Conducting Research at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi

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Kenya National Archives

Getting There: The National Archives are in the Central Business District (CBD), which makes them quite easy to get to from anywhere in Nairobi. Simply get a matatu (mini-bus) heading to ‘town’. Depending on the stage (stop) where you arrive, the walk to the archives is anywhere from 5-10 minutes. Here, google maps or simply asking for directions is the best bet until you become familiar with the area. I find that much of the CBD looks similar (many shops, a lot of matatus and tons of people), so it can take some time to orient yourself. Luckily, however, the archives are a very prominent building, so it’s relatively easy to find, and if you ask directions, most people will be able to point you in the right direction. If you are spending a lot of time at the archives you might want to stay in the CBD, especially as Nairobi traffic can be extremely busy during peak times. While it might take you 20 minutes to get from Kileleshwa or Lavington to the CBD when it isn’t busy, it can take an hour or more when there is a lot of traffic. So, either plan your day around traffic, or stay somewhere within walking distance.

What You Need: As a foreign researcher, you will need to pay 1500 Ksh (about $15 US) for a yearly pass to the archives. When I first arrived, I was greeted by one of the archivists, and we sat and chatted about what I was looking to find. She wanted to make sure the archives would be of use to me and I would be able to find the necessary documents, before I filled out the forms and paid the fee. You need to fill out a form with personal and professional details, and then go downstairs to the reception to pay the fee. You take the receipt back up to the archivist, along with one passport photo, and you will be given a document that allows you access to the archives for a year.

When You Arrive: There is a museum on the ground floor of the archive, and so there is a reception desk when you enter the National Archives. If you let the receptionist know that you are visiting the archives, she we let you pass through. However, if you have a backpack, you will be required to leave it with reception (they will give you a number). You can take your laptop, notebooks, pencils and phones into the archives. You will go up the stairs on the left, and the archives are on the first floor. You are supposed to sign in everyday.

Accessing Files: The archivist will show you the digital system, housed in a row of computers, where you can search for documents using keywords. Once you have found documents, write them down, including the year, name, room, shelf and box numbers. There are requisition forms available at the back of the room with the two young archivists – one for books and one for documents. You will fill these out, including your unique ID number and name, and give the slips to the archivist. You can request up to 5 files at a time. I learned the hard way that it can take a long time to actually receive the files. At one point I waited a full 3 hours in the morning before receiving any files. So, either request more files when you are partway through your current stack, or request files in the afternoon before you leave. They will be waiting for you in the morning when you arrive! The archivists are all extremely friendly and helpful.

Reading and Recording Files: You can take photos of the documents, and it seems that the number of photos per file is not strictly enforced. Many people are working on laptops, and I find that a combination of notes and photos is the best for recording information. There are outlets in the reading room as well, which is useful.

Practical Information: The search room is open from 8:30-4:30, Monday to Friday. For more information, please see the Kenya National Archives website. If you are not finished with a file at the end of the day, simply placing a piece of paper with your name on it and put it to the side. It will be waiting for you when you return.

Technology for the Archives: As mentioned in my post on the Tanzanian National Archives, I recommend Evernote for helping organize your notes and photos of documents from the archives. I have a notebook “Tanzania National Archives” that has notes from each file I have consulted, and the corresponding photos. I have labelled and can search each file, including the photos I have taken.  I have Evernote on both my laptop and phone so I can easily sync both my notes and the photos I take.

Good to Know: The documents are not always where the digital catalogue says they should be, and this can cause delays, or worse mean that certain files cannot be found. There is one retired archivist, who you will likely meet while you are there. His name is Richard, he is extremely friendly, and he is a wealth of information. He knows the archives better than the back of his hand, and even if the digital catalogue is incorrect, he usually knows where to find files and whether or not files are accessible. Richard is a great person to know, who can really help you navigate the archives more easily. All of my colleagues have turned to Richard for help at some point throughout their archival research!

Additional Information: There is also a museum on the ground floor of the National Archives, which is worth checking out at some point during your time at the archives. There are always between 5-10 local and foreigner researchers in the search room at any given time, and I genuinely found that working in the search room was extremely pleasant. It is bright and airy, with a cool breeze and the sounds of matatus and street hawkers coming through the window. You are a very much a part of the bustling city, while reading through Kenya’s fascinating and important historical documents. All in all, a nice contrast.

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Inside the search room

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