The “death” of Kenya’s century-old hotels is a sign of something

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As the Daily Nation reported on Tuesday, three Nyeri hotels aged around 100 to 110 years old have bitten the dust, in large part thanks to Covid-19’s havoc on tourism and the travel industry.

They have a certain pedigree. Built in the 1920s, we learn that the Outspan Hotel housed the problematic founder of the scout movement, Lord Baden-Powell (he was a racist and supporter of Adolf Hitler), 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, news arrived of the death of King George VI and, consequently, of his immediate accession to the throne. Nation said it had visited Treetops three times.

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

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

And, needless to say, the carnage is beyond Kenya. In many parts of Africa, especially South Africa, several iconic restaurants and hotels that are nearly a century old have been destroyed by the pandemic.


There are hardly any streets in an African city today where you won’t find a few businesses, including hotels, closed by Covid-19. In Uganda, the list of schools and real estate developments that have been foreclosed by banks in the event of pandemic default and are being auctioned off is a tennis court.

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 time and have a history longer than that of the post-independence nations they are in. And their architecture has an elegance that you don’t find in the garish things that many new hotels are today. You look at the Norfolk Hotel, and it has hardly any peers in Nairobi. There is a piece of Africa in these places that should not be forgotten.

Still, the fact that they were partly brought down by the forces unleashed by Covid-19 is rich in irony as these hotels partly explain the imperial administration’s triumph over tropical diseases 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 Western stereotypes about Africa were shaped to a large extent by the views of writers, journalists and adventurers, who crystallized them as they relaxed in the bars of these hotels.

Yet they had endured and survived a great deal; wars, coups d’état, one-party rule, economic collapse, corrupt government, thieving elites. Then came the coronavirus. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they could have provided a malaria sanctuary, but it was a bug they couldn’t overcome.

However, Africa is a vast territory, and as some architectural monuments collapse in one part of it, others are likely to rise elsewhere.

Dakar station in the Senegalese capital rivals the Treetops and White Rhino hotels. It is as magnificent a building as you will find anywhere. Inaugurated in 1914, it was decommissioned almost 100 years later.

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

The unique luxury hotel is built on a dozen train cars parked on the bridge over the Sabie River. The tracks were last used almost 100 years ago, and most of them were retired in the 1970s. It opened earlier this year.

If you take a very broad view, the Covid-fueled woes of Treetops and his cousins ​​represent the end of an era. Dakar station and the Pont de Salati train hotel, one might say, represent a complicated renaissance.

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About Raul T. Casey

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