Kitale: Searching for echoes and dents

The morning – Mahendra, the Railway Station and the Museum

Our first morning in Kitale. I resolve to begin my quest for my grandmother in Kitale and find The Kitale Store, in which my grandfather was a major shareholder, and the Kitale Hotel to which HRH The Prince of Wales came to a regimental dinner organised by my grandfather for Armistice Day in November 1928.

We set off at 10am. Every compound has gates sporting logos of security companies, including on with a notice ‘Is there life after death? Jump over this gate and find out.’ “I like the humour,” said Robert. “But a better sign would be ‘Vicious Snakes here’ — Africans are terrified of snakes. Dogs just get shot.”

We cross the now disused railway line. I can just see its terminus at the white railway station and warehousing about 500 metres away. The train line, opened in 1926, marked the urbanisation of Kitale. Seven years before, in 1919, my grandfather came as a young Assistant District Commissioner, in a cart drawn by oxen from Londiani, 100 miles away. It took him three weeks. My grandmother wrote that Kitale was the ‘A place marked on Govt maps only & there being only a track through it along which [Fred] safari end. No buildings or life at all except innumerable game. No other white man for many miles.’

Ninety years later the population has grown to over 106,000 (2009 census) and burst into shanty to the north and west.

We go to see Mahendra, a lovely Indian man of over 70 years old, at Soy’s Mart opposite the law courts – large stone buildings built to impress. They do. We park in covered storm drains and go up two steps into the shady pavement and his duka on the corner of the central connecting road. The store with its concrete well-swept floors and stocked larder staples, wines, spirits and beers could be 50 years ago in Dar-es-Salaam. The smell took me back to my childhood – a mixture of spice and bread and fermenting air decades old. The shop counter of burnished wood is probably original. The only new things are the cash register and Mahendra’s smartphone.

I ask Mahendra to orientate me around Kitale. His father opened the first Asian supermarket in Kitale, and he has lived in Kitale all his life, knows everyone and the gossip. The information I want though is nearly 90 years ago and Mahendra is only in his 70’s. He says that the Elgon Club has crumbled and is covered in bushes and that St John’s church, that my grandparents went to, is still there but with another name.

He takes me outside to show me the three-storey building that replaced The Kitale Stores, in which my grandfather was a shareholder. It’s visible over the buildings on the parallel commercial street. At some date it was bought by Mahendra’s good friend Mr Pabari, who sold it to a consortium who then demolished it,

The Kitale Hotel had been straight up the road we were standing on and over the crossroads. Most of it had been demolished and replaced by a tall orange building, but one wing remained. He gave me a 1947 photo of the hotel ‘after it was rebuilt after the fire,’ – ‘It was a very unlucky place,’ I said. ‘It burnt down in November 1927 when my grandfather was there with an infected ulcer on his jaw. He had to be evacuated to a friend’s house at 2 in the morning.’

We step out from the shady pavement and cross the dusty quiet street. Ndege House is the name of the grey building much in need of whitewashing that is the current occupant of the Kitale Stores site. It houses The Eldoret College Professional Studies and Kenyan Womens Bank ‘Banking On Women’.

Across the road, where the Kitale Hotel stood, is now on the edge of a bustling market with vegetables and fruit piled high on pieces of material. Cars, motorbikes and buses edge messily round the people buying, selling and chatting. The remaining part of the hotel is recognisable but decrepit. The Oroko Boulevard Hotel is the faint echo of its elegant ancestor the first floor; The Crossroads Blue Boutique and The Oriental Commercial Bank occupy the ground floor. The orange block has shops downstairs and apartments above. It’s a far cry from the flourish when the hotel opened on 12th August 1927.

Two months later, on Sunday, 9th October 1927, my grandmother wrote ‘… between 200 & 300 people there for the second performance of The Wrong Number … While we looked at it under a bright moon [with] nearly 100 cabs, everyone in evening dress & ladies strolling about beautifully got up. Askaris in front duty. The large hotel with all its outbuildings lit by electricity. After the play we danced.’

It’s impossible to see any of this today. The town planners clean design of the western side of Kitale is under the swamp of the market. Every nook of the western artery road, and onwards, is covered in fruit and vegetables, old shoes, new shoes and flip flops, rucksacks, ladies dresses, men’s trousers – anything sellable is there piled on rickety wooden shelving or laid on mats on the ground. At intervals boda-boda, motorcycle buses, wait for custom, listen to loud African beats. Not many are buying and sellers sleep in the midday sun. Ahead a lorry tries to reverse, its purpose as unclear as its success rate. Luckily we can bump onto the trunk road and escape. These new informal roads have become essential.

Kitale has become a tale of two towns:

–> The east side sleeps within the shady confines of the urban plan. Parking is ordered, men sit over chai chatting or reading papers, lawyers discuss with their clients outside the law courts and write letters. The shaded walkways smell of dust, spice and ghostly newspapers rustling for nearly a century. Can these African Rip Van Winkles compete with the new Nakumatt shopping Mall, with its international banks, modern supermarket and clean toilets, that has burst through the urban mould and extended east of the commercial street?

–> On the west side the informal market has swamped and covered all the spaces, dukas and roads with mountains of produce and products. The drains are uncleared and rubbish lies decomposing in the tropical heat. Toilets are informal. New tracks and paths weave through former civic green spaces. The pounding African beat sounds lively but I’ll bet the rats are too. Have the city fathers the money, vision or ability to clean the streets and drains, build public conveniences and let the traffic flow?

We stop at the small Railway station. It still looks exactly like the 1926 photo on the Internet when it stood on it own at the end of the line with a fence between it and the road. There are no other buildings visible in the photo. The end of the line in a non-descript place? Two years later, in November 1928, HRH The Prince of Wales stayed two nights in a special train for a Regimental Dinner and dance in a marquee set up beside the railway track. My grandfather was the main organiser of the event.

Eeimage imageToday the town has grown around it – or grown because of it. The station is tiny, a toy station, with a one-storey building on the left housing the Booking Office, now The Matunda Bus Booking Office facing the street, and the waiting room facing the platform. To the right is a cafe with plastic chairs under trees and tentacles from the market are setting up on once green verges. There are two archways – the left one blocked – to the platform. With the trains gone, people have taken the peaceful social space protected by hedging from the main road. Here they chat or sleep among grasses and small flowers in a rare place of calm. I remember a photo in 193o, there is no-one on the platform but three children on piles of luggage waiting for the train that will take to England. My mother and Valerie facing the camera were 6 years old. Monica looks away — she’s 7 years old.1930 Homeward bound-1

Our final stop is the Museum in its big shabby compound, set back from the main road by a wide sward of bare earth with trees like islands. The Stoneham Museum, now National Museum of Kenya, opened in 1924. Colonel Hugh Stoneham’s collection of insects is still there together with the small public library he founded. Unlike the MacMillan Central library in Nairobi, this library was still relevant for a few and the books are still read although there did not appear to be any new books for quite a few decades. The tiny space is stuffed with back issues of The Daily Nation Newspaper, well-thumbed fiction, Latin and Greek texts, poetry – a large section. The settlers were a well educated lot.

Despite energetic efforts of the librarian, there was not much relevant to my quest. I did though find ‘The Red Book 1930 – 1931, Handbook and Directory compiled by the East African Standard’ which gave interesting measurements of the difficulties and scale of colonising Kenya. There were pages on costings for the railway and the difficulties building it (malaria, jiggers, man eating lions at Tsavo, ‘the tsetse flies played havoc amongst the transport animals’ and ‘a disastrous strike of engineering trades in Britain [that] delayed supply of locomotives and wagons’; road building: 1901-1906 511 miles of earth roads, 1907-1914 1479 miles of new road built, 1919-1923 3600 miles of roads built.

The book listed plague numbers in Nairobi and elsewhere, post office box numbers of all residents (box number 49. Jack F.C. Listed on page 307); and all the registered clubs and Free Masons Halls – Elgon Club Gentlemen £3 Ladies £1 members 200 established 1924. Muthaiga Club entrance 300/- country membership, 500 members established 1914. Mt Elgon Masonic Lodge no. 5082 – this established by my grandfather with others. Pages 355-421 list all the expat (white) males registered in Kenya in 1933 – roughly 3,300 which seems low on other measures. Perhaps it didn’t include civil servants, railway workers and The Kings Rifles.

It was now 13:00. Time for lunch and the quest to find KK.

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3 Responses to Kitale: Searching for echoes and dents

  1. Sue Brock says:

    again, a wonderful journey into my past. The description of our wait for the train out of Africa, and all it meant for us in different. ways.

    I think I have the Masonic membership badge. I remember Ma giving other Masonic things to Malcolm. Sue.

    • Hilary says:

      Hi Sue,
      Having Granny’s letters and juxtaposing them with the today’s reality made for a very absorbing trip. Last night I watched the cine you made of your 1962 visit to your sisters in Durban, Dar-es-Salaam The Victoria Falls, Entebbe and Kitale. Who was the person in Entebbe you visited and what was the connection?
      Hilary

  2. Sue Brock says:

    Sorry Hilary, I dont recall who they were, or the connection at the moment. Maybe when I look at them again I might remember. Yes, it is all very moving. Love Sue.

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