Murder that shaped the future of Kenya

Friday December 05 2008
mago index pix

Marking 103rd anniversary of Koitalel arap Samoei’s murder at the Nandi Bears Club. Photo/RUPI MANGAT

Nandi Hills in Western Kenya is one of the most beautiful and fertile areas in the country, the proverbial land of milk and mursik (Nandi for sour milk).

Yet in 1905, a gruesome killing of one of Nandi’s strongest leaders Koitalel Arap Samoei took place here.

It was on October 19, 1905, on the grounds of what is now Nandi Bears Club that Koitalel was asked to meet the infamous Englishman, Col Richard Meinertzhagen for a truce. Instead, Meinertzhagen killed Koitalel and his entourage in cold blood.

Sadly, not much is available to the public about the legendary Nandi leader; Wikipedia describes Koitalel as a local witchdoctor.

As I set off for the place, I imagined the town would be bustling with celebrations on the 103rd anniversary of the leader.

According to an e-mail from the organisers, celebrations would begin in the morning and we would have no trouble in locating the venue.


However, by the time we reached Nandi Hills, there was little sign of activity near the post office, and nobody knew of the event in town.

It was the same story at Nandi Bears Club. The only thing that everyone knew was that the Koitalel Museum was opposite the Post Office.

We finally spotted the sign for Koitalel’s mausoleum by a small plot adjacent to the golf club.

A nondescript single-storey house stood on it with a building under construction squeezed next to it.

This is where the mausoleum dedicated to Koitalel was being built. Outside, by the fence of the Nandi Bears Club, if one looked carefully, another signpost directed one to the Koitalel Arap Samoei Memorial Site erected by the National Museums of Kenya.

A sizeable crowd at the gate signalled some activity. We met with a small crowd gathered for the occasion.

There were Koitalel’s descendants, community leaders and councillors seated by the house and a few curious children and people hanging around, attracted by the loud music, waiting for the celebrations to begin.

This wasn’t quite what I expected. All the same, I sought out Ricky Ngeny of the Koitalel Samoei Nandi Foundation who had sent the invitation.

“Koitalel Arap Samoei was Kenya’s first freedom fighter,” began Ricky, a tall and lean Nandi.

The Nandi were the first people to rebel against early British rule and were only pacified after Koitalel was murdered.

Even Joseph Thomson, the intrepid explorer, avoided the Nandi territory on his way to Nyanza in 1883 for the Nandi were known for their fierce attacks on outsiders and the trade caravans.

Twenty years later, they were a major force to reckon with, slowing down the construction of the Uganda Railway, and stealing the rail tracks and telegraph wires.

Koitalel fought against the White people for 11 years because they were trying to take the land.

He had a strong military and he was feared. In 1902, the British acknowledged Nandi as an enclave within Kenya in the Eastern Province of Uganda Protectorate — at that time the country Kenya as we know of it today, did not exist.

“Meinertzhagen killed him in cold blood after tricking him into a meeting saying that it was a peace treaty,” continues Ngeny pointing to the grounds of the golf club.

His body, after the head had been severed off, was thrown where the mausoleum is being built, interred between two fig trees. Apart from the skull, which we are trying to trace, nothing was left of him. We think he could have been eaten by the Nandi bear. Samoei’s skull was sent to England to get clues on how the man was such a clever strategist.”

The Nandi bear is the legendary creature that everyone has heard of but no one has ever seen.

A framed copy of an article by a G. R. Cunnigham van Someren hangs in the Nandi Bears Club shedding some light on the Nandi Bear. It was a huge animal that lived in the once abundant forests of the Nandi Hills and had a habit of decapitating the victims.

Around 1957 or 1958, the manager of Chemomi Tea Estate in Nandi shot two animals dead. They were heavy animals, a metre high with huge manes around the shoulders.

The animals were left in the forest for the safari ants to devour the flesh leaving just the skeletons.

The skeletons were then sent to Nairobi Museum where they were recorded as Giant Forest Hyenas. However, the skeletons disappeared and have never been found and the legend of the Nandi Bear still abounds.

“My great uncle was one of Koitalel Arap Samoei’s bodyguards,” says Sosten Saina at the golf club.

He recalls the story his late father often told. “There were about 22 of them who went for a meeting with the ‘mzungu’ that day. Koitalel Arap Samoei had been advised not to shake hands because if he did, that would give him away as the leader. But he extended his hand and was shot immediately.”

“The white people came to Nandi in the 1890s. At that time, the Nandi had their own governance, lots of resources, animals and labour. We had our own traditions like going on cattle raids if we needed cattle to pay dowry or if there weren’t enough around. It was not inter-tribal war per se, it was a way of re-stocking (cattle),” explains Ngeny.

Walking inside the empty house, where one room serves as the office for the Koitalel Samoei Nandi Foundation, a glass casket contains three royal batons.

They belonged to Koitalel and were retrieved from Meinertzhagen’s house in Shropshire, England and brought back in 2005.

Meinertzhagen had given instructions to his son that when the owners came for them, he should hand them over,” says Ngeny. The Nandi leader used the batons in context. “He was a spiritual, military and political leader and each stick was used for the specific occasion.”

Outside, names of Nandi leaders are chronicled on a board beginning with Koitalel Arap Samoei who lived between 1860 and 1905, reigning from 1895 until his death.

His son, Barsirian Arap Manyei, born in 1882, began his leadership in 1919 but was detained from 1922 to 1962. He is Kenya’s longest political detainee.

Barsirian together with other Nandi freedom fighters were taken to prisons in Meru, Mfangano island and other places. The house was given to him by the government after he was brought back but he refused to live in it.

“One, Barsirian would be the only black in a white man’s town. He would be isolated. Two, Barsirian felt that this house was tantamount to a house arrest. The courthouse was across the road and it would be easy to monitor him. Three, moving in this house would have been psychological punishment where his father’s body was thrown,” said Ngeny.

Barsirian instead demanded that the Nandi be given back their land and that the whites return land to all Kenyans.

“My drastic action on this occasion haunted me for many years. I, Richard Meinertzhagen, murdered Koitalel Samoei, the Nandi Orkoiyot on October 19, 1905,” wrote the English colonel. Elspeth Huxley, the famed author of The Flame Trees of Thika, described Meinertzhagen as, “A killer. He killed abundantly and he killed for pleasure.”

Born to a wealthy English family, Meinertzhagen was a complex man — brilliant and cruel, adventurous and treacherous, with few scruples. He was a British soldier, intelligence officer, ornithologist and expert on bird lice but his work on birds and historic notes after his death have raised serious questions about their authenticity.

Meinertzhagen was posted to India, Africa and Palestine and rose through the ranks to become a colonel.

In 1902, in Kihumbuini, Thika, he ordered every living thing except children be killed without mercy after the villagers had killed a European settler by tying him on his back and urinating into his forced-open mouth till he died. The Nandi called him Kipkororor (Ostrich feathers) because he wore two ostrich feathers in his hat.

In his diary, he wrote that of all the African tribes, he liked the Kikuyu the best because they were the most intelligent and that they would be the most progressive under European guidance.

The Kikuyu, he wrote further, “Would also be one of the first tribes to demand freedom from European influence and in the end cause a lot of trouble. And if white settlement really takes hold in this country it is bound to do so at the expense of the Kikuyu, who own the best land, and I can foresee much trouble.”

Meinertzhagen’s dubious character sees him as a cruel murderer, some that are still speculated upon such as that of his second wife who “accidentally” shot herself in the head when she was out practice shooting with him. It is thought that Meinertzhagen might have shot her to stop her from exposing his fraudulent activities.

Long considered one of Britain’s greatest ornithologists with a vast bird collection, it came to light that many specimens were stolen from other people’s collections and museums. Meinertzhagen however, did discover the Giant Forest Hog in Africa and the Afghan snowfinch bird.

The signpost for the museum points to the barbed fence of the Nandi Bears Club. The museum that has yet to be constructed will be an African historical museum, together with an art and gender centre.

The bone of contention is the land — it is part of the golf club.

The Koitalel Samoei Nandi Foundation wants the museum built on site where the Nandi leader was murdered.

They want 16.5 acres of the 86.5 acres, and are seeking help from the concerned ministries such as the Ministry of Culture and Natural Heritage. But the patrons of the club feel otherwise.

“What we have at stake here is a very good club,” says Anne Tororey, the lady captain. “This is a community club and not a ‘mzungu’ club as people perceive it to be. Anybody can become a member.”
“Ninety percent of the members here are Nandi. The management, including the chairman are Nandi,” adds Sosten Saina, a veteran of the club.

“We have the club, which is the best upcountry club in the country and a golf course that is one of the most beautiful and challenging. It is an asset and our prayer is that nobody touches it. It should be left for future generations,” says Edward Kosgei, another veteran of the club.

We are joined by Evans Leting, the youthful looking golf captain, born within a stone’s throw of the club.

“It needs a lot of money to maintain the club like the fairways, the tees and the buildings. All this money comes from the club members. Others may feel that we have money to give out but it’s needed for maintenance,” Leting says.

“Today, all the golf clubs in Kenya and elsewhere want to reciprocate with us,” says Saina, “and membership has doubled in the last 10 years.”

It is, in other words, a national asset attracting players and non-players not only from the country but from across the globe.

“There is no land to give away on the club grounds,” adds Anne. “It is all under use.”

“We have no problem with the club. It should continue,” says Ngeny. “But the club must benefit the community which is largely poor. It should be run by professionals.”

I’m curious about the low turnout at the event and lack of awareness around the town for the day’s event.

“The funds for advertising event came late from the ministry,” explains Ngeny.

The only show of entertainment is the dances by the local Nandi group followed by innumerable speeches. The mausoleum is nearly complete but apart from the three royal batons that belonged to the legendary leader there is little else.

For Alex Koech, a 19-year old man who works at a shop, Koitalel was a rainmaker and a Nandi leader — nothing more. It is the same for a handful of youngsters l speak to — they are at a loss to say who Koitalel was apart from being a leader.

One can question what this lack of awareness of one’s own historical background can be attributed to — is it indifference, is it the education system, are our own history books deficient or is the reading culture not there? How can one talk about one’s own culture or history and exploit them not only in terms of tourism ventures but also as our own heritage?