Shamim Ehsani of Tribe in Nairobi


Creating a hotel that both defines a city and represents a nation is a daunting task. But for Nairobi’s Shamim Ehsani, his family and their partners, it was a challenge they pulled off to masterful effect.

“When my family arrived in Kenya in 1981, my mother was pregnant with me,” says Shamim Ehsani. “They were emigrating from Iran, headed for Australia, and stopped off in Kenya to see my father’s brother, Mehraz, who at the time was setting up a school of architecture. We ended up staying—Nairobi can have that effect—and 30 years ...

"We wanted to encapsulate the city’s African spirit, to build something fresh and modern, something that celebrated creativity, fashion, art, and design, and not race, power, or tradition.”

... on Mehraz became the architect of this hotel.” It is this strong family bond—between Shamim, his 36-year-old brother Hooman, his mother Fara, father Hamed and uncle Mehraz—that defines Tribe’s integrity. After all, the vision for this project was created by people who clearly understand Africa from both the inside (“I’ve only ever known Kenya as my home,” says Shamim) and the outside (“because we are Persian, we see things a little differently, too”).

When, in 2008, the family opened the hotel, it was a confident move. Tribe was born in the tailwind of political strife—the riots of 2007 to 2008—and at a time when investment was low. Thus Tribe became the first new high-end boutique hotel to have opened in Nairobi in some 30 years. In addition, says Shamim, the city’s existing hotels subscribed to a complacent, out-of-date point-of-view. “In general, the top places to stay belonged to the white colonial model of the early 20th century,” he says. “We didn’t want to follow that in any way. Nairobi was a different place in 2008. We wanted to encapsulate the city’s African spirit, to build something fresh and modern, something that celebrated creativity, fashion, art, and design, and not race, power, or tradition.”

Was the moment right? “Absolutely. Four years on and the energy in this country is so positive, so forward moving. Take the food scene,” says Shamim. “In Kenya, there are cool new chefs appearing, new bars, new lounges. Nairobi is finally coming into its own as a cosmopolitan, international destination.” As to why this shift should be happening now, Shamim pauses to think. “Some say it comes from a desire to overcome all that post-election violence that happened in 2007 and 2008,” he says. “But I’m not so sure. I think there has always been a pent-up potential in Kenya; only now we have more opportunities to get the message out.”

Perhaps the U.S.-educated Shamim is bound to say such a thing. Message-making is something he’s very good at: He is the branding man at Tribe (as well as the designer of Tribe’s rooftop lounge, The Nest). Yet it is the hotel’s architecture that Shamim holds in highest regard. “A lot of what makes the tone of this place work is about the building itself,” he says. “The last thing we wanted was to create a big, well-decorated, box.”

Thus the hotel is wrested from thematic pastiche in favor of a modernity all of its own—the soaring sunlit atrium, the cool granite and stretches of dark Indian slate, the urban-contemporary feel tempered with earthy combinations of cumin, sandstone, and brown sugar. It is a palette that has much to do with Les Harbottle, the South Africa-based interior designer, born in Nairobi, who collaborated closely on Tribe, along with Hooman, Shamim's elder brother, and their mother, Fara, who personally sourced over 900 African artifacts. In many families, all this input would send relationships over the edge. Shamim smiles. “It was trying at times, I admit, but we all had a very clear idea of what we wanted,” he says. “Even now we’re still on the same page.”

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