Brutal killings, tragic love story — the tangled rich history of the Nandi Hills

Saturday July 14 2012

Egerton Castle in Njoro in Nakuru County, that British nobleman Lord Maurice Egerton of Tatton built between 1930 and 1940. Photo/Suleiman Mbatiah

Egerton Castle in Njoro in Nakuru County, that British nobleman Lord Maurice Egerton of Tatton built between 1930 and 1940. Photo/Suleiman Mbatiah 

By BETTY CAPLAN

The placid landscape of the Nandi Hills belies a tragic history.

Forest and bushland have been largely turned into acres of tea still owned by white families but worked on by local people.

It was here that the Nandis fought against the British in a prolonged war that has never been given as much attention as the Mau Mau rebellion.

The area around Kapsabet traditionally belonged to the Nandis, who were dead against the Mombasa-Kampala railway because it meant the destruction of their ancestral lands.

The British had their own designs for the territory, the most fertile in the country. The Nandi Resistance lasted from 1895 to 1906, as lightly armed warriors fiercely resisted the superpower of the day, which had the most sophisticated weapons of the time.

The Nandis fought without fear, as they attributed supernatural powers to their religious and political leader — the Orkoiyot, who at the time was Koitalel Arap Samoei.

But they were naive enough to think that their adversaries were as civilised as they were; they themselves had a code of conduct that strictly forbade the harming of non-combatants or the killing of those who surrendered unconditionally.

Captives were treated humanely and their security and safe transit were ensured while they were on Nandi territory.
This was long before the Geneva Conventions!

The taking of a human life was a serious thing. Warriors who had shed blood during war had to undergo a cleansing ceremony (ki-anyinyi) before they were allowed to re-integrate into their families.

The Nandi were unprepared for British treachery; the army officer Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen offered to visit Samoei to discuss a peace deal and end the war.

Upon arrival, however, he pulled out a rifle that he had hidden in his attire and shot the leader at point blank range. His cohorts killed the entire Nandi delegation, including women and children. Adding insult to injury, the colonel decapitated the dead Orkoiyot and removed his head, staff and ceremonial attire knitted out of Vervet monkey skin.

Ill-equipped for such savagery and with the loss of their beloved leader rendering them bereft, the people fled, leaving houses, cattle, granaries and forests.

Samoei’s son, Barsirian Arap Manyei (born 1882), was the Nandi leader from 1919 until 1922 when he was detained by the British. Barsirian was not released until 1964, making him the longest-serving political prisoner in Kenyan history.

The British relocated the entire population from the fertile highlands of Tinderet, Alai and Chesume to the drier pastures of Mosop, Ndalat and Kabyet, farther way from the railway line that had caused the war.

The local people were not allowed to carry weapons so they would arrive at the break of dawn, remove their arms and hide them among the reeds before their barazas with the DC, thus pretending to be empty-handed.

However, if there was a fast one pulled on them, they could turn themselves into a formidable fighting force — within minutes! Hence the motto “always have a plan B (Kisiepi long’on eng’ Chebarar.”)

The settlers who established the tea estates were a weird mob, full of odd quirks and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it was being so far from home that brought it out in them.

Lord Maurice Egerton, fourth baron of Tatton, was turned down twice by the woman he loved, even after building a 52-roomed castle especially for her because she could not be expected to live in a lowly hut. Heartbroken, he banned all women from the castle and its 100-acre grounds.

“He pinned notices on trees warning people that the grounds were out of bounds for women and that any woman who disobeyed the notice risked being shot,” recalled Mr Robert Onyiego, 77, who worked for the baron until his death.

Men visiting the peer were asked to leave their wives several kilometres away.

“He also banned his male workers from ever bringing their wives or daughters to their servants’ quarters,” Mr Onyiego said.

Lord Egerton went even further, banning chickens and dogs from the castle and its grounds because the aristocratic lady who had turned him down had complained that his previous home was as small as a chicken coop and untidy as a dog’s kennel.

Lord Egerton first came to Kenya in 1927, aged 53. He became enchanted by the country and bought 1,900 acres of farmland near the estate of his close friend Lord Delamere.

It was while on holiday in England that he fell in love with a woman who said she could not possibly wed him because she could not bear living in his humble abode.

So to impress the lady, who has never been named but who was herself brought up in a castle, Lord Egerton built the sumptuous home for her near Njoro, modelled on his family’s mansion in Knutsford, Cheshire.

Like an English stately home, it was complete with oak panelling — imported from England — and a magnificent ballroom.

The small, broken-down organ which he loved to play is still there together with the pipes, which are cleverly hidden in the walls.

Most of the stone was imported from Italy, while marble and tiles were shipped in from Italy and England. The fairytale castle took 16 years to complete — from 1938 to 1954 — by which time Lord Egerton was aged 80.

But when it was ready, his sweetheart revealed she had fallen in love with another man, and in spite of a brief visit to Kenya, she refused his offer of marriage for a second time.

The heartbroken peer then declared his estate a no-go zone for women and spent the rest of his life alone until his death four years later, in 1958, aged 84. He would turn in his grave if he knew that it is now a favourite spot for weddings!

Despite the dilapidation of the interior, (which could be a superb monument with some renovation the cost of which would easily be repaid as the castle and the story are a colourful part of Kenya’s history) the grounds are superb, and the landscape lush and green.

Mr Onyiego, who still takes care of the castle, reflects with nostalgia on the times he spent with his colonial employer.

“He was a very good and generous man. Every Saturday he would slaughter 10 cows for his servants and distribute other gifts like blankets, clothes and foodstuffs.”

However, according to Mr Onyiego, the baron led a quiet and private life after being rejected. “He really changed, rarely received guests and he ate alone, played the organ and slept alone.”

He goes on: “As the construction work neared completion, in 1954, he invited his girlfriend from England to live with him. The woman one day drove to the compound but did not stay long before driving away the same day.”

“We learnt later she had refused to live with him and went back to England where she got married to another man.”

Before moving into the castle, Lord Egerton had lived in a six-bedroomed house next door... the house his beloved declared was like a chicken coop.

Born in 1874, Lord Egerton died without leaving an heir. His castle in Ngata, 14km from Nakuru Town, is today managed by Egerton University and tourists and locals are charged a small fee to visit it.

Lord Egerton’s contribution to farming in the region cannot be gainsaid. He set up Egerton Agricultural College on 1,200 acres near Lord Delamere’s plant breeding station, now part of Egerton University.

His family fortune was invested in developing Kenya’s agriculture and the farm machinery he bought is still used by Egerton University students taking agricultural engineering.

Koitalel Arap Samoei

A mausoleum has been built for Koitalel Arap Samoei in Nandi Hills.

The community, through the Koitalel Samoei Nandi Foundation (KSNF) was requested to come up with a proposed architectural design.

They chose a shield-shaped structure surrounding the spot where it is believed Koitalel’s remains were interred, between two huge fig trees, which at the time was marked by a two-foot-high tombstone.

To the community the shield, Long’et in Nandi language, symbolises not only a means of protection for a brave warrior but also bears a resemblance to Noah’s Ark, a symbol of unity.

In addition, the community members suggested that the mausoleum walls be constructed of dressed stones excavated from the four corners of Nandi region to signify the might of Koitalel’s leadership.

Finally they asked that the roof of the mausoleum resemble the Nandi traditional hut (“Got”) to prove that Koitalel is “still alive and well within the community.”

The author travelled with Kenya Museum Society on one of their regular weekend outings.