Glimpses Of Another World
Anecdotes creating an impression of life as pioneers in Kenya in the 1940's and 1950's.
Rupert. (My father)
On his last day on the farm, Passenham, Rupert sat alone in his truck, with a deep sense of sadness and loss, admiring the view across the Ol'Kalou plains and the Wanjohe Valley, with the backdrop of the heavily forested Aberdare Mountains, its usual mantle of cloud covering Sattimma, the summit; he imagined he could see the faint trace of majestic Mount Kenya, beyond. This magnificent, inspiring view had allowed him to dream his dream of personal independence, some seventeen years earlier.
He had done everything, absolutely everything, he had dreamt of; from a raw piece of African bush a beautiful, well run, highly productive farm had been created. The farm was now part of a different dream, the independence of the people of Kenya; it was to be split up into fifty acre lots for resettlement of the burgeoning population of the soon to be independent Colony. The previously bustling, active farm was now empty; all the stock and equipment had been sold in a series of emotionally draining auctions that represented the end of his dream.
Reluctantly, but in his heart of hearts he knew that what had occurred was just. He also realised, with a great deal of sadness, that all his efforts would amount to nothing. What he had created had no meaning to the people who would be settled there and the land would soon revert to subsistence agriculture.
His deep resentment was reserved for the British Government, who had merely assumed that Kenya, one of the jewels of the mighty British Empire, would continue on as it had done before 1939. No account was taken of the aspirations of the local Africans, many of whom had fought for the British in the war now won. The authorities took no notice when he told them of the impending Mau-Mau insurgency. Despite warnings why had they continued to try to settle thousands of British ex-servicemen in the colony? Why had it taken them so long to understand the reality of the situation? 'To hell with all of them,' he thought. He was only forty-seven and he would start all over again. Somewhere else.
Rupert and his brother Brab had, in 1946, bought adjoining farms, totalling about fifteen hundred acres, near the small village of Ol'Kalou (the place of Kalu, the Maasai chief). They had both already spent ten years in Kenya and considered they understood the country and the people. Rupert spoke several African languages. They ran the farms as one unit.
The Ol' Kalou district is in the Great Rift Valley about one hundred miles northwest of Nairobi, almost on the equator but with a temperate climate, being between eight and nine thousand feet above sea level.
They ran a dairy farm, as well as sheep, for both wool and meat, and they had a dozen or so Large White sows, so in time were sending half a dozen bacon pigs a month to Uplands bacon factory near Nairobi. A venture cultivating wheat, renting a thousand acres on the Ol'Kalou plains failed in its objective of generating cash for development, mainly due to inclement weather.
The dairy, sending three hundred gallons of milk daily for eventual delivery to Nairobi consumers, the already mentioned pigs and a wool clip from six hundred sheep provided a steady income. It was not enough to sustain two settler families however, so with the failure of the venture into wheat Brab found a job with the Kenya Settlement Board, where he was responsible for settling large numbers of British demobilised soldiers on a great tract of Crown land at Mau Narok, the western boundary of the Rift Valley. This scheme was implemented despite the growing threat of a Kikuyu led insurgency, - the Mau-Mau.
In a financial sense, the saving grace for the farm was the cultivation of pyrethrum. Pyrethrum is a small daisy like flower from which Pyrethrin, a natural insecticide, can be extracted. There were thirty five African families living on the farm, thirty of whom were Kikuyu. The hard working Kikuyu women with a heritage of agricultural experience and deft fingers provided the essential labour to weed and pick the crop. Mum ran the pyrethrum business.
The cottage, built from stone cut on the farm, was less than modest. Facing the Oleolondo River, it consisted of a main room, flanked by two small bedrooms, shaded by a verandah with a rusty old corrugated iron roof. An outside third bedroom was built for my brother and me, after my two sisters were born; cement was in short supply, so mud was used for mortar. The back three rooms consisted of an untidy office and a tiny bathroom, which was also a passage to the pantry.
The bath was a large oil drum, cut in half lengthways, with the ends cut out and welded together to make what looked like a boat with two blunt ends. One had to keep it from spilling over with a length of four by two wedged under the bath. Until Dad drilled a borehole there was no running water.
The kitchen, up a few steps at the back of the house, was a small separate shack built of stone rubble. It was presided over by a Kikuyu cook, who produced wonderful meals on an old, broken down wood stove. The toilet was a long-drop a hundred yards or so behind the house. There was no electricity, no refrigeration and no telephone. Lighting was with paraffin pressure lamps or Dietz oil lamps. Hot water came from a Kenya boiler: an oil drum built into a stone and concrete structure and heated with a wood fire.
The cottage roof, which leaked in half a dozen places, was corrugated iron and the ceilings were wheat sacks painted over with whitewash. As with most settlers, we had a male house servant and a gardener, so the decrepit little house looked out onto a beautiful garden, with several terraces surrounded by a hedge. (see Pictures at the end of the article)
As a child my reality was the farm and school; it was all I knew. I had good relationships with the farm labour, as I helped on the farm in school holidays. As I grew up I had a horse and a gun - what else could a young boy possibly want? From the age of five I spent eight or nine months of each year at boarding school, first locally, then in Nakuru and then latterly in Nairobi. I had my nineteenth birthday on the boat going to England to further my education, the first time I had ever stepped out of the country.
When I was five years old I started school. Every Monday morning, Kinyore, the gardener, led me on our horse, Lulu, to a near neighbour, the Clarks, where I would board for the week. He would return on Friday afternoon to take me home.
Our sole means of transport was an unreliable, army surplus, three ton lorry, which had no time for a twice daily round trip of two hours to take me to school as it was needed for other farm duties.
The country was still wild; we often put up a pair of Reedbuck on our weekly journey. Many bird species fed off the tall red-oat grass and we usually managed to disturb a tiny Steinbuck. The deep areas of bush on the farm were home to handsome bushbuck and once we saw a leopard. On another occasion three elephant crossed the farm moving from the Aberdare mountains to an area of bush nearby.
The main road was poor dirt, occasionally graded, where the few vehicles that used it often became bogged in wet weather. Our journey took us along the road over the wooden bridge crossing the Oleolondo River. A short cut to our destination then took us across a rickety wooden bridge, over a wooded gully. The gully was inhabited by a family of beautiful black and white Colobus monkeys, always chattering away at the intrusion.
My conversations with Kinyore were in Swahili, derived from Kiswahili, the language of a small Kenyan coastal tribe of the same name, introduced by Arab slave traders in past centuries. Kinyore was a Kikuyu. He spoke no English and I spoke Swahili as fluently as any five year old. Kinyore never said anything more than was necessary, but I was always at ease with him. Aged five, I of course had no idea of the growing tide of African Nationalism that would sweep Kenya a few short years ahead. Unexpectedly, Kinyore left us a year or two later, perhaps having some knowledge of the coming Mau-Mau insurrection.
I and a few other children were taken daily to Mrs Platt's school, a few miles further on. This arrangement continued for a year after which I would board at Mrs Platt's for a further year, before going to the whites only Government Primary school in Nakuru, about twenty five miles away, again as a boarder. I attended 'The Duke of York School for European Boys', no less, in Nairobi, when it was time for me to go to secondary school.
The Mau-Mau emergency.
My father, unusually for a settler, spoke fluent Kikuyu. Few of the farm workers were aware of this, since most conversations were conducted in the lingua-franca, Swahili. One morning, in mid-1949, just three years after having made the commitment to settle in Ol'Kalou, while the rest of the family were on holiday at the coast, he overheard two women discussing, in Kikuyu, a big meeting to be held that Saturday night in a hut in one of the two Kikuyu villages on the farm. The authorities, in a typically feudal arrangement, required farmers to issue 'beer permits' if any of the African people on the farm wanted to brew any quantity of their own traditional beer. Dad had been asked for a larger than normal number of permits for the night in question; this fitted in with the overheard conversation.
He decided to clandestinely attend the meeting. After dark, he locked the dogs up in the cottage, blacked his face with charcoal from the fire we had every evening of the year, put on his heavy greatcoat and, unarmed, he walked in the dark the four hundred yards to his destination. Squatting on a little hillock for half an hour, overlooking the village, Dad could see, from the people scurrying in and out, that the hut belonging to one of his tractor drivers was the venue for the meeting.
Traditional Kikuyu huts require people to bend almost double to gain entry through the one small entrance. Using the dark of the night and making sure he wasn't seen, Dad crept his way to the side of the hut opposite the entrance and hid in the shadows. Taking out the small knife he always carried, he dug a small hole in the dried mud that sealed the rough planks making the hut wall. The only light inside the hut was from a brightly burning fire. The meeting was for men only; the women rushed in and out with what he now saw were copious quantities of beer and food.
His senior tractor driver, sitting almost immediately opposite his hiding place, was holding forth in Kikuyu, flanked by the cook and house servant; the idea was that the Kikuyu would rise up and chase the whites out of their country and take back what was rightfully theirs. Dad then noticed a small, smartly dressed man, whom he had never seen before, on the side of the hut nearest his vantage point, who added to the conversation by promising the assembled throng unlikely things such as the boss's car, his house and even his wife; the Mau-Mau was mentioned. The little man demanded and received quantities of cash as a fee to belong to the secret organisation.
Dad was horrified and completely devastated by what he was witnessing; although the whole country was run on feudal, racist lines, these were the people whom he trusted implicitly and thought he had nurtured and taught many things. He could see that he was now regarded as the enemy and that they might kill him and the family given the chance. He left, still unseen, once the beer and the heady atmosphere had the effect of making the meeting incoherent. This was reality, the beginning of the end of his dream, just three years after he had made his commitment.
There was some family discussion about relocating to New Zealand; but it was just too difficult. Encouraged by the British Government, my parents had sunk every penny they ever had into that farm and in selling it they would have been lucky to recover much, if any, of their investment.
Next time Dad went to Nairobi he went to see the Police Chief, whom he knew well, and gave him chapter and verse on the meeting he had attended. Despite Dad's warnings that what he had witnessed represented a serious threat to the very existence of the Colony, he was told, in no uncertain terms, to keep his nose out of the issue, and that the authorities had the situation well under control. The truth was that the British Government knew something of the situation, but chose to ignore potential problems because of the plans to send thousands of British ex- servicemen to Kenya as settlers.
Regardless of the obviously deteriorating security situation, the British Government continued to issue statements encouraging continued settlement in the Colony. This wholly dishonest strategy continued until after the final settlement for independence had been concluded in 1960.
Towards the end of 1951, our immediate neighbour was murdered. Six men from another tribe, the Kipsigis, were tried and hanged for the murder. They were probably framed; the style of the murder was Kikuyu- almost certainly Mau-Mau. Even at that late stage the British were still unable to admit that there was a crisis in the country. One year later, in October 1952, a state of emergency was finally declared in the Colony. The Governor was replaced. Jomo Kenyatta was arrested and in an unjust 'show trial' he was sentenced to prison; he and other politicals spent some ten years in a prison facility in the desert areas of the Northern Frontier District. Still determined to hang on to the Colony, twenty thousand British troops were stationed in the country. More settlers were sent to Kenya; most of them sunk, and lost, their life savings in this completely fruitless exercise.
Not long into the emergency almost all the thirty Kikuyu families on Passenham just disappeared one night. In a well-planned exercise they left when Mum and my sisters were away, my brother and I were at boarding school and Dad was on duty at the police station. The five Luo families who had remained with us somehow coped with the milking (helped considerably by a recently acquired milking machine) for a month or more while Dad recruited thirty families from another tribe not involved in the insurgency, the Kamba, who replaced the Kikuyu.
The new reality
The events of 1951 and 1952 changed our lives somewhat. Dad bought some guns. The house servants were locked out of the house before dark each night. The cottage had reinforced expanded metal placed over all the windows. When my brother and I went to bed, my father stood on the verandah with his rifle, keeping watch. One night we heard a number of night jar calls-Mau-Mau gangs calling each other. Dad fired one random shot up river and one down river and the calls ceased. My father joined the police reserve and went on patrol, sometimes in the forests of the Aberdare Mountains; the police gave him a sten-gun and a hand grenade. Disturbingly a few people left the district, for destinations in England, Australia and South Africa. Even at the height of the emergency, despite the possible dangers from marauding gangs, together with Kamau, one of the few Kikuyu who had remained with us, I regularly rode horses the thirty odd miles through the bush to pony club meetings.
A new house was built in 1956; 'Rupert's fort' as it became known (see picture at the end of the article). In many ways it represented the culmination of my parents' dream. I sometimes wonder why it was built at all, but by then the British had 'won' the conflict with the Mau-Mau; the few remnants of the gangs in the forests of the Aberdare Mountains had been rounded up. Thousands of British settlers had arrived in the country. So there was some hope that life would continue as before. The building of the new house was in conflict with what my parents often told me: that I had better get an education since the likelihood of any of us being on the farm in a few years' time was remote. Passenham, along with all the other white owned farms in the so called 'White Highlands', was eventually purchased by the British Government, as part of the 1963 independence settlement.
The cottage in the early eighties, twenty years after our departure , much as it was when we lived there; one can see the outside room built to accommodate my brother and me. The kitchen is at the rear. The garden had long since disappeared.
Traditional Kikuyu Huts.
The new House.
Built in 1956, as it stood in 2013. Today, the house is usefully used as a boarding facility for primary school children. It looks bleak now; it used to be surrounded by a tall hedge and flower garden.
Guy Hallowes. August 2014 (Some of the incidents described here are included in 'No Happy Valley' my novel of the period. Available on Amazon as an e-book.)