to 9,199. No one knew the exact African population, though official estimates showed an increase from 9,300 in 1906 to 12,000 in 1923. In 1926, the estimate was 18,000.[13] While residing in spacious areas adequately served by the municipality, the European minority confined Africans and vast majority of Indians to overcrowded and unsanitary areas.

One, two, and three story commercial buildings flank a street. There are medians planted with trees divide the roadway into three sections. A bus and a car are present on the street. There are sidewalks and curbs along what appears to be a dirt surfaced roadway.
Sixth Avenue, Main Thoroughfare, Nairobi, Kenya Colony. [Matson Photo Service (ca. 1936), G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress]

Europeans dominated the railway authority, top government positions, and the Nairobi Municipal Council, all of which had different and conflicting interests, but controlled infrastructure development and services. Winston Churchill, Britain’s former Prime Minister, recalled after a tour of East Africa in 1907, “one would have scarcely believe it possible” that Nairobi, “so new should be able to develop so many divergent and conflicting interests.”[14] The quest for autonomy dictated the relationship between the government, the railway authority, and the municipal council, which was dominated by the settler community.[15] In the early decades of Nairobi’s development the European community lacked the foresight to plan its development. The result was a sprawling, unplanned commercial district, unregulated construction, dusty roads, and quagmires. Sanitary infrastructure and services, like drains and conservancy, were also rare.[16] The inadequacies were most visible in the neighborhoods of the African and Indian communities that were underrepresented in the municipal council. They were disproportionally affected by the recurrence of plague outbreaks, which followed the pandemic at end of nineteenth century and spread worldwide from Asia through European commercial routes.

To the municipality and the colonial regime, Africans were not lawful permanent residents of Nairobi. In contrast to Europeans and Indians who lived in their designated areas, like the European suburbs and Indian Bazaar, Africans had no place. The fear that a permanent African presence would weaken the color bar, cause political problems, and transmit diseases prompted restrictive measures on their movement into Nairobi and within the colony. The kipande system required Africans to carry a certificate in a small metal case (worn around the neck) for identification and to prove work contract and lawful presence in Nairobi. Thus, the system empowered the police and district officers to harass, prosecute, and deport Africans who broke their contract or were residing in Nairobi illegally or in unauthorized spaces. They could reside in Nairobi only as short-term laborers, domestic servants, traders, or railway workers in the employ of individual Europeans and Indian employers, the colonial government, the municipality, or the railway authority.[17] The authorized places the vast majority of the itinerants could reside temporarily were the “native locations.” Originally, Europeans never envisioned Africans residing in Nairobi, but thousands were living there although they could not hold or afford a freehold property. Pumwani, to the east of Nairobi’s center, was the first authorized native location where Africans could build their houses. A reason for designating Pumwani in 1922 as an African location was to be able to control them.[18] However, the colonial regime and the council were unable to control the African influx and lives in the ways that they envisioned.

The very presence of Africans in both authorized and unauthorized locations attests to the weakness of the government and the council to effectively make Nairobi a white city. The neighborhoods served as places for entrepreneurial initiatives, escaping repressive colonial laws, and organizing and expressing a barrage of injustices, including forced labor, seized land, and extremely low urban wages, perpetuated by settlers and government.[19] For example, on Sunday afternoons Nairobi’s African residents, including cooks and servants, relaxed and discussed their plight in Pangani. Pumwani also provided a venue for leisure and recreation for Africans.[20] They mobilized in these locations to agitate for an involvement in government and the improvement in their conditions of living. Thousands of Africans turned out in a protest against the regime and the municipality at the heart of the city in 1922, and the police opened fire killing over fifty in the crowd.[21] Kaloleni, referred to as House of Parliament by Africans, was an important meeting place for political activists in the 1940s and 1950s. It was in Kaloleni’s social hall that Africans made a decision to boycott the civic celebrations of Nairobi after becoming formerly recognized as a city.[22]

A map shows original area of Nairobi from 1900 and areas subsequently added.
Map showing the growth of Nairobi from the 1920s. [Andrew Hake Papers, Special Collections, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London]

Uneven Sanitation and Disease

When plague first struck Nairobi three years after the railway authority founded it, the Indian bazaar, which was a residential and commercial district, was worst hit—over  fifty Indians died. Officials quarantined and eventually burned down the bazaar, relocating it because it was near an area where Europeans held plots.[23] At a new location in the center of Nairobi the bazaar continued to experience almost annual outbreaks that caused debility and deaths among poor Indians. The endemicity of disease in Nairobi prompted the Colonial Office in London, Kenyan colonial administration, and council to seek the advice of Bransby Williams and William Simpson, who were experts in public health and urban planning. A sanitary commission also sat for many days and questioned many witnesses to resolve the health threat. But all the recommendations, which proposed major sanitary reforms including reducing overcrowding, installing drains, and providing regular municipal services in the bazaar, were to no avail. Simpson, who inspected Nairobi seven years after Bransby Williams in 1913, noted the Indian “population mostly consisted of a very poor class” whose houses were “designed not for health…but to secure the greatest number of houses and inhabitants on the smallest area of ground.”[24] While the European settler community and officials confined the vast majority of Indians to a small plot, they charged them unjustifiable higher rates for which they received few benefits in the form of municipal services. Rates were racialized and became a source of contention in the council and Kenyan politics.[25]

Conversely, Europeans lived in more spacious quarters, on larger plots of land, and at higher altitudes, which drained well and were unlikely to develop swamp conditions during heavy rains. Drawing a contrast with the Indian bazaar while justifying residential segregation along racial lines, Simpson observed, “European residences when located in a separate quarter” were generally good with “ample space for their compounds and [they were] as a rule healthy.”[26] Dominating the Public Health Committee and other committees through which the council conducted its affairs, the settler community ensured its neighborhoods received municipal services and infrastructure. The segregated European quarter was off limits for Indians and Africans even when they could afford it. Only Africans serving as domestic servants could live in the European residential area. At first settlers and officials restricted Indians to the bazaar location. In the 1930s they allowed developers in the community to build a residential area in Pangani, only after repeated appeals by the Medical Officer. However, when wealthy Indians began to move into European exclusive residential areas like Parkland, they complained of an “invasion.”[27] The European community continued to resist wealthy and educated Africans renting or buying property in their residential areas. At the end of World War II a European occupied about an acre of land which was about the same area that thirty Indians took or was available to three hundred Africans.[28]

Before designating Pumwani as a location where Africans could build their residences at great cost, Africans built houses within and on the outskirts of Nairobi with the little wages they received. Pangani, Marurani, Masikini, Kileleshwa, and Mji wa Mombasa were the unplanned African residential areas within which serious poverty, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions existed. Municipal services were absent. To excuse itself from the deplorable conditions, the municipality concocted the idea that Africans paid no rates and were not intended to benefit from municipal funds. In fact, a good number of Nairobi’s Africans paid rates and other forms of taxes to the council. Over time, the council demolished these settlements and forced the residents to move to Pumwani. In the interwar period, both the council and the government invested in public housing for Africans referred to Kariokor and Starehe, but their attempt made little dent on the housing problem. After years of foot-dragging, the council, government, and private employers provided housing for their African employees, especially after 1940 due to an unprecedented boom in the economy. A concentrated development of African housing to the east of the railway yards led to the emergence of Eastlands, a high-density neighborhood.[29]

A map shows proposed new main drainage system in  Nairobi.
Map of sanitation in Nairobi circa 1907. [British East African Protectorate, Report on the Sanitation of Nairobi, Report on the Townships of Naivasha, Nakuru, and Kisumu by George Bransby Williams, (London: Waterlow and Sons, 1907)]

Sanitary services and infrastructure in the African estates continued to be a serious problem. The removal of waste was far from adequate and  residents were vulnerable to disease outbreaks.[30] It was not a surprise that the Nairobi Municipal Tenants Association (NMTA) agitated against the chronic shortage of public toilets, pipes, and drains. The East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC) also led a strike which metamorphosed into an urban uprising in 1950. The strikers were also clear about a near lack of basic sanitary infrastructure. They declared their need for decent housing and water, the lack of which caused serious ill-health and death among Nairobi’s African residents.[31] Two years after the strike, the state declared the Mau Mau emergency, hence remembered as a “tragic story” characterized by the killing of about 20,000 African freedom fighters by British troops.[32] Colonial military operations in African neighborhoods flashed out Mau Mau sympathizers some of who were sanitary laborers. While a shortage of the laborers stagnated waste in African estates, saboteurs took advantage of the distraction to destroy sanitary facilities. Again, African residents suffered the consequences disproportionately as infant mortality rose from 150 to 299 per 1000. Public health officials reported an epidemic was imminent.[33]

So, when protesters took to the streets in cities across the United Kingdom in summer 2020 in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements, they demanded lawmakers, officials, and colonial apologists publicly condemn the deaths and suffering Britain brought onto colonial subjects, especially in Nairobi and other colonial cities. Indeed, activists pushed for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reconsider a statement he made in a 2002 piece that colonial rule should not have ended.[34] To say that about the colonial regime is to glorify decades of extreme overcrowding, poverty, unsanitary conditions, and contagious diseases from which thousands of Africans and Indians suffered and died. Nairobi’s history brings to the fore a profound theme in twentieth century history which is racial injustice.


Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim is currently an Assistant Professor at Elon University. He received a PhD in African History from Washington University in St. Louis. Waseem is currently working on a book project that explores the ways in which sanitation became the basis for planning, designing, and developing Nairobi and Accra during British colonial rule.

Featured image (at top): The Indian Mosque, Nairobi, Kenya Colony. [Matson Photo Service (ca. 1936), G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress]

[1] Milcah Amolo Achola, “Colonial Policy and Urban Health: The Case of Colonial Nairobi,” in The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750 to 2000, Andrew Burton ed. (Nairobi: The British Institute of Africa, 2002), 119-137.

[2] Maynard W. Swanson, “The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony,” Journal of African History XVIII, no. 3 (1977): 387-410.

[3] Thomas S. Gale, “The Struggle against Disease in the Gold Coast: Early Attempts at Urban Reform,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series no. 1, vol. 16, no. 2 (January 1995): 185-203; Kalala Ngalamulume, “Keeping the City Totally Clean: Yellow Fever and Politics of Prevention in Colonial Saint-Louis-Du-Sénégal, 1850-1914.” Journal of African History 45 (2004): 183-202; Festus Cole, “Sanitation, Disease and Public Health in Sierra Leone, West Africa, 1895-1922: Case Failure of British Colonial Policy,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 43, no. 2 (2015): 238-266; Susan Parnell, “Creating Racial Privileges: The Origins of South Africa Public Health and Town Planning Legislation,” Journal of Southern African Studies 19, no. 3 (Sept. 1993): 471-488.

[4] Philip D. Curtin, “Medical Knowledge and Urban Planning in Tropical Africa,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 594-613.

[5] James Smart, A Brief History of Nairobi, Nairobi City Council Collection, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service.

[6] Ibid.

[7] David M. Anderson, “Corruption at City Hall: African Housing and Urban Development in Colonial Nairobi,” in The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750 to 2000, Andrew Burton, ed. (Nairobi: The British Institute of Africa, 2002), 138, 138-154.

[8] Ali A. Mazrui, “Three Stages of Globalization: Mombasa,” in Cities Fit for People, Üner Sirdar, ed. (New York: United Nations, 1997), 472-486; Dave Hyde, “The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: From Protest to Insurgency,” in The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750 to 2000, Andrew Burton ed. (Nairobi: The British Institute of Africa, 2002), 235-253.

[9] James Smart, A Brief History of Nairobi, Nairobi City Council Collection, Kenya National Archivesand Documentation Service.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Report of the Local Government Commission, Vol. 1 (London: The Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1927), 7.

[12] Timothy H. Parsons, “Jumping Tribal Boundaries: Space, Mobility, and Identity in Kenya,” in Mapping Migration, Identity, and Space, Tibea Linhard and Timothy H. Parsons, eds. (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave, 2019), 164.

[13] Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Report of the Local Government Commission  Vol. 1, 7.

[14] Winston Churchill quoted in Terry Hirst, The Struggle for Nairobi: A Documentary Comic Book (Nairobi: Mazingira Institute, 1994), 42

[15] Hirst, The Struggle for Nairobi, 82.

[16] Hirst, The Struggle for Nairobi, 82.

[17] Timothy H. Parsons, “Jumping Tribal Boundaries,” 168-171.

[18] Local Government in Kenya, Part I, Outside the Native Land Units, 1951, Lands and Settlement Records, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service.

[19] Hirst, The Struggle for Nairobi, 60-1.

[20] Bodil Folke Frederiksen, “African Women and their Colonization of Nairobi: Representations and Realities,” in  The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750 to 2000, Andrew Burton, ed. (Nairobi: The British Institute of Africa, 2002), 229.

[21] Hirst, The Struggle for Nairobi, 60-1.

[22] Frederiksen, “African Women and their Colonization of Nairobi,” 229.

[23] L.W. Thornton White, L. Silberman, and P.R. Anderson, Nairobi: Master Plan for a Colonial Capital, A Report Prepared for the Municipal Council of Nairobi (London: HMSO, 1948), 12.

[24] Plague and the Insanitary Conditions in British East Africa, 2 May 1917, Colonial Office Series, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service.

[25]  Anderson, “Corruption at City Hall,” 142.

[26] Plague and the Insanitary Conditions in British East Africa, 2 May 1917, Colonial Office Series, Kenya National Archivesand Documentation Service.

[27] Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim, “Sanitary Segregation: Cleansing Accra and Nairobi 1908-1963.”  PhD diss., (Washington University, 2019), 32-76; Achola, “Colonial Policy and Urban Health, 120-23.

[28] Achola, “Colonial Policy and Urban Health, 122.

[29] Anderson, “Corruption at City Hall,” 144-145; Achola, “Colonial Policy and Urban Health, 122-23.

[30] Memorandum on Hygiene and Sanitation in African Locations by the Director of Medical Service, n.d, Nairobi City Council Records, Kenya National Archives; Senior Medical Officer of Health in Nairobi to Commissioner for Local Government about Plague and Native Housing in Nairobi, 2 October 1941, Ministry of Health Records, Kenya National Archives.

[31] Hyde, “The Nairobi General Strike,” 237-243.

[32] David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2005), 4; 8.

[33] Kasim, “Sanitary Segregation,” 220-225.

[34] Jon Stone, “Boris Johnson said Colonialism in Africa Should Never have Ended and Dismissed Britain’s Role in Slavery,” Independent, 13 June 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-colonialism-africa-british-empire-slavery-a9564541.html.

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