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Nanyuki at 100: How the town became bastion of ‘white man’s country’


Heavy traffic along Nairobi-Nanyuki highway in Nanyuki town in Laikipia County in July 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG



  • Racial barriers slowly began to break down after independence. Gina Din was the first non-white child to be admitted at Beehive School in 1964. While other institutions were not as quick to respond, today Nanyuki is a melting pot of cultures and residents have adopted a high degree of integration, practicing a “live and let live” attitude. Nanyuki has become a popular destination for white people and others who wish to settle there in retirement.

On the 24th day of November 1920, Nanyuki was gazetted as a township under the East African Township Ordinance of 1903, by the Governor of the Colony of Kenya and East African Protectorate Edward Northey. Before then Nanyuki was generally known as North Nyeri.

The history of Nanyuki goes back to pre-colonial days. Nanyuki is part of the Laikipia Plateau which stretches from the slopes of the snow-capped Mt Kenya to the rim of the Great Rift Valley in the south.

The area was inhabited by the Maasai, a nomadic pastoralist peoples, as part of their vast swathe of land stretching all way south into northern Tanzania.

The name Nanyuki is derived from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nanyukie which means “River of Blood”. During the rainy season, Nanyuki River would turn a red colour as a result of red soil being washed down from the slopes of Mt Kenya, hence the phrase.

The Maasai did not have a land tenure system in the western sense of the term. In the mind of the Maasai, land was not defined by linear boundaries or individual ownership but by “the cattle upon a thousand hills”. The Maasai are pastoralists, moving their cattle, sheep, and goats to give the land a chance to regenerate and to find freshwater.

It is no coincidence that the Maasai were present at all the water towers in Kenya namely, Mt Kenya, the Aberdares, Mau, Cherangany and Mt Elgon. They practiced a rather large version of paddocking and there was a natural balance of the elements including coexisting with wild animals.

Land alienation

In a calculated move designed to alienate land from the indigenous peoples, the British demonised their culture and land use practices. Sir Eliot, the Commissioner for British East Africa wrote in 1902, “I have no desire to protect Maasaidom. It is a beastly, bloody system, founded on raiding and immorality, disastrous to both Maasai and their neighbours. The sooner it disappears and is unknown, except in the books of anthropology, the better.”

Eliot, like Cecil Rhodes was a strong proponent of the “divine” calling of the European to pacify the African and create a “noble savage” out of the native. He believed that the Maasai were so diabolical that they were irredeemable, and the only solution was to dispatch them to the land of Lucifer.

However, rather than attempt outright conquest, a more practical approach was devised, and an agreement dated August 10,1904 was signed between Maasai chiefs led by Laibon Lenana and Sir Stewart for the British government wherein the Maasai agreed to surrender large tracts of land in the Rift Valley.

The Maasai were to move to reserves in Laikipia and the south of the Rift Valley. A further agreement was signed in 1911 alienating even more land to the settlers and creating what became popularly known as the “White Highlands”.

Under these so called “treaties”, the Maasai, purportedly of “their own free will”, agreed to give up the best-watered and most productive land in exchange for smaller reserves where they knew the land to be arid, unproductive and unfavourable to their way of life.

It is inconceivable that the Maasai would have agreed to such onerous terms and it is widely thought that the chiefs were either compromised or did not fully understand what they were signing. In any event, they were quite accustomed to moving to those southern areas on a seasonal basis and perhaps they understood that they would move back to Laikipia in the usual manner with the seasons.

The Maasai were forcefully removed from the Laikipia Plateau and although they challenged the agreements of 1904 and 1911 in court, the case was thrown out on a technicality.

European settlement

Following the completion of the railway up to Kisumu, the British government actively encouraged European settlement in Kenya largely to recover the colossal investment in the railway and to create a viable economy in the country, serving British interests.

Nanyuki enjoys a temperate climate, unique fauna and flora, abundant wildlife, and commands breathtaking views of Mt Kenya. The town is located some 6.5 kilometres North of the Equator. Nanyuki comprised about half a million acres of land in a broad swathe to the West and North of Mt Kenya.

Much of it was land left free by the forced movement of the Maasai which led to the resignation of Governor Percy Girouard but no reparation for the uprooted Africans. It became a white district isolated from the rest of the Highlands by the physical barriers of the Laikipia plains and the Aberdare mountains in the West.

The first British immigrants settled in Nanyuki around 1907 during the early days of colonial Kenya. George Murray of Marania farm and Gordon Murray of Lolomarik farm were amongst the first families to settle in the area.

Many other settlers came to Nanyuki on “shooting safaris” to hunt wildlife for pleasure and sale of trophies. President Theodore Roosevelt staged part of his famous Smithsonian-Roosevelt Safari from Nanyuki in 1909.

In 1910, J. Murray was commissioned by the government to survey the area for European settlement on land previously sparsely occupied by the Losho lo-Laikipia subclan of the Maasai. Paice, Nat Barry and Vaughan Keneally all arrived that year, but the remoteness of the area made settlement difficult.

Other families who arrived before the 1914-18 war included “old” Randall and his large family from South Africa, William Seagar Bastard, Ted Aggett (the Aggetts had previously been in Lemek area of Narok and were thus linked to the direct exchange of land), Lex Smith, George Webb, Raymond Hook (on whose land Nanyuki Cottage Hospital was eventually built), Alec Anstey, Pat Keneally, Major Lionel Gascoigne (who opened the first shop known as Nanyuki Cash Store in 1914), and General Wheatley (who is credited with building the Nanyuki racecourse).

Soldier Settlement Scheme

Not much activity took place during World War I since many settlers were involved in the war effort.

However, in 1919 the British government introduced the Soldier Settlement Scheme designed to settle European ex-soldiers on land as part of reconstruction after the war undertaken for reasons of economic growth, social stability and to “repay the debt of honour” owed to ex-servicemen.

In Kenya, the scheme was initially envisaged as a means of strengthening the local white community in the face of an African population which had lost its awe of Europeans as a result of exposure to the outside world during which they saw white men dying like any other men, including themselves.

However, it quickly became an attempt to both promote economic development by new settlement and to care for potential “poor whites” within Kenya. In addition to the enlightenment of the African, the fact that the African ex-soldier was left out of the scheme further fomented the rise of African nationalism.

Aristocracy appeal

Laikipia was earmarked to contribute the largest land area, at 950,000 acres, to the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Owing to the requirement that beneficiaries were to put up £1,000 by way of capital to develop the land many of them were unable to meet this condition and the land ended up in the hands of members of the aristocracy.

The period after the war saw rapid urbanisation of Nanyuki which led to its gazettement as a township in 1920. As was the policy in colonial Kenya, the town was planned along racial lines with the Europeans, Indians, Somalis, and Africans living in segregated residential and business zones.

By then, there was a notable Indian presence in Nanyuki most of whom were traders and artisans. Many of these were part of the 6,000 odd indentured Indian labourers who opted to stay in Kenya after building the railway. Osman Allu (who had come to Kenya as a clerk for Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee) opened his shop at Nanyuki in 1928, which served as a post office, a bank, and in need, as a stable.

In 1938, Chunibhai Patel opened his shop, Settlers Stores, which was considered the most cosmopolitan at the time. Although Indians had the capital to do so, they were not allowed by law to purchase any land bigger than 50ft X 100ft. In contrast, Europeans owned large tracts of land, many in excess of 100,000 acres.


The Settler’s Store in Nanyuki town, one of the colonial-era businesses. PHOTO | POOL

The African population consisted largely of labourers on European-owned large-scale farms and residences. The Somalis were mostly livestock traders and hides and skins merchants. Residential buildings for Africans and Somalis were mud and wattle affairs some of which are still standing to date in the slum areas of the town.

Railway development

In 1930, the railway reached Nanyuki town, spurring growth and making settlement much less of a hardship. Nanyuki thereafter became popularly known as mwisho wa reli (end of the railway). It became easier to transport agricultural produce, livestock, farm inputs, trade goods and passengers in the mixed train. The Kenya Farmers Association built a large warehouse in 1937.

It was during this inter-war period that many social amenities for Europeans were established in Nanyuki such as the racecourse in 1924, St George’s Church (1932), Nanyuki Sports Club (1924), The Sportsman’s Arms Hotel (1936) (later owned by the family of PR guru Gina Din Kariuki), The General Wheatley Memorial Hospital (later Nanyuki Cottage Hospital) in 1934, Mawingo (later Mt Kenya Safari Club). Logan Hook’s Silverbeck Hotel (1921) was designed so that the Equator ran through the bar. You could have one drink in the northern hemisphere and the next in the southern hemisphere, or one drink in both at once, a foot on each side of the line.

The first school was established in 1931 by the Indian community but strictly for their children. In 1936, Mrs Delaforce and her husband Lt Colonel Delaforce started Beehive School (today known as St Christopher’s School Nanyuki) exclusively for European children. The Muslim community established a mosque and a madrasa school.

Industrial takeoff

The first major industry to be set up was the Nanyuki Cooperative Creameries in 1921 some of whose products were exported to Britain. There was also a thriving timber industry operated by some of the early settlers for building locally and also for export. The Nanyuki Tanners Industry was established in 1935 while Mountex, a textile factory was built in 1934.

Nanyuki was for a long time associated with a military presence. During both the First and Second World Wars, the King’s African Rifles had a garrison at Nanyuki that was used as both a training centre and headquarters for the Northern Frontier Corps.

As a consequence, Nanyuki had one of the most well stocked Navy, Army, and Airforce Institute (NAAFI) stores. The Nanyuki garrison was an important staging station against the Italians in Ethiopia during World War II.

Luxury destinations

The livestock trade experienced a surge in demand during World War II when the Liebig’s Meat Factory (later KMC) won the contract to supply British forces with canned beef. Most of the cattle for this contract were loaded at the railhead in Nanyuki.

After World War II, there was a new surge of development for Nanyuki, again mostly fueled by British ex-soldiers. But this period also witnessed more radical nationalism and clamour for independence amongst the African populace culminating in the Mau Mau rebellion in the early 1950s.

Nanyuki town was a strategic location during the emergency period starting in 1952. Being in close proximity to the heavily wooded Mt Kenya forest, the Aberdare forest and caves which provided perfect cover for Mau Mau rebels, Nanyuki was an easy target for the rebels for food supplies and ammunition. It was also a convenient location from which to stage attacks on the sprawling European farms in the neighborhood.

Perceiving this threat from the Mau Mau Major Digby Tatham-Warter, a Nanyuki resident, raised a volunteer police force at his own expense and led them to oppress and suppress the Mau Mau. Operation Scaramouche in 1954 was targeted at flushing out Africans from the bushes after a number of Europeans had been killed in Nanyuki.

Military history

As the political landscape in Kenya began to change towards independence, some of the European settlers felt uncomfortable and began to leave the country, but Nanyuki continued to be perceived as a bastion of “white man’s country”.

The presence of many luxury tourist destinations such as Mt Kenya Safari Club which hosted presidents, royalty and international celebrities contributed to this view. During the ownership of the club by billionaire Adnan Khashoggi it is claimed there was an airstrip big enough to accommodate a Boeing 747 with visitors not going through immigration or customs checks. Nanyuki was like a principality in Kenya.

The continuing presence of the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) contributes to a notable population of white people in Nanyuki while the establishment of the Nanyuki Air Base in 1974 maintained the strong military history of the town.

Nanyuki town continues to be a popular staging point for climbing Mt Kenya.

Racial barriers slowly began to break down after independence. Gina Din was the first non-white child to be admitted at Beehive School in 1964. While other institutions were not as quick to respond, today Nanyuki is a melting pot of cultures and residents have adopted a high degree of integration, practicing a “live and let live” attitude. Nanyuki has become a popular destination for white people and others who wish to settle there in retirement.