Toponymic Contestations Surrounding the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park, Mombasa, Kenya

By Dr. Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita – Post-Doctoral Fellow at Department of Geography and Environment, University of Geneva.

On 20th October, 2019, the annual Mashujaa Day (Heroes’ Day) celebration was held at the recently renovated Mama Ngina Drive, which was partially renamed to Mama Ngina Waterfront Park. The park is located in Mombasa, the coastal and second largest city in Kenya after the Capital, Nairobi. Mama Ngina is the widow of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the fourth and current president of Kenya, is their son. It was Uhuru Kenyatta who presided over the opening of the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park. According to a Lobby group called Okoa Mombasa Coalition (Save Mombasa Coalition), naming the Park Mama Ngina was an imposition that did not reflect the culture and heritage of the oldest city in the country.

Mama Ngina Waterfront Park provides an interesting case study of the imbalance of gender representation in toponymy. Until recently, there were barely any places named after women except for the former First Lady – Mama Ngina Kenyatta, until Forest Road was renamed after Nobel Peace Laureate, Prof. Wangari Maathai. The recent debate about place naming, sparked by the newly opened Mama Ngina Waterfront Park, shed light on a highly skewed scheme of memorialization. This is what led to the lobby group Okoa Mombasa starting a media campaign against this naming. It was seen as a disregard for the coastal peoples’ heritage. The group is putting up a spirited effort to have the waterfront park named after Mekatilili wa Menza, a woman of the Agiriama tribe, who led the fight against the British colonialists.


A statue of Mekatilili wa Menza at Uhuru gardens in Malindi
https://www.kilifi.go.ke/news.php?com=9&com2=78&item=73#.Xdf3stVCeUk

Unsurprisingly, in early November, 2019, KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) Loyals started a campaign advocating for changing most, if not all, the place names accorded to ‘The Royal Dynasties’ (especially those of the first and second presidents of Kenya) to more nationalistic and inclusive names. Some of the sentiments expressed through this twitter trending topic reveal the contestations behind commemorating political leaders through names.

This kind of online uproar is a push back against the naming of prominent public spaces and facilities after a privileged few, creating what appears to be a monopolized toponymic landscape. As pointed out by some KOT Loyals, there is an imbalanced naming criterion which favours Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi. Places named after Jomo Kenyatta include: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenyatta National Hospital, Kenyatta Avenue, Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Library at The University of Nairobi, among others. Places named after the second president, Daniel Arap Moi include: Moi International Sports Center Kasarani, Moi University-Eldoret, Moi International Airport-Mombasa, Moi Avenue, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital – Eldoret, etc. The dominance of these two individuals on the toponymic landscape of Kenya points to a political hegemony and a leaning towards a ‘cult of personalities’. It makes one wonder if there are no other people who have contributed to the development of the country, whose memory can be imprinted on these important public spaces. 

Unfortunately, the matter of place naming has often been viewed as one of little importance by many, due to the presence of more serious issues such as poverty, unemployment, poor health care and corruption. As illumined by the following tweet, toponymic issues are considered among the least of our problems. « …We really have more serious issues that require citizens to raise their voices. The state of the economy, spiraling public debts, and corruption in public service… » That is why most of the reactions from the public regarding place name changes are usually temporary with few to no consequences or interventions from the government.

The naming of public spaces remains an issue of contest between the government and other stakeholders in Kenya. The tensions are not easy to resolve, but inclusive dialogue and participation in naming practices is a good place to start.


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