Dr. Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, Pioneer Doctor in Kenya

Following the arrival of the railway in 1897, Nairobi had soon grown into a town with muddy streets and ram shackle wood and sheet-metal buildings built on stone plinths to ward off termites.

Our next hero, Dr. Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, appears on this scene in Nairobi, February 1900, as the first private medical doctor. For six months, he and his assistant, Mr. C. Pinto, shared a tent as home and practice. In the evenings by candlelight, they made up prescriptions of his invention, including a special malarial cure which was patented and eventually sold to an international company.2.

Later, when the Indian Bazaar expanded, he built his surgery from the packing cases used for shipping his drug supplies from England. It was Dr. Ribeiro who, in 1902, had diagnosed bubonic plague in two Somali patients and reported it. The Medical Officer of Health, with no experience of tropical diseases, panicked at the news, ordered the Indian Bazaar evacuated and burnt to the ground. Dr. Ribeiro’s surgery went up in flames with the rest. The government in recognition for his services gave him a concession of sixteen acres of land in the township, part of which he was able to sell to Julius Campos, another Goan Pioneer. A street, Campos Ribeiro Avenue, was named after them. .

In Nairobi, the automobile was yet come to its own then. Horses were still relied upon to get around town, but they suffered from an equine fever in the hot tropical climate, which reduced their life span considerably. It was felt that the thousands of zebras that populated the grasslands around Nairobi should be trained to replace horses. Two schools of thought emerged on this subject. The first were of the opinion that the animals were stupid and untrainable. The second took the side of the zebras. They concluded that the zebra species had already done enough for human kind… they gave aesthetic appeal to the many zoos over the world, made street crossings safe for children, and had their skins crafted into numerous home furnishings and wall hangings. There was no need for zebras to go further, and make asses of themselves!.

An exception seems to have been made for Dr. Riberio. He managed to train a zebra, and ride him around town for house calls. As a founder member of the Goan Institute, he rode his zebra right up to the verandah of the club and hitched it to the front post. A photo of Dr. Riberio on his famous zebra is included in the 1950 Souvenir Brochure of Nairobi City to convince skeptics of this account! .

Dr. Ribeiro rendered sterling service to the community. He was known to personally attend to even the most minor ailments of his patients … like removing a jigger from one’s foot: a job which could easily be done by his assistants.

In the early thirties, when the community faced a problem in finding adequate schools for it’s children, he made his premises available for use as classrooms. He made a large donation to the institution which later became the ” Dr. Ribeiro Goan School, Nairobi”..

In the time following the WW II, when only a few in the community could afford cars, Dr. Riberio now quite aged, was chauffeured around in the newest America limousine of the day. It was quite a sight to see him arrive with his wife for high mass at St. Francis Xavier Church. The limo drove up to the front steps of the church, the doors opened for the doctor, impeccably dressed in morning suit and his distinctive homburg hat, to emerge, accompanied by Mrs. Riberio, wearing a fox fur stole. The parish priest and mass servers were at the church doors to greet him, and then only could the mass commence. .

Dr. Ribeiro gave a sense of style to colonial life in Kenya. He is no doubt remembered even today when alumni of the school which once carried his name gather for reunions, or write down the school name on job applications. .


1. Photo from “A Jubilee History of Nairobi”, by James Smart, 1950. ( probably from the Dr.Ribeiro family collection)
2. Errol Trzebinski, “The Kenya Pioneers”, Heinemann: London, 1985.
3. Jigger: Small parasite – latin name -Pulex irritans – the size of a fine black dot which burrows its way into ones toes to lay its eggs. Symptoms severe itching in toe. Removed by careful insertion of sterilized needle to remove egg sac. ( from ref. 2)