By Chrispine Aguko
When, as a young girl, Queen Elizabeth II visited Kenya in 1952, she visited the Kaloleni Social Hall, where she was served tea in House Number L1. Founding President Jomo Kenyatta held countless meetings there, to plan for independence, and even after. Barack Obama Sr, Tom Mboya, Mwai Kibaki, Oginga Odinga, and most of those in the political class in the sixties and seventies were all frequent visitors of this iconic facility of yore; such was the fame and weight of the Kaloleni Social Hall. It was the happening place. Constructed by the colonial government, the Hall also served as the first Kenyan Parliament building.
Its story, today, is another tale altogether. Its fortunes have turned a corner and are unimpressively gloomy. In fact, the Hall could be appropriately called “the filth of the Kaloleni”. Dilapidated, run-down, derelict. In every room, the air is filled with foulness and rust.
The walls are full of graffiti and smudges from as far back as the 1990s, according to an attendant. The rest rooms make one want to retch – if the filth of the place won’t make you, then the flies certainly will. The place does not receive water regularly, which means keeping the washrooms clean is a nightmare.
Inside the buildings, electric cables hang dangerously. In one, there is a solitary lit bulb; the rest are either broken or burnt-out. It is, to say the least, creepy. It is difficult to tell if there are leaks on the roof because the entire area is covered in cobweb. Spiderman would so very at home here.
There is nothing inviting about the gym area. And, like a weary old man, the equipment is from the sixties – old, loose and unserviced. A little nudge at of the weight-lifting machine and there are creaks. I didn’t dare lift any. But that is just me; its patrons went on working out. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Or maybe it is just their faith. Or desperation; after all, the premises host the cheapest gym for miles around. The floors are filled with patterns of disjointed blocks, sand and cement.
I spoke to a few residents; of course they are miffed. It is the one place they have for their children to socialise, play and generally be children. It is where they grew up, where want their children to as well. But with no maintenance, no water and no electricity, it is being abandoned. They expect the county leadership to provide a solution but none is forthcoming – not from the local MCA and not from the county.
Yet, the Kaloleni Social Hall deserves preservation, a proper one at that, because it holds so much of Kenya’s history.
Residents say that some contracts have been awarded to have the Hall painted, but it hasn’t happened. The last paint job was in 2014, but it covered around eight meters of wall, out of more than 100. That contract was full paid for never mind that the job was not finished, or even properly done. It is hard to tell part of the wall was painted because the accruing dirt seems uniform. The outside also serves as a billboard for election aspirants, as graffiti and posters attest. Next year, new ones will be placed.
There is a playground under construction. Someone whispers that it is being done by some youth who seem to have got political funding. It is not a big field, but construction has been slow, and he doubts it will be finished any time soon. Maintaining the Hall and its environs has been a campaign tool for every candidate with political ambition.
“Of course, they do nothing as soon as we elect them. Sometimes we wonder if the place has been sold. They do that often – allow facilities to be run down and then purchasing them for a song. If that happened, it would be the first we witness. The company awarded the contract to maintain roads and paths in and around the Hall has not completed the work it started last year.
A resident says both Senator Mike Sonko (while he was MP) and Governor Evans Kidero promised to restore the premises, but that is as far as it got.
The Hall collects revenue from hosting events. It is relatively cheap, charging Sh4000 per for each one. It hosts four churches every weekend. An attendant tells us it also hosts events during the week, sometimes up to three. The irony is that with the revenue collected, it seems impossible to give the place the life it deserves.
The hall also hosts a nursery school; the children are taught in a house whose roof is almost falling; actually, some of it is already sagging. During the long rains, the floors get filled with puddles of water, disrupting activities. Even direr, particularly for the little children, is the threat of waterborne diseases owing to the spilled sewage. The one health facility there is, called St. Catherine’s, is sandwiched between a carpentry workshop and pub. Between the dust from the carpentry shop settling in the clinic and the idea drunken patrons urinating on the walls of the clinic, it tells of recklessness and neglect that has now become the order of day.
As one walks to the library, one is hit with the smell of decomposing human waste, and paper bags filled with all kinds of organic waste – fruit peels, rotting food and so on. It is a wonder how the library users cope.
During my Sunday evening tour, it suddenly started to rain. In my weariness, I thought I might shelter in the Hall, and was almost run down by a herd of goats that, it turns out, had the same idea. It was then I noticed that on one part of the Hall, there were goat droppings and urine. Apparently, the animals belong to a county official, and they live in the Hall; no one dares chase them out.
We sought out the area MCA as well as officials from the county government to comment on the state of the Hall, but after countless promises and postponements, it was finally clear that none was going to talk.