The Barnley’s

Today we went to stay the night with long term settlers the Barnley’s – Jane Barnley in her 90th year and son Richard who’s Colin’s age. There must be something in the Kenyan water because Jane and Sylvia Davidson are remarkable for their age. I had been hoping that Jane would remember my mother and Valerie since they were the same age.  They are unlikely to have known each other in Kitale because Jane lived 23 km north of Kitale and my mother and Valerie lived 22 km to the South West of Kitale – all three went to Limuru Girls School and were therefore presumably in the same class. Alas no, it’s too long ago.

The Barnley’s lovely old bungalow is set in five acres of garden near the Cherangani Hills with mature native trees and five colobus monkeys, a breeding colony with a baby. These beautiful monkeys have nowhere else to go because all native habitat has been destroyed between this haven and Saiwa National Park 5 km away.

There is a direct consequence from this destruction for humans. Richard said that they had sold a sweet water spring with land adjacent to their house, and the new owners had cut down the native trees. The spring dried up so they planted quick growing but thirsty Eucalyptus! The spring came back but as a small trickle. It seems so obvious: no trees = reduced rain = springs dry up. The Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado made the connection and planted back part of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil which brought back rain to the drought stricken land.  How long will it take before the penny drops elsewhere?

During tea in the Barnley’s cosy sitting room with a lit fire – this may sound strange, but it is 6000′ here and when the sun goes down there is a nip in the air – Richard said that the bread and butter of his guesthouse business is returning settlers or descendants trying to find their roots. He keeps copies of the land survey map –  the same that Sylvia Davidson had had with the names against block numbers – and we gratefully bought one for a small fee. This will be a great addition to help with the quest.

imageRichard also had a 1960’s map of the settler’s graveyard from the beginning of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly the oldest dates were in the middle at the top end. Some of the names were missing but there was Mrs Kuhn – without her first name or date of death but recorded and therefore remembered. The photo above is of this map pointing to Mrs Kuhn’s grave site. I added the date of her death, 17th September 1929, onto Richard’s copy and Colin took a photo. Poor Mrs Kuhn, the children’s nanny, killed thinking she was a leopard. The circumstances so odd that it seems probable the poor woman had gone a bit mad.

Mrs Kuhn had arrived on 4th January 1928, my mother and her twin Valerie’s second birthday. Her arrival marked the end of a desperate search to secure a nanny – a French and an Irish nanny had not worked out at all. The former had taken one look at the house, without any electricity and isolated, and refused to stay, the latter was unable to discipline the children to my grandmother’s satisfaction. Subsequently an English nanny with passage paid had found a husband in her boat out to Mombasa and broken contract. Establishing the farm took all the energy of my grandparents and, in any case, Edwardian ladies did not do child-rearing.

Mrs Kuhn had been interviewed and contracted by my great grandfather, Leonard Sutton who had also paid her passage. Her arrival was greeted with great relief and my grandmother left the following weekend for Uganda with ladies from the Kitale Club for a get together in Entebbe, Uganda for a week. Despite living with this longed-for, indispensable woman in a small house miles from anywhere, to whom she entrusted sole charge of her three very young children when she went away for breaks, she never referred to her by her first name, it was always the formal ‘Mrs Kuhn’. Later I found that her name was Gertrude Mary Kuhn from an official Notice in the digitised on-line Kenya Gazette Archives following Letters of Administration.

Musing this, and with another piece in the jigsaw, we turned in. Tomorrow we’ll be up at 6 am to go to Saiwa national Park to see birds.

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This evening after supper we went back to the photo of the Land Registration Map again to find the land registry numbers Orie had given us. My hand was over much of the map and the delineated area of Orie Manduli’s farm lay under my finger! I was emphasising where the Gantz farm was. As the photo had been freeze-framed from the video, Colin went back to it to see if there was a frame of the Map. There was – with Sylvia’s finger this time at The Elgon Club.  Block 6135 Jack is where the Kama Koia River takes a pronounced bend right, J Anderson is clear north of it on block 6134.


He extracted that frame as a .jpg and saw to the north of it — the name ‘Jack’ under land registry number 6135! To the north of the Jack acreage was the name J. Anderson on acreage no. 6134. The ‘Jack’ land must be Kama Koia Farm because in 1932 Emilie May wrote to her father that part of the acreage had been sold to Anderson. She also wrote that another neighbour was ‘Ratieff, a Dutchman, managing for H.W.Lane of the P.W.D’ — to the south-east is Block 5350 -Lane.

This is amazing. The information had been there all the time under our noses but I was not looking for it. I had assumed that the map had been made post 1938 when the Gantz bought 500 acres of Kama Koia Farm and post 12th January 1939 when my grandparents, my mother, her twin sister Valerie and my aunts Sue and Monica left for England, never to return.

Now I know where KK farm is, but maybe only a part of it. If 6698 was called Kama Koia Farm then it must have been sold by my grandfather as it must be unlikely that there were two farms of that name within five miles of each other. Block 6698 is separated from 6135 by the two Manduli blocks 5368 & 6832 – so presumably one, either or both blocks must also have been part of Kama Koia Farm and become subsequently detached. — If so, KK house site could be where Orie’s current house built in 1946 is.

This is exciting!

I look through granny’s letters to see what she wrote of other neighbours:
1. December 1927 ‘Fred is doing business nearly all the time. He has sold the lower part of our farm KK to one of the Sutherland Bros who are our agents in Mombasa.

2. ‘Colonel & Mrs Tweedie & 2 children bought the other half of the big farm once owned by Gordon Hewett. They bought the house.’ (January 1927) our house will be about 1 1/4 miles or less from theirs (Tweedies). (25/91/1927) ‘… Gordon Hewett (The Tweedies have his house and the lower part of his farm, we have the upper part).’

3. A.D Hartridge (bought a small piece from Tweedie – letter of November 27th, 1926). ‘Beyond the fence divides from a gum plantation and a windbreak from the Machewa Valley, Hartridge and Tisdale.

4. Col Trench, his wife was Miss Fidler of Reading, his farm touches KK at the back.

What a pity, none of them are written in the other blocks around 6135. Maybe people we ask tomorrow, now we know where to resume the search, will remember, after all John did know that Priscilla lived in one of the houses — but I think she may have been more recent than 1926 – 1932. Maybe someone will recognise something from the photos from Aunt Sue and of KK house.

It would really helps to get a fix on the Tweedies farm. Orie has promised to email the title transfer history of her two blocks. Can, and how can, we do a search of the land registry

We need to turn in. Tomorrow will be another long day eating red dust on bumpy roads. Robert is going home and his head driver, Martin, has driven up from Nairobi to take over. Today tested the car, I hope Martin is up to it.

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The quest starts

Today we are going to start the quest to find Kama Koia – the farm or the house built by my grandparents in 1926 of the same name, or just the site of the house since my Aunt Sue has warned that it had been demolished by the time she came here in 1962. Colin has worked out GPS coordinates by freezing a frame of his video of Sylvia showing us a Land registry map and my grandmother’s sketch map – it’s schematic but has useful relationships in miles from KK to neighbour’s, the Elgon Club and Kitale.

KK Sketch copy

If we get to the right area maybe we’ll recognise something from some topographical clues of where KK house and farm which my grandmother described them to her father in his letters; or maybe someone will recognise the photographs of the house and farm and from my Aunt Sue’s visit to this area in 1962.

The Clues
1. Fred Chater Jack bought Kama Koia Farm from Gordon Hewitt in 1925. The land as bounded between the Kama Koia River and the Machewa River.
2. Gordon Hewitt split his farm and sold the higher part to the Jacks and the lower part to another family, the Tweedies – Emilie May wrote January 1927: ‘The Tweedies house is a wooden one built by Gordon Hewitt and they have added to it in stone for the users and verandah. Our house will be 1 1/4 miles from theirs.’
3. A description: ‘Our house is not on land near the Kama Koia Farm which Fred is running with Arnold – but we have take a piece of land in the farm for house & garden. This will be our own and if the farm is sold [it] will be sold separately… [it] is approx. 6750 ft.’ Confusingly, both the house and farm were called Kama Koia.
4. The house is on a hill and stands five steps up from enough flat land for a lawn, herbaceous border, apple orchard and vegetable patch. There is no view of either river from the house. To the north, the view from the dining room is of Mt, Elgon. To the south, from the drawing room, the view is of the Nandi escarpment as a blueish haze some 60 km away.
5. A Swiss man, Mr. Gantz, bought Kama Koia Farm on the slopes of Mt Elgon in 1938 – a parcel of land numbered 6698 in the Land Registry – the same numbering system is used today for land registry. Each numbered area was/is 500 acres. Plot 6698 was likely to be KK (the company) and not the house, because Sylvia warned that there was no house on the land her father bought nor were there any sign of flowers or a horticultural farm with orchard and vegetables.
6. A photo of the land marked ‘Gantz’ with number 6698 of the Land Registry Map of the district that Gantz’s daughter, Sylvia Davidson, showed us. My finger pointing it out to make it even more clear.

Sylvia’s parents sound really interesting, I would very much have liked to meet them. He was a geologist working on an oil rig near Guryev for Shell Petroleum before the Russian Revolution. Guryev is on the River Ural before it discharges into the top of the Caspian Sea. He had time off every two months. Her mother, also Swiss, lived in Guryev where she had her children. In order to see her husband she would ride a donkey out to the rig. He had to flee Russia in 1918 when Russia descended into Civil War and lost a great deal of money when the Rouble collapsed. This would be unimaginable for today’s pampered oil workers for international companies with their well paid secure jobs and pay in their home country.


Armed with the GPS coordinates, we set off down the fast-slow shambles of the Kitale-Kisumu road. The fast bit down the new hard top road laid by the Chinese; the slow bit along dirt track beside the roadworks with impatient Mutatu (buses) weaving in from tracks that don’t exist putting bumping red dust everywhere. The new yellow road making equipments and road rollers look and efficient high above us. Modern and mechanised – a different century to the Kenya until now. In that Kenya, road repair in the Nairobi outskirts and near Nakuru involved gangs of young people demanding payment from cars driving over ‘their’ rock-filled pothole.

Dust hangs on the barbed wire fencing of Kitale Airport and removes the green from the bushes. Small, one-story breeze-block buildings contain the hopes and pre-occupations of the Luhya tribe who live here: Schools in abundance – The Repentance & Restoration Kingdom Church, Family Glory Church, The Blessed Meals Church; Schools – Kiminini Girls High School, Muungano High School Emmuels’s Private School (‘Mould a child into a responsible citizen’); two hospitals, finance and technology – Mama Nancy Investment, Mutayi Investments, The Big Vision Shop on one side of the road and The Second Big Vision Shop on the other and STV.

After 22 mud-eating miles, the distance given on Emilie may’s sketch map is always in miles, we look for a crossroads, a church or The settler’s Elgon Club in the straggling russet-coloured market in Kiminini – get the stress point right and the name is sayable – but either the new road or the market has obscured them all and we have left Miminini when a red well-graded Murram road comes up on our right, We consult an old man of indeterminate age and wheezy chest, he knows the Elgon Club – “Go back 5 kms,” he says – but the persuasion from the GPS wins. The checkered flag for the Gantz farm waves a few miles up this road – the Elgon Club can wait, we go right.

After 4 km the GPS indicates the Gantz farm is on the left. A plantation of young Eucalyptus finishes beside a very small overgrown track – no cars have gone down this for a while. High grass grows in the middle and right of the cart wide tracks. The land is flat and low lying beneath higher unfarmed land. Of course we drive in. The grass tickles the underneath of our car like a feather dust and Robert looks nervous, there’s no obvious place to turn if the road deteriorates. After 3/4 km we come to a mud hut, and two men: one old and one young. Robert calls in greeting and asks about old Mzungu (foreigner) houses in the area. “The young man knows of three,” he translates, “Can he come and show us?”

I clear the back seat beside me to find space. The young man has a strong physique, a very long strong neck and a broad, handsome face with a strong equiline nose. His skin is black as satin. He looks around the car and we study each other. He has a wide lovely smile and white even teeth. This man does not look like anyone I’ve met in Kenya yet. He tells me, in English, that his name is John. I ask about his family and he replies in Swahili.

“He has no education and no English,” translates Robert. “He is Turkana, 23 years old and works for the old man. He has no sisters or brothers. His parents were killed and he move here two years ago.”

The tribal conflict over water in Turkana was bitter enough without the recent oil find adding to the mix. So many have been displaced and so many lives lost. John asks Robert questions about us, Robert, the car, current news. He is interested and he is intelligent. There’s a real niceness and straightforward manner to this man. I feel so sorry for the hand he’s been given. Life without an education is hard enough in modern Kenya with only 1:10 with employment, but without a family to help it is a disaster. Even getting married will be difficult.

John directs us back along the main road and then left to the first colonial house. It’s also in the valley and away from the land we think is KK – house or farm, but it’s definitely an old settler bungalow of stone in a large compound. “An old Mzungu called Prisilla lived here,” said Robert translating. It is derelict but was upgraded with 1960’s steel frame windows, a tiled roof and relatively new whitewash. At some time it was wired into the grid for electricity. The new Kenyan owner has built his house of corrugated iron to the side. Upkeep of the bungalow would be too expensive and the style uncomfortable perhaps.

We go onto the next house on the other side of the Gantz area and at a five-way junction. The short rocky road tests the saloon car. The house was post Second World War, stone built in the settler style. It is probably a rebuild of an older settler house but the position is not right – it’s on the road, not set back and is in the valley. With great difficulty, removing stones out of the road so the low slung car can turn in eight points, we go on to the third house.

The road climbs the ridge above the Gantz area to the north and towards the Kama Koia River. Brilliant! This is the right direction.

After 3 or 4 kilometres we come to a gateway and a long avenue of trees climbing the hill to the north. Judging from the line of the avenue, this was a newer road as ‘our’ road bisected the avenue. The trees are old, at least 80 years old as an estimate. I know that Emilie May had an avenue planted, she called them The Coronation Trees to mark the date they went in – but then she wrote that other settlers had avenues too. We go through a gate into a compound with a huge magenta bougainvillea, a large pyramidical Cyprus, an old casuarina. There are views on all sides and excellent farmed land. We’ve been so excited with the discoveries that we find ourselves at a private farm house with SUVs parked. Nothing doing but to get out and excuse our trespass!

We park beside a settler-style bungalow in post-World War Two style. A lady is sat at an outside table with a man in his sixties. Six young men looking like farm workers stand nearby leaning on some outhouses. “Come in, come in, we don’t know the word trespass in Africa. All visitors bring blessings.” She said in an Eartha Kitt voice, motioning us through the small garden gate. She stays seated and the man came forward. ‘My PA, Charles,’ she says. The lady is very well dressed – a large worked silver bracelet on her left arm, the latest smart phone in her right hand and a very expensive large gold handbag lies on the bare earth, folded as it fell. Her shoes are lovely, in many colours with a small heel. Long earrings with a turquoise bead and stone with an inset carved swirl completed the waved coiffured hair. It is now late afternoon and cooler so warmth is achieved by a striped cardigan with a beautiful scarf melding turquoise, purple, light blue against a cream background round her neck. “I’m just a simple farmer,” she says. Yea, Right!

Eimage imageShe tells us that the farm, plots nos. 5368 & 6932 on the land registry map, is called Machewa Farm after river beside it and that the house has a foundation stone dated 1946. We can see from the Land Registry Map that it borders on the Gantz farm of Kama Koia.

Could this must be KK land? It was bounded by the Kama Koia River but maybe not the Gantz farmland. We exchange contact numbers and she promises to give me the information of the previous owners. I look her up on the net. The lady was formerly the UN Ambassador for Kenya, the head of Kenyan association of NGOs, a campaigner for women’s rights and a former Miss Kenya. It would be really amazing if it was also the former site of my grandmother’s house. She would approve of this lady.

We arrive late back at the Karibuni Lodge at 20:45. Ibrahim has waited for us with our meal. He really is a great cook and this place has been a pleasure to stay in.

Today we excluded a lot of potential sites for KK house or farm. Tomorrow we will resume the quest – we’ll find the crossroads at Kiminini and look for the remains of the (overgrown) Elgon Club and the current church (either St John’s Church or built on the site of it at), and then follow Emilie May’s sketch map past the Johnstones’ three farms and on to the Jack acreage. Maybe tomorrow we’ll find KK or the site).

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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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Nakuru to Kitale

Nakuru – Eldoret – Kitale

We set off for Kitale at 9:45. Once out of the town the railway line with a single track dirt road between it and our black hard top road joins us, the same one that has run with us since leaving Nairobi. I know that a graded road was built alongside the railway for the entire length from Nairobi to Lake Victoria and the branch line to Kitale. Is it too fanciful to see my grandfather Fred driving passed us in the Buick with my grandmother, Emilie May, beside him? Salehe, Fred’s longterm manservant, is sat at the back perched on top of their trunks. They are in holiday mood on their way to Nairobi for a week in the Muthaiga Club dancing, playing golf and drinking with friends and probably spent the night at a favourite hotel at Molo.  The photo below is of Emilie May in 1924 when she gets her driving license and drives for the first time.

1924 E May with driving license-1Before Molo we go onto a new road built with the help of the African Development Bank and bypass Molo. The road is so new that creepers have not time to heal the wounds so red laterite dirt roads lead from the new road to bomas like slashes up the green hills to thatched mud bomas built in traditional style in well tended shambas. There is a permanence to the landscape now. The villages are painted in green for safaricom, red with Open Happiness for Coca Cola – instantly recognisable branding and a welcome splash of colour. We pass women in Sunday best, one in a bright yellow long dress with a black belt, women carrying babies, women caring bundles of wood on their backs, women in the market selling produce. The men saunter in pairs chatting, unencumbered or sit in groups chatting. Kiosks are now selling honey. The shambas have wide fertile fields growing maize, bananas and cassava.

We climb higher, evergreen tress begin to line our road. Sumac and bamboo. Plantations of Eucalyptus for telegraph poles and fencing. The signpost to the right is Londiani, the railhead in 1925 when my grandmother first came here. The railway rejoins our road at Timboroa – according to my great grandfather in his diary, the highest railway station in the Empire.

The road goes sharply uphill, on the ‘sleeping policemen’ young men sell carrots, cape gooseberries, onions – clustering so close that we had to nudge them aside. I’m sorry we didn’t buy the cape gooseberries.

The plethora of churches do good business on a Sunday: Soul Harvesters Church; Seventh Day Adventists; Kingdom Focus Church; Anglican Church of Kenya ACK for short; The Kingsway Church ‘A church on purpose’; Worldwide Gospel Church ‘An Oasis of Hope’ – women especially walking in, the children outside at Sunday school.

At the top of the hill the countryside opens into wide open fertile land, grasslands, plantations of Eucalyptus and woolly hills with bright orange flowers. Combine harvesters and big fields – we’re coming towards Eldoret and there’s certainly money here now as it had in 1925 when Emilie May and Fred came and stayed with Shaw, a solicitor, in his comfortable house with electricity, hot running water and soft beds with expensive linen. Emilie May could not be extracted for three days. This was the same Shaw to whom Fred entrusted his investments, whom he expensively pursued to the English Privy Council – and to whom he expensively lost.

It’s amazing to see real pavements, good drainage, houses of more than one storey made of brick and not painted to advertise Safaricom or Coca-Cola. The towns since Nakuru have had no pavements or drainage. The shops are breeze block behind corrugated iron kiosks where small mounds of tomatoes or green oranges lie on crude shelving. There, rough, mean-looking hotels called ‘paradise hotel’ or ‘Blessed Hotel’ between – are these names aspirational? ironic? or betraying no sense of reality? No wonder The Boma hotel has good security — the Sunday lunch is packed with families in Sunday best, small children eating their weight at the buffet, and ladies tucking into chocolate cake and meringue. There’s free wifi and elevators to take well-fed guests to their rooms.

Kitale is now 49 miles to the west of us on the road to the northern slopes of Mt. Elgon, Suam and the Ugandan Border. On the map, Kitale hangs contained and parcelled like ripe fruit designed by surveyors with rulers. Two short straight artery roads attach the fruit to the road. There are two parallel main streets: the commercial high street and the physical presence of authority contained in the stone-built law courts and government offices. Three short roads connect the parallel right roads; two on either end and one in the middle. The police lines are behind the law courts.

The ordered paper version is very different to the reality of Kitale. The avenue of trees, designed grand entrance into Kitale, is still there but traffic is diverted to a chaos of cars, motorbikes, buses and lorries going east, west and south, to Kisumu, Eldoret, Kitale or beyond, without the benefit of a roundabout – each vehicle launches into the game of chance.

After the grand avenue, the road resumes its intended route. It’s a handsome road – wide enough for tuk-tuk or bus to create unintended overtaking lanes without going on the broad grass verges on either side to high hedges and gates. It is very green.

To the left, we progress passed the Kitale Academy (now Kitale School), then The Kitale Club and Golf Course and finally the Museum with the Stoneham Library set up by Colonel Stoneham in 19–. On the right are a few stone buildings and a very red, modern Total petrol station – our marker for our lodgings for the night.

We turn down a red Murram road into a labyrinth of red streaks laid out on a grid pattern that barricade old bungalows in huge compounds with high hedges. The map from the guest house is hopeless, but the reliable ‘boda-boda’ (motorcycle bus) takes us there for 50/-. It’s an old bungalow with rooms in a big compound. Two children are playing there along with some grazing sheep. Big bougainvillea flowering purple and red form part of the hedge, and yellow weaver birds sing on the hibiscus. I spot a blue agapanthus in the garden – we are meant to be here.

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The Menegai Crater, Nakuru

Philip was assigned as our guide. Vital stats given : Kikuyu, 36 years old, three children – two girls one boy of 10 years – ‘he is going to be a doctor, it’s good for a family to have a doctor.’ The girls? No particular ambition. ‘Does he want to do this?’ “He’s a good boy.”

No comment.

We load Philip the guide into the car and drive up the Menengai Crater, actually a shield caldera built up by fluid magma basalt flows. This gives it a flattened undramatic shape, not the classic steep volcano shape. It last erupted a million years ago, but the caldera was formed 2,000,000 years ago. Vital stats for the caldera: 90 square km circumference, 485m to caldera floor, four fumeroles with a measured temperature of 94o C, about 70 lava flows on the ridged caldera floor. It’s one of the best preserved calderas in the world – not that the guide had this information, this comes from John Seach, volcanologist, on the ‘net.

Menengai craterThe guide took us round the rim away from the carpark and showed us the densely farmed area just out of the caldera. These shambas (African family smallholdings) (he said) were white settler land given as compensation by former Mau Mau fighters to the end of fighting: “Imagine if someone came to your house and stole it from you, would you not fight to get it back?” A reasonable point of view – except the land was originally Maasai land. The white settlers took it, paying the British colonial government for the land under the soldier settlement scheme lottery.

According to a long time Kenyan settler whose grandfather bought land in the Cherangani Hills north of Kitale, the Maasai were moved out, causing great deprivation, into the Mau Highlands. When the farms were nationalised, after independence in 1963, the Maasai would not buy back their land and farms, their tradition is pastoral with cattle not farms. The Kikuyu though did have the money and did buy. It is now Kikuyu land.

While it is not true that the British paid compensation, or this particular land had been Kikuyu before the white settlers, it is true that the Kikuyu, a people of about one million, had become economically disadvantaged during the colonial times. The guide believed it and maybe it has become the new truth.

Researching on the ‘net, consensus appears to be that Nakuru was at the heart of the Mau Mau struggle – both an independence movement and a civil war.. The fighters met in a large cave – said to hold 2000 people – on the eastern side of the Crater. This was a brutal battle in which the Mau fighters murdered hundreds of white settlers and thousands of Kikuyu. The British response was equally barbaric with Mau fighters held in inhumane concentration camps. Neither side held the moral high ground. Today the caves have been cleansed with a new name, The Sacred Caves, and is a popular church.

The guide then told us that the guiding fee was just for the information at the rim (and did we want to buy from the tourist kiosks at a better price?) and the walk down was extra! Since he had already told us that normally he would be expected to walk up with tourists, this as a bit of a cheek from a less than impressive guide. We said that we didn’t need him to walk down with us, we would go alone and he said he might as well come with us. It was not a good start to the walk.


The caldera has much degraded secondary forest of predominantly eucalyptus, bushes and scrub grow up to its rounded top. Apart from a view of the caldera itself, the only other noteworthy thing was a huge signpost giving distances to London, New York, Cairo and many others.

Menengai signpostThe road goes to the southern rim ending with desultory kiosks selling small things and drinks and a half-built Eco-Lodge and bar. A Danish environmental company planted eucalyptus in collaboration with the National Park. It’s surprising that native trees weren’t planted but presumably they had valid reasons. At first sight, the area was disappointing.

Nor was the view what I was expecting although it was big and deep. No one lives in the crater, but an electricity company is drilling 3km into the thermal vents to use the volcanic heat to generate steam for electricity. There were about five drilling platforms there so far and platforms for many more. A small aircraft pilot we met in Kitale said that he has noticed an increase in sulphur in the air when flying over the crater since the holes were drilled.

According to Wikipedia, Menengai is two words – ‘Mene’ being ‘corpse’ in the Maa language, and ‘Ngai’ being ‘God’ in Kikuyu. One Maasai legend is that the steam rising from the crater floor are the souls of dead Maasai. The useless Philip said that the Maasai had ‘fought each other to the death or had had accidents or died of negligence’. His version of the meaning of ‘Menegai’ was ‘No God’.

It took an hour at the tail end of the afternoon to walk down the mountain to the hotel through scrub, bushes, grass and eucalyptus – a bit like a stroll in the New Forest minus the horses. An aardvark had made deep holes in the path chasing ants but we didn’t see it or any wildlife, just cows, goats and people picking up wood for fires. It was just as well that Philip accompanied as there were lots of different paths including to the Mau Caves some two hours away. We gave him a tip, of course.

How much of the information about Masaai, MauMau fighters and the settle out at the end of the colonial period is true? It would take a lot of research to know, we settled for a cold Tusker beer at the hotel in the lovely garden watching iridescent flocks of Starlings, the active orange beak of the East African Thrush pecking at the lawn and Yellow Weavers chattering in the nearby bush.

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The Rift Valley, Hells Gate and Planet Fries

Nuns and priests – Limuru – Rift Valley – Railway & old road alongside – Lake Naivasha: Sanctuary Farm & Hells Gate – Nakuru: Millimani Hotel and Planet Fries.

It’s certainly a novel experience to wake up in a convent. I opened our bedroom door to black-suited priests, with bibles clasped in both hands over portly bellies, parading to a meeting. Starched white cuffs and dog collar provided a studied dignity. They returned my greeting with nods worthy of the Pope. The dining room is set out like a canteen and most people have finished breakfast – it is only 7:30 so I guess convents get up early. On a nearby table, a priest is holding forth to four attentive men about creating presence at a baptism. It is a Roman Catholic convent so I should not be surprised that the physical work is being done by headscarved young women in long skirts wearing smiles in their eyes. It was these ladies who ensured that we and the men were fed and watered, that tables were laid, the phones answered, the floors cleaned and swept.

We set off at 9:30 past St John’s Parklands, one of the oldest churches in Nairobi now, where Fred Chater Jack and Emilie May were married on 1st March 1924. Our journey today is to the Rift Valley, Naivasha and Nakuru – the same route Fred and Emilie took often travelling from Kitale to the Muthaiga Club.

01-03-1924 EM wedding day-1On the way we pass Limuru where the couple had their honeymoon. The diary entry mentions bungalows, gardens, a fresh breeze but no name. It may well be Brackenhurst, a religious retreat and conference centre, which was a hotel with bungalows with gardens in the 1920’s. Today modern large meeting halls replace the bungalows and the wind carries more than a whiff of exhaust.

The road goes down into the Rift Valley on a gentle incline. The single track one metre gauge railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, built between 1899 and 1903 at a cost of £5,317,000, goes down with us. It will remain our faithful companion for most of our trip to Kitale. Until 2012 an up train and a down train ran everyday plus some freight trains. Today the descent into the Rift Valley is a shallow incline and no obstacle, but it took ingenuity to lay the rail tracks from May 1900 – November 1901. An incline lift was required to lower wagons and material into the valley and then a temporary road from the foot of the lift to the point of the permanent line. The lift consisted of four portions with a drum at the top of each, round which a steel rope was passed. The railway wagons were run up and down these – full wagons down hauling up empty ones.

We part with KSH 500/- (£3.00) to enter The Sanctuary Farm on Lake Naivasha – an exclusive hotel run by a long time settler family offering horseback riding among zebra, giraffe and wildebeest. There were many takers. It’s not the Serengeti, but it’s quite pretty. Water Hyacinth is strangling the swampy ground on either side of the road onto Crescent Island, but we baulk at paying $30 each just to walk for half an hour among zebra within a former polo pitch – the same entrance fee for nearby Hell’s Gate National Park. It’s the only way to see Lake Naivasha though as expensive hotels vie with Rose growing enterprises and there is no public land at all.

The National Park runs east/west along the course of a wadi – a dry river bed that becomes a torrent after rain. At that time it cut deep into the earth leaving basalt stacks standing proud in the landscape. In 1882, Gustav Fischer and a surveying party came here mapping a route from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and Uganda. They were slaughtered by Maasai. The 25 metres high basalt Fischer Tower at the National Park entrance is his memorial.

Warthogs and piglets, usually three piglets, are out in large number, their tails upright and stiff as they run. The piglets being comical miniature copies of mum. Impala in large herds graze alongside Plains Zebra, Wildebeest and Rothschild Giraffe. Large lumps of obsidian, a black vitreous rock that resembles bottle glass and forms in volcanic rocks, jut out of the crumbling yellowy country rock. It’s sharp. I can see why it was used as a cutting tool like Flint.

The lower gorge is filled with a gaggle of schoolchildren from Eldoret dressed in green skirts, white shirts – and amazingly in this heat, some are in dark green sleeveless jumpers. It’s about 10 – 15 metres wide of rocky slipperiness and a comforting trickle of water. The sides rise above our heads with many steep emergency exits. It was not hard to imagine the danger if there was rain. I’m sure I would become as a gazelle if I needed to flee this spot.

‘We’re trained to hear the water coming. There are over 100 emergency exits. In 1992, four students were caught and died here because they didn’t have a guide.’ Says Francis Ooloowente, our 23 yr old Maasai guide. Many generations of his clan live here, maybe his ancestors had come across Fischer that day. The Maasai have adapted to modern times. Francis is Christian, will have only one wife and doesn’t value wealth in numbers of cows. He’s studying mechanical engineering at the nearby university in order to work for the local thermal energy company. University fees are KSH 80,000/- (£600) per year, a huge amount for his family, so he is guiding to help with the cost.

The gorge opens onto a confluence with another wadi – the Devil’s Bedroom. It’s wide here, about 40 metres wide. The flow of the hectic current traced in the swoosh of sand riven in the outer curl and rising 15 meters up the high wall as both rivers fight their way down against the flow of the rival water. Over the years, the turbulence has eaten 30 meters into the earth.
Gorge Hells GateWe walk up The Devil’s Bedroom, narrow, high sided, with deep crumbling black silt on the inner bend “Quick sand,” says Francis. This would not be a good place to be caught. The high-sided cliffs, ten to fifteen metres above, lean towards each other leaving about one metre of sky. High above us, ledges afford viewing positions of the river in spate and time for graffiti on each level with dates. The river must be a dramatic sight. I know where I would like to be to experience the drama. After 300 – 400 metres the gorge ends in a high rise of rock and opens out. There must be a wonderful waterfall to see – if you were the right side of it. The school children use ropes to haul themselves up and out of the gorge, they’re doing the long walk. Thankfully we chose the short walk!
schoolchildren Hells GateThe thermals are down the main gorge – four outlets of hot water with one close to boiling point. ‘We used to boil eggs in the mouth of that spring,” Francis points to a small bush laden with whitish fruit that birds do not eat either. “This is Ol-Morijej, the poison arrow tree. We mash the root and dip it onto our arrows when hunting. Once we catch an animal we quickly slit its throat and drain its blood. Then we make a deep wide cut round the place the arrow went in.”

The sandstone scramble path out of the gorge is crumbly underfoot and the drop steep and rocky. Well anchored rope give confidence, but the path has eroded away from its endpoint requiring clambering without the illusion of a safety net. At the top it’s about a mile walk back to the car and ranger point. We pass many bushes used for medicinal purposes, I write the description and Francis writes in the Maasai name. Stomach aches and indigestion relief seem to be the major preoccupations: Ol-Tubelei, Sodom Apple, a medicinal plant for stomach aches. Ol-Moloij, Terpenith tree – terpentine for stomach upsets. Ol-Kiloriti, Acacia Arabica, for digestion problems.

“This bush,” says Francis scrumpling sage green leaves with a light green underside between his fingers, “is our perfume. We use it after we have killed a goat to make our hands smell sweet and as an underarm deodorant.” The smell is pleasant, fresh and tangy.

We stopped by a Whistling Acacia, heavy with thorns. “This is Ol-Kineloluai, the ants make their home in these black galls and bite the nose of giraffes who eat the leaves.”

We arrive back at the car and drive back through the wide plain of the upper gorge and onto the congested road to Nakuru. In the cool of the late afternoon baboons and warthogs have spilled out of the National Park and are on the verges ignoring the bicycles and buses going by.

We finish the day at a Formica table in Planet Fries, Nakuru, a friendly local restaurant offering fish, beef or chicken cooked BBQ, Maryland or wet – wet means cooked in gravy. I think we’ll take our chances at the hotel tomorrow night.

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Machakos – The quest starts

The quest today is to find the first home of Emilie May and Fred at Machakos, 46 miles south east of Nairobi armed with this diary entry of 8th March 1924:

‘After a cup of tea we started to our first home. It was awfully thrilling and the road is a very romantic one. After leaving the Fever Hospital it spears to go straight out into the blue towards some distant hills over the plains. The road was not too bad to start with… We rounded a bluff which appears to guard the entrance to a new country, a country of rolling hills. We passed one or two farms and a lovely field of wheat. We saw 2 rows of white buildings, the hospital, a very small red brick bungalow which is the Drs, the red brick DC’s house set off from the road on the left and presently our house… We went up the drive with a semicircular piece of lawn to a long shaped house.’

Finding the house is one challenge, another is getting out of Nairobi. We stop a long while beside the National Archives for an accident to resolve between two micro buses kissing. In this changeable world, constants are nice but not this time. We wait nearly half an hour. The preacher is back on his spot with maybe the same crowd or those who emptied out of the stationary buses. Apparently the two vehicles ‘scratched each other’ – it’s baffling how anyone could tell a new scratch from all the existing ones!

Finally we clear Nairobi and head off down the Mombasa Road – the same road Emilie and Fred set out on that day. Will any of it be recognisable now?

The road is hardly romantic now. It is still dead straight over the plains and the hills scarcely an outline in the pollution from the lorries that stuff the dual carriageway. A large hospital, ageing badly that it could be anything from 30 to 90 years old is the left just before the unbuilt Nairobi bypass. Nairobi’s expanding population has swarmed into breeze block apartments that line the route – one optimistically called ‘South Park’. We move at a slow pace. At Athi Bridge, 16 miles from Nairobi, a welcome new bridge is being built, but it will be too small to cope with today’s capacity let alone the future. We go round the bluff, a prominent bare rock promontory into an area of rolling hills.

Machakos town sprawls two or three miles outside it’s envelope, but at the denser housing we encouragingly pass some low white bungalows. The ones she mentioned? They are in European style. We come to a roundabout with the Governor’s Office to the left and across a high white wall. There are no signs for a hospital. We follow a Mafuta or motorcycle bus along the high wall to the hospital – apparently in it’s original space but now big and unrecognisable, the town has grown into a jumble of breeze block dukas and kiosks full of the noise of buses, cars and motorbikes. Had we come in the original road? We see some old European- style bungalows on a lane off right – one a hotel – we ask there. A man suggests asking at the Governor’s Office.

We circle back and I get out to ask. The Director lives up there, I’m told. He’s busy reading his newspaper so I wait a while. His secretary Mary tells me that the DC’s house and other old houses were still there about half a mile from the roundabout so I left the busy Director in peace to go on with the quest.

We passed the wall to our right – actually the hospital wall – and a little way on the road becomes a shady street with big trees, grass verges, and flowers. People sit under the trees chatting. A red brick house, called DC’s House, is set off on the left, up a sweeping driveway to a handsome colonial bungalow set in a garden with lovely old trees, flowering Bougainvillia in purples, whites and reds and Canna lillies in flower beds.

DC House MachakosExpectation is high. We go on. In the next space, that for my grandparents first house, are three Nissan style newish bungalows. I guess their house was knocked down. Nevertheless, compared to the clogged streets and impermanent buildings of the town this is still a lovely place where Monica, Valerie and my mother were born. The photo was taken on Christmas day 1924 when Monica was days old.

1924 Xmas Machakos first photo Parents & MonicaMission accomplished, we set off back to the Mombasa Road to find our hotel. The address is Mombasa Road, Katembu, some directions and GPS coordinates. We enter the coordinates and set off, expecting to be at the hotel within 30 minutes. We pass through Katembu onto the Mombasa road. There is no right turn within 500 metres, the next is over a mile away. For over an hour we take dirt tracks towards the GPS marker and ask everyone – no one has heard of our hotel.

We return to Nairobi and stay in a Convent in Karen – Robert’s suggestion. A great little place with a small white room, a cross high on the wall, and mosquito netting round a firm bed with soft pillows.

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Maps of the Journey


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Day two – Nairobi

Today we managed two things:
Fighting the traffic to research the minute books of the Kenya Hoticultural Society 1927 – 1938, thankfully contained in three slim volumes. My expectations are low, which is good because there are only two mentions of Kitale horticultural association – asking permission to be an affiliate branch on 6th January 1928 and in July 1930 noting that Kitale HS was particularly strong. It is clear that Kitale and the Trans Nzoia is very remote from Nairobi. There are even fewer mentions of my grandparents – a letter on 6th May 1932 from Emilie May asking to be considered as an apprentice judge – she must have been taken on as both she and Fred were listed as judges for the Lamuru horticultural show in the meting of 4th September 1936. There are many references to the Sutton Challenge Cups, given by Leonard Sutton (my great-grandfather) at the Nairobi Horticultural Show on 2nd December 1932. It was Emilie May’s great desire to win one of these but she never did.

Bumping along atrocious roads passed ribbon shanty to the Ngong Hills at the rim of the Rift Valley. Religion, health and education dominated the roadside adverts and buildings. Numerous schools linked to various saints and churches – Presbyterian, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventists, Kingdom focus Church, Redeemed church Gospel Rima, Deliverance Church Eldorator, Blessed Worship.

The road ended in a dirt road going along the rim of the Rift Valley. The late afternoon haze simmered blueish over the valley and the ridges beyond. Expectation and anticipation are funny things – perhaps I had expected something more dramatic after reading Emilie May’s letter of 6th March 1924:

‘then the road began to descent and unite suddenly we got a most stupendous view over the valley far below us and then some hills which looked like tiny ridges. It was too wonderful for words even at the time – the sort of awful quiet and remoteness which quite silence one.’

Ngong hills with turbinesPerhaps it felt anticlimactic because it was very hazy, and the swooshing wind from some dozen turbines towering 40 – 50 metres above us coupled with the stiff wind was distracting. These turbines reminded me of a journey from Turfan to Urumqi years ago, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.  That day in April we crested a hill andthe tops of the turbines rose like space ships in the arid brutal landscape. A sight so surreal I remember it as yesterday.

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