If I had to draw an analogy I guess I’d say the Arboretum in Nairobi is a bit like St James’ Park in London. It’s not the main park, like Hyde Park, that honour goes to Uhuru Park (Freedom Park). But it’s the definite runner up and it’s right next to State House where the President resides. A bit like Buckingham Palace I guess. Except the tourists don’t flock there and I think you’d have some serious bother with the security personnel if you tried to take a holiday snap of the grounds.
Despite it’s lesser prominence, the Arboretum is WAY better than Uhuru Park. For a start it is actually genuinely green and glorious and isn’t packed with grotesque looking Marabou Storks. Instead it has monkeys (with testicles the most remarkable shade of baby blue! Will try get a photo next time…) crawling all over the place. Even better, you can actually relax there.
Uhuru Park isn’t full of quite the same pleasures. While at the weekends it comes alive with happiness, and parents taking their kids on boat rides and camel trots, during the week it couldn’t be more different. Street children roam in ragged groups with bottles of lurid yellow glue fixed beneath noses and glassy eyes. Homeless people sleep everywhere, seeking safety I guess, in the relatively public place. Most tragically, one morning on my walk to work I came across a crowd. I should have known better. Crowds don’t usually form for good things here. Hanging from the tree was the lifeless body of a man who had taken his own life. The police were nowhere yet to be seen.
So with so few green and wholesome spaces in the city, the Arboretum has been a bit of a sanctuary over the last year. Only ten minutes from my old office, I’d go running through the maze of pathways in the morning and past the walking commuters avoiding the fume-filled main roads.
Today however was the first time I’d gone during the week at midday and a totally different spectacle awaited. The park had turned into an open air church filled with people deeply engaged in their own private displays of devotion.
Now, it’s not uncommon to see the odd lone man preaching at the top of his voice to absolutely no-one. Many times when I was running I would come across one particular gentleman who always stood in exactly the same spot, driving himself hoarse for an invisible congregation. But today there were lone believers everywhere, praying, preaching, chanting and even ranting in some cases. Far different to Sunday’s when you have to weave through the huge circles of people holding hands, singing and dancing together.
But most remarkable of all were the singing bushes. Deep within the thickets of trees, so dense they could barely be seen, were groups of people singing the gospel. It was incredible to walk through the empty footpaths with their voices reaching a crescendo and drowning out the roar of traffic beyond. When I managed to get a peek, I was surprised to see that the singers were not even stood together in the customary circle. Each one stood alone, eyes closed and hands raised.
Alone and yet very much together.