Martin is a brilliant driver with a great sense of humour. He drove today on roads that barely qualified for that descriptor and never lost patience although the day was long. We had bought snacks (biscuits, crisps, bananas, apples, fruit drinks) from the supermarket in Kitale – more on that anon – and ate them on the way. We never found a place to stop for lunch. He danced the car on top of rocks and shimmied down gulleys. At times we had to get out so the car was less low slung and at other times we levered up rocks and moved them. Along the way we have met some lovely people. It’s been a good day.
The supermarket was at the Nakumatt shopping mall (‘don’t bother with anywhere else,’ said Ibrahim). Here we left dusty, dirty, chaotic Kitale languishing in the middle of the last century at the security check at the gates and entered the 21st century. The bank had FOREX rates electronically posted on the wall and efficient smart bank tellers at computer screens. The supermarket sold electrical appliances, bakery items, fresh fruit and vegetables, imported groceries and tinned goods as well as chick incubators in different sizes and brands – that was a surprise but a reminder that Trans Nzoia drew settlers in the early 29th century because of its fertile soil and it’s still important today.
We left Nakumatt and got on the now familiar Kisumu road. Martin tried to get an impromptu car wash from a water truck wetting the road to keep down the dust. He increased his speed and drew alongside, the car bucketing as if in rapids, water hit the windscreen as in a white-out. Martin withdrew back behind the truck chuckling. This driver is good, but also fun with common sense. We’ll get on.
Remembering that yesterday we had overshot by 5 km, we stop at the Governor’s office for directions to the Elgon Club. A portly courteous official calls over an elderly man to guide us. The conversation went like this: (official) ‘He lives around here, and says he knows it.’ (Me) ‘Does he know the history of the place?’, (Official) ‘He’s uneducated and doesn’t know anything.’
The man gets in the back of the car beside me, his name is John. This is a popular name! The hand that shakes mine is firm though rough from manual work, his thumb nail is jagged. He leaves red laterite in my palm. His face is thin and etched with wrinkles – age indeterminate, anything between 50 to 70 would not surprise me. His jacket is torn and dirty and the shirt beneath is a faded blue from many washes. I help fix his seat belt. ‘You’re safe now,’ I say. ‘Safe,’ he says, his white toothed smile crinkles his eyes. Our journey is only one block into the Kiminini Cottage hospital grounds run by Roman Catholic nuns from Kerala. ‘The Elgon Club is at the back of the hospital,’ says John. We follow the brisk trim walk of Sister Lourdes, the hospital matron, to an area divided into two (empty) wards with thick walls and a chimney. Emilie May wrote this description in January 1927:
‘The Club consists of 4 tennis courts, a dancing room with one side open. (Perhaps the male and female wards Sister Lourdes showed us is this room?) A large pavilion for meals and watching tennis, a Bar, and another room with the library in it which is used for various purposes. There are several guest huts but they are in disrepair…. The Elgon Club is quite small & non-residential and is only used on Saturdays and Sunday’s & occasionally when they have Band practices etc.’
We could very well be standing in it.
According to John, the club closed in 1960 and it was big, over 100 acres with a golf course. There was no golf course when my grandmother was a member, but it was a popular game so it could have been added later, but 100 acres seems a lot of land for a small club with about 200 members in its heyday in 1934.
The photo above is St. John’s ACK (Anglican Church of Kenya) and is still over the road. Incidentally you can see the unsuitableness of our car for the quest. John goes to this church every Sunday with his family. It’s in a large shady compound looking exactly as it did when it was built a century ago. The old church is now home to a nursery with children’s paintings on the wall and lively children in groups colouring. It’s a very handsome building with its original roofing made of shingles (small pieces of wood), but some of these wood slats have slipped or rotted. I fear that corrugated iron would be the practical but ugly solution, but something needs to be done. Plenty of daylight pours through spaces in the roof and the long rains start in a few weeks. I think it won’t be useable then. The pulpit, lectern and some other furniture, in handsome carved hardwood went into the new church built 2 years ago round the back for 200 people and presided over by the Venerable Julius Meta helped by Evangelist Philip who is the caretaker. I promised Julius that I would email excerpts from my Grandmother’s letters about this place. It’s now 13:00
On the vestry door was the name ‘Barbeton’ a name mentioned by Orie yesterday – a Mr Barbeton, man of over 90 who had lived near her farm had died very recently. The stone was in memory of Henry Mitford Barbeton F.R.C. 1850-1920, and his wife Mary Mitford Barbeton 1863 – 1928 daughter of the Hon T Holden Bowker MT, of South Africa, who were the first to settle in the Trans Nzoia in 1913 and did much to tame these wilds in the early days.’
‘tame these wilds’ – now that’s a viewpoint from the early twentieth century! The British were righteously expanding their empire and finding creative solutions for thousands of demobbed officers after 1st World War. The native people and animals might have a different point of view. I was thinking of this as we drive through the market and pass Gloucester Vale Estates – it’s still apparently farmed as one estate of that name. My grandmother often stayed here after dances at The Elgon Club as it was only one mile away. She wrote that the Johnstones arrived in 1910 with son Avery (then 22) and younger son Cecil who came out in 1923 with her on the ‘Guildford Castle’. Their father died in 1926. At that time the estate was laid out with coffee, but there’s no evidence of that now from the road, but it does look prosperous and very different from the shambas.
There is only a long, slow, disappointing bump road after that to the five way crossroads and further up to the northern part of the Jack land sold to J Anderson and his two sons. The road follows the edge of the former Jack land — Kama Koia. It takes a considerable time at about 3 miles an hour to achieve nothing except a picnic in the car as we travel. Going back, we turn up a lane signposted Bishop Cowley ‘Fear God and Excel’. There’s a colonial house at the bottom in a derelict condition and the road reduces from OK to terrible with no-where to turn. Thinking it couldn’t get worse we go on – it doesn’t – it reduces to appalling. Around us are bananas, chickens and cows. No peaches and no coffee. There must be another better way to reach the Bishop’s retreat. Nobody who knew would come up the ‘road’ we used. The children round here watch us round eyed, they’re right, it is pretty crazy to drive a car round here, a two wheel scramble bike would be better.
Then some luck. The boda-boda men (motorcycle bus) at the turnoff recognise the rock and the building in Aunt Sue’s photos. ‘St. Thomas Aquinas High School’ they say. ‘It’s not far.’ On these roads, ‘not far’ can take a very long time to traverse. Thankfully though the road improves and in the distance is the rock that’s in Aunt Sue’s photo. It’s too close, but it is the same rock and beside us coffee grows. There are two coffee factories in the area. But cannot be the right place as it’s not on the Kama Koia River but we must be in the vicinity. At the school we are told it had been called Jackson Peak farm until it was nationalised in the mid-sixties (later that evening we find it as block 5543 north of KK in Saboti). St Thomas Aquinas school acquired it in 2001, and before that it had been a failed polytechnic and during the fighting had been home to internally displaced people.
We’re told there’s another settler house nearby that’s also now a school and a teacher volunteers to show us the way because he lives near there. It’s now 16:30 and only three hours to nightfall. We haven’t achieved very much. It’s about three miles to the next school and thankfully the road is ok. We’re told this was Campretwa Farm, owned once by Percy Taylor – now we know where we are – we are on the block to the north of KK. We’re closing in. We get out to look at this settler home.
There are lots of school children in the playground, and as we walk in the gate they run at us. Shrieking girls gather round me touching my shoulder, my hair, my clothing. I feel breathless and panicked by the numbers pressing in. One girl matches me step for step staring at me. Now I know why celebrities run, why the Beatles hid in shops, and why they hired bouncers. I run. The girls press round the car, on the bonnet, staring in.
Colin emerges later and so do two teachers. Order is restored and we get new instructions for the quest: ‘Go to Chits school, it’s nearby at Chenino, that’s another old house. It’s no more than 3 miles and yes it’s passable by car,’ they say. Well that could be true for a landrover but in this low slung Toyota saloon it would have been quicker to walk.
Chenino? That’s a name I’m not expecting. I rifle through the pile of letters I brought with me. This one of Sunday, 22nd March, 1931, a letter of many pages giving a description of KK house and farm: ‘We drove down to Chenino’s nursery in “Felicity” …. At the bottom is the hut of one of the guards. At the top the collection of huts and grain stores of Chenino, who is a squatter we have had all the time and is in charge of the the Nursery.’ (Sunday, March 22nd 1931)
Would it not be a delicious irony that his name is stamped on the village, while my grandparents’ name has gone? Perhaps we will find KK house today.
The road begins to resemble a path more than a track. We get out to raise the car bottom to go over rocks. Martin is really an excellent driver. He balances the car on top of rocks and eases the car down, it’s more of a dance than a drive. We track along the Kama Koia river from Percy Taylor’s farm. The direction is good, we’re back on Jack land again. It’s now 17:15.
At a three-way junction, young school children give directions. A man comes over to give directions even though he does not know the way, and asks the children and then tells us exactly the same as they told us. African manners are exquisite. Martin listens courteously, thanks the man and moves on. People here are given time and dignity.
Unfortunately there’s no-one around when, barely 50 yards ahead, the road bifocates. Which way? The road left looks like a farm track, the other goes a rocky way downhill and bends left at the bottom – what if it went worse after that and we couldn’t turn? I ran down to the bend to find a ford over a tributary of the Kama Koia has been cemented into a washing pool, and nowhere to turn. Good grief! Luckily Martin has only started his cautious descent and could turn left … into a farm track that reduces to a walking track with grassy verges lane width.
Martin creeps forward, at one with the car, feeling his way round the hill to where it rejoins the blocked track which once forded the Kama Koia. We hear only the long grass sweeping the red dust off the undercarriage. We are at 6500 ft according to the GPS and on KK farmland following the river. KK house was at 6750 ft.
At last we see some huts and kiosks selling single shampoo sachets and cooking oil in small bottles. Civilisation! The posho mills have good custom, I see. The track improves with tiny shambas, growing maize, bananas and cassava that must surely only provide subsistence for one family. There are so many young children waving, grinning, calling out to us, including one boy about 4 years old shockingly with kwashiorkor. Small rudimentary primary schools are clustered with school children in uniform, but there are many in torn clothing and no shoes who probably lack the money for school uniforms – the entry requirement to go to school here. Such huge families in such poverty. It’s hard to see a good future for so many. Surely modern Kenya can educate all its parents in planned parenthood – and remembering that small child – in nutrition?
Martin greets a man wearing a natty yellow baseball cap — he knows Chits School and he knows the way. He carefully lays two pangas (long knives for cutting grass) on the seat beside me and gets in. We shake hands, my small hand within his strong, confident hand. ‘Karibou’, I say and introduce myself, Colin and Martin. ‘Kiptoo,’ he says. This is the first man we’ve met who doesn’t proffer a Christian first name to foreigners but gives his given tribal name. Kiptoo smells of red dust, the sharp tang of cut leaves and hot labour. Dust is embedded in the ceases of his neck, in his ears, under his jagged nails, under his cuffs and brightening his white cut hair. It falls off his Wellington boots onto the floor. His brown jacket is badly torn on the left sleeve showing his light yellow shirt. His much gathered russet brown trousers are held up by an ancient worn leather belt with metal engraved buckle. Unusually he has a moustache, I don’t think I’ve seen much facial hair here. The photo below of Kiptoo is at the last settler’s house we go to at the end of the day.
I lean over to help him fix his seat belt, I think he has never worn one. He’s eager to try this new thing, but it’s obviously not an intuitive thing. Like John at Kilimini he puts his head through the two pieces of webbing and I have to move his head back and put one across his lap and the other over his shoulder. I show him how to undo it when we get out to lighten the car because of rocks ahead. As Kiptoo get out, carefully taking his two pangas, he leaves a semi circle of red dust in the dint of the seat. The rocks are easily moveable from the road, at least they seem so when Kiptoo lifts them. After a while the road gets drivable again and we get back in the car – he again carefully laying down his pandas. This time though he clips on the seat belt as if he has done it all his life.
It’s now 17:45. It’s unlikely we have gone more than two miles this last half hour.
“Colin, take a photo of that rock please, it looks familiar from the photos and look, in the distance, the rock is about the right distance away.” This is exciting! Maybe we are in the right place especially as I then see an agapanthus in a shamba beside us like an echo or a signpost. This is tantalising, they don’t grow wild around here and it’s the only one I have seen all day. We get out and walk up a rough track that defeats our trusty car to the top at around 6750 ft. The view down to the Kama Koia is familiar too. It feels so right! It’s 18:15 and the sun is large, reddening the wisps of clouds across its orb. A late afternoon breeze blows my hair as I read more of the letter written that Sunday in 1931. Was this where she wrote those words?
‘I’m writing in the Drawing Room with the sun shining and a light breeze just moving the trees. Across the garden is the dark green coffee, then neat, red plough land all harrowed and waiting to be planted. Beyond that thorn trees offer which is the distant view of the Turbo Hills all shimmering with heat. Light and dark red patches of plough, bright green patches – probably a crop to be ploughed in, darker green clumps of trees,blooming half right see the big,bushy green peach trees, a triangle of shrubs, some hibiscus in flower; then a shamba with a lovely tilth, all nicely rolled and ready for onions. Then the silhouette of thorn trees against a shimmering blueish distance to the Nandi escarpment and Kakamegga Hills.
There is a new road to Tweedies half way between here & the maize cribs etc. parallel to the house. The coffee being on the left as you go towards Tweedie. There will be new coffee on the right if it, I think we will bring new visitors up this way as the house and garden look so lovely seen over the coffee, I love the real road best tho’ & it has been very pretty with the red flowering trees. In the garden the Baskerton Daisys are making a fine show. They are lovely things, if I send you some seed wouldn’t you like a few?’
My grandmother’s written description of KK is full of colour and vitality and I love this photo of her in the garden picking flowers – but it’s not here. There is no avenue of trees nor road that could be an avenue or second driveway. There are no dark green coffee bushes or neat plough land and if there were peach trees they are long gone. There are no flowers, no thorn trees, indeed no trees at all. To the west, in the distance we see the bluff, the distinctive rock outcrop on Mt Elgon, but the mountain is still hiding. To the north are the Cherangani Hills. Looking south there are hills which presumably are the Turbo Hills, but I think Granny got carried away with poesy, because Kakamegga at 80 km and the Nandi Escarpment is over 100 km away are surely too far away to be seen.
Is this KK? The height is right, the position is right, but we found no evidence of footings for any buildings, garden walls or steps around the new girls’ high school with red roofs and playing fields that occupies the spot now. It is a large school with outbuildings so possible I suppose that all of the KK footprint was subsumed into it. Kiptoo says that there never was any building up there before the current school. Local knowledge has been good so far but surely it’s not always right?
Even if it’s not KK, it must be on a hilltop around here. Chits School, Chenino village is about 1 1/2 miles from here and lower than the red roof school. It is certainly a settler’s home – is this the Tweedies House? We know that it was lower than KK house, that there was a road between them and KK. It fits the description ‘down the hill and before the Tweedie’s house the road goes straight down the hill. This road has the same configuration.
It’s now 18:45 and dusk and the road is atrocious. We must get onto a better road before nightfall. Martin can perform wonders, but he does need to see ahead. In the settler times a system involving Landis who maintained the roads. Two-man houses were built beside roads at 10 mile intervals and two men lived in each of two wings. The kitchen area was in the space between. Everyday the men would take their wheelbarrows, some stones and implements and walk five miles mending the road as they went and clearing out the drainage ditches, the roads were graded twice a year.
Dusk turns into night as we pass the Ambassador’s land above us with its avenue of trees and lovely views and reach the safety of the Murram road – not black-top but driveable. Jack land bound the Machewa and the one side and the Kama Koia on the other, it is not impossible that her place was KK.
We get back late again, and again Ibrahim has again kept supper for us. We pour over the map that evening.Tomorrow we go to the Cherangani Hills to the Barnley Guest House. Jane Barnley is in her 90th year, the same age as my mother and Valerie, and went to the same school, Limuru Girls School. They must have been in the same class.