Ewart Grogan and origins of Chiromo name

Chiromo House at Nairobi University’s Chiromo Campus now houses the Institute of African Studies. Ewart Grogan built the house. DIANA NGILA

How did a Nairobi suburb — and later a university campus — acquire the Malawian name Chiromo? The story of Chiromo is quite interesting for those who have been to the University of Nairobi.

It began when colonial maverick, Ewart Grogan, tossed a coin when he was an art student at Cambridge’s Winchester and Jesus College to determine his life (and fate). Unfortunately (or fortunately), the coin came down on the side of adventure rather than art and from that day Grogan — who had been reprimanded for tethering a goat in his campus room— abandoned all pretences to becoming an artist and sought adventure as his new career.

Chiromo is also a story of love. But it starts in 1896 when Grogan volunteered as a soldier during the Matabele uprising in modern day Zimbabwe where he was injured. The injury, which almost ended his African adventures, took him to New Zealand where he recuperated. It was here that Grogan met Gertrude Watt who was smitten by his tales of triumph — some exaggerated and others fictional. Gertrude’s step-father was not amused and dismissed Grogan as a “useless fortune hunter.”

But to convince Gertrude and her step-father that he was serious, Grogan decided to stage one last stunt: To walk from Cape to Cairo in return for Gertrude’s step-father’s blessing their marriage. He walked the whole distance for two and a-half years and won many admirers and later wrote a book about it all. Gertrude was smitten — who could have rejected such a celebrity? On his way to Cairo, Grogan passed by Nairobi, which he contemptuously dismissed as a “Tin Shack”.

On his return to South Africa, Cecil Rhodes — the entrepreneur whom Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was named after — invited him to settle in Johannesburg.

But the South African climate was not favourable to Grogan and it was on his hospital bed that he saw an advert calling for settlers to East Africa. He jumped out of the bed and in 1902, and together with Edward Lingham, a Canadian, came to Kenya where they were shown land in Mau escarpment full of timber.

Finally, “the useless fortune hunter” was in town. Initially, Grogan decided to shape his life in Kenya as a timber trader — the adventure part had twice landed him in hospital.

In Nairobi, he chose the most wooded section of the emerging town. Here, some two rivers met reminding him of a village in southern Malawi named Chiromo where he had lost his luggage on his way to Cairo. Chiromo means “joining of the streams”.

Today, the village is a small port town by River Shire served by a railway line to Blantyre. It was for many years the heart of the cotton industry and has one of the best bridges in Africa. Grogan liked the Chiromo weather and calls it the “most cool place in Mozambique” in his book.

But that is half the story. Grogan bought the land where Chiromo campus now stands from Allen and Olivia Harries.

To divert your attention a little bit, the Harries family is credited with starting the pineapple industry in Thika. A story is told of how Mrs Harries’ son-in-law, Herbert Cowie, imported a variety of fruits to grow in Parklands.

Pineapples refused to grow and he uprooted them and threw them “over the fence”. Mrs Harries travelled on a donkey cart from Thika and took the pineapple suckers. She planted them at Karamaini Estate where they thrived. The Thika pineapple industry was thus born. Back to Chiromo, in 1904 Grogan built the first stone house. The house, which stands at the Institute of Computer Science and which formerly housed the Institute of African Studies, is part of University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus.

But Grogan did not live at Chiromo. Curiously he had two cats, one white and the other black, curved on the roof. The white cat (inset) looks healthy while the black one appears scared. In 1910, Grogan sold the Chiromo house to American millionaire Northrup McMillan, the man after whom Nairobi’s McMillan Library is named. Since Nairobi was dusty and muddy when it rained, Grogan campaigned for the town to be shifted from its present position to Chiromo so that it could expand towards Westlands. But the Commissioner for the East African Protectorate, Sir James Hayes Sandler, wrote to the Secretary of State saying: “I do not consider that Nairobi town, from its position on the edge of European settlement area, will ever become a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of agricultural and mining industries in any of the districts, the centres would spring up around them.”

If they had listened to Grogan Nairobi would have started at Chiromo and expanded towards Westlands. But Grogan harboured the idea of apartheid. The new town that was to start at Chiromo was to be a European township while the “tin shack” would have remained a township for blacks and Asians.

It was Grogan who, in 1906, stocked Kenya’s rivers with 40,000 imported trout — starting with Chiromo river. Most of Mount Kenya rivers owe their trout fish population to him. But today his legacy is best preserved by both Chiromo and Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Home, which he built in memory of his wife. He also owned the land formerly known as Grogan, now Kirinyaga Road.
Grogan’s Cape to Cairo walk was worth the trouble.

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