The ‘death’ of Kenya’s 100-year-old hotels a sign of something

Thursday October 14 2021
Kenya PIC

The Treetops Hotel in Nyeri. File | Nation Media Group

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As the Daily Nation reported on Tuesday, three hotels in Nyeri ranging in age from about 100 to 110 years have bitten the dust, thanks in large part to the ravages of Covid-19 on tourism and the travel industry.

They have quite some pedigree. Built in the 1920s, we learn that Outspan Hotel was home to the problematic founder of the Scouts movement, Lord Baden-Powell (he was a racist and an Adolf Hitler supporter), from 1938 to 1941.

Treetops is the hotel where Elizabeth II stayed on the night of February 5, 1952, and on the morning of February 6, word arrived of the death of King George VI and, therefore, her immediate accession to the throne. Nation reported that she has visited Treetops three times.

And there is White Rhino, which is on its back foot. Founded in 1910, we are told that; “It was built for big game hunters and initially only admitted white guests”. It changed its ways in 1965 and found fame and fortune.

This is not the story of only a small corner of Kenya. In May of 2020, the equally storied Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi closed indefinitely after an impressive 116 years. The InterContinental Hotel in Nairobi, 30 years ago easily the most prestigious hotel in East Africa, fell down the chimney in August last year.

And, needless to say, the carnage is beyond Kenya. In many parts of Africa, especially South Africa, several nearly one-century-old iconic restaurants and hotels have been taken down by the pandemic.

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There is hardly a street in an African city today where you won’t find a couple of businesses, including hotels, shuttered by Covid-19. In Uganda, the list of schools and real estate developments that have been seized by banks upon default in the pandemic and are being auctioned off is a tennis court long.

However, there is something different about hotels like Outspan, Treetops, White Rhino, and Norfolk. Even with their difficult histories, they are still a statement of their times and have a story longer than that of the post-independence nations where they are located. And their architecture has an elegance you don’t find in the garish things that many new hotels are today. You look at the Norfolk Hotel, and it virtually has no peers in Nairobi. There is a piece of Africa in those places that we shouldn’t forget.

Yet, the fact that they have been floored partly by the forces unleashed by Covid-19 is rich in irony because these hotels partly explain the triumph of imperial officialdom over tropical disease and the eventual success of the colonial enterprise.

Many of the famous “out of Africa” stories of the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s were written from the balconies and lounges of these hotels. And because they were often racist, in many ways the Western stereotypes of Africa were shaped to a significant degree by the views of the writers, journalists, and adventurers, who crystallised them as they kicked back in the bars of these hotels.

They had nevertheless endured and survived a lot; wars, coups, one-party rule, economic collapse, corrupt government, thieving elites. Then along came the coronavirus. In the late 19th and early 20th century, they might have provided sanctuary against malaria, but this was a bug they couldn’t defeat.

However, Africa is a vast place, and as some architectural monument flounders in one part of it, others are likely to be rising elsewhere.

Rivalling the Treetops and White Rhino hotels in age are the Dakar Train Station in the Senegalese capital. It is as magnificent a building as you will find anywhere. Inaugurated in 1914, it went out of service nearly 100 years later.

After painstaking renovation, it came back to life last year. In that sense, it almost stands alone on the continent as the structure that was born in the colonial period and resurrected during the pandemic. That is if you don’t count the Salati Bridge train hotel in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

The unique luxury hotel is built over a dozen train carriages parked on the bridge above the Sabie River. The tracks were last used nearly 100 years ago, and most of them were pulled out in the 1970s. It opened early this year.

If you take a very broad view, the Covid-fuelled misfortunes of Treetops and its cousins represent the end of an era. The Dakar railway station and Salati Bridge train hotel, one could argue, represent a complicated rebirth.