Facing Mount Kenya: Amidst the Ruins of Decolonization

Image of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre.
Daniel Ricardo Quiroga-Villamarín 2019 ©.

by Daniel R. Quiroga-Villamarín

“Achten sie auf ihr geld; faites attention à votre argent; fate attenzione al vostro denare; guard your money.”

That was the first warning that accompanied the hotel keys given by hotels to the delegates attending the 1973 Annual Meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group. On this “historic occasion,” for the first time the annual conclave of these international financial institutions was held in Africa. It was held, in particular, in Nairobi, Kenya. Concretely, the conference occurred in the recently inaugurated “Kenyatta Conference Center.” Initially, it had been envisioned as the headquarters for the Kenya African National Union (KANU), under the leadership of the first postcolonial President of the country: Jomo Kenyatta. But, by the time it was officially inaugurated on 11 September 1973 (with a pompous ceremony held two days later), it had been created to host not only different organs of the Kenyan state but also for what Kenyatta and others envisioned as the offices that would result out of the process of East African integration. Ever since, it has been read as a towering “symbol of Kenya’s independence” —a fact that is compounded by the Kenyatta’s choice of architects from Scandinavian non-colonial backgrounds and extensive use of “African” leitmotifs. Defiant, not unlike Kenyatta himself, his namesake tower stood “Facing Mount Kenya” —as a functional monument to decolonization. Even the infamous Robert McNamara, as President of the World Bank Group, felt compelled to recognize the “excellence of the facilities” offered by this anticolonial infrastructure on 24 September 1973.

Defiant, not unlike Kenyatta himself, his namesake tower stood “Facing Mount Kenya” —as a functional monument to decolonization.

The Kenyatta Centre, while still in operation, has not emerged as the international hub it initially aspired to be. It has, no doubt, an important international function as it holds the largest conference chamber in East Africa and has housed not only several departments of the Kenyan government but of other regional integration projects such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). But the signs of wear and tear are evident. Perhaps the most salient example of this is the elegant 148-seat revolving restaurant that was nested in the highest floor. While local and regional elites could enjoy a towering view of the city which did one full revolution every 76 minutes during the seventies and eighties, the economic crisis of the nineties ended such aspirations. Nowadays, lucky tourists that hire tour guides with the right contacts (as I had the chance to experience in 2019) might be able to take the stairs up to this ruined restaurant platform, where they can witness the bustling skyline and take a good look at the United Nations Office at Nairobi, established in 1996. All and all, one could argue that the motor of the restaurant is not the only element of this complex that is no longer running in pursuit of revolution. Much has changed since the watershed year of 1973.

In my longer contribution to the forthcoming volume edited by the fearless Legal Sightseeing team, I place the Kenyatta Centre in conversation with the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLA, or CEPAL in Spanish and Portuguese) of 1966. By interrogating the relationship between these material infrastructures and the anti-imperial imaginaries which forged them, I reflect on the challenges of “anti-colonial monumentalism” —and its entanglement with the promises and perils of modernization in the so-called Global South.

Daniel Ricardo Quiroga Villamarin is a PhD researcher in International Law at the Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID). His thesis traces the genealogy of the emergence of the international conference complex as a spatial technology of global governance (1918-1998).

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