Nothing about Kiburi House is outstanding from a first glance. Like most other buildings along Kirinyaga Road in downtown Nairobi, it houses hardware shops, offices and a restaurant. Not its ever chaotic neighbourhood nor its architecture exude any primaeval aesthetic appeal that most other iconic buildings of its time project. Yet this neglected national monument holds immense historical treasures that date back to the Mau Mau movement times.
Kiburi House was the first building in Kenya to be owned by an equally first African-led limited company, the Kenya Fuel and Bark Company. It is here that the Mau Mau Council established its headquarters. It is also here it conducted its famous oathing rites of the 1950s.
Very little information, it seems, exists of its original owner. Whoever it was, they were ready, for the price of KES 8,000, to hand over such a coveted symbol of power to Africans as early as 1948 – when Independence was nowhere in sight.
The house, subsequently named after Kiburi Thumbi, the founder of the Kenya Fuel and Bark Company, quickly grew to be the meeting point of Africans visiting Nairobi. Most trade unions in Kenya, including the Transport and Allied Workers Union, were born here. The Kenya African Union (KAU) soon also set up its branch office. Kiburi House was now the commercial and political nerve centre of the Kenyan revolution. Soon all vernacular newspapers such as Inooro ria Gikuyu, Wiyathi and Afrika Mpya, edited by Bildad Kaggia, found a home at Kiburi House.
The meeting that gave birth to a 12-member Central Committee to coordinate the Mau Mau oaths also happened at Kiburi. At this gathering, Eliud Mutonyi became its chairman and Isaac Gathanju its secretary.
The oathing events that went on throughout the night had begun in earnest. Hundreds were transported from Kiburi House to Kiambaa in Kiambu to the home of Senior Chief Koinange to take the oath. How an activity of such magnitude escaped the watchful eye of the British is a mystery.
Today, Kiburi House is not a well-known monument. Its location and neglect may also not attract many tourists. There is, in any case, not much to see besides two steel wall safes. Unfortunately, in 2006, burglars broke into one of the safes making away with KES 3,000 in coins. The other safe located in a restaurant within the house is sealed shut. Its contents lost to history.
Surprisingly, the Kenya Fuel and Bark Company still has an office here. Kiburi House might no longer be the ‘big goat’ it used to be back in the days, which is precisely what Kiburi means in Kikuyu. It is, however, still an exciting place to visit, if only for its history. Who knows, you might even crack one of its many mysteries.