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Art

Odyssey of a South African family that settled in Narok

Norman Nzaba Sobayeni
The author (left) with Norman Nzaba Sobayeni in Narok last week. PHOTO | COURTESY 

I first met Norman Nzaba Sobayeni in 1964 while he was in his fourth year at Alliance High School, Kikuyu. At the time, I was one of the pioneer pupils at the newly-established Thogoto Junior School, a mixed boarding institution sponsored by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), situated across the valley from Alliance.

Our headmistress, Fanny Cluness, a Scottish missionary, was keen to develop our talents in music and drama so we often visited Alliance to listen to music and watch plays. The boys from Alliance also came over to our school to teach Sunday School, music and football.

Norman was a gifted musician and it was through his musical talent in the Alliance choir that I came to meet him. Our paths would cross later in life when I learnt that he was not Kenyan, but South African.

This is the story of his family.

John Henry Randall was born on September 1, 1857 to an English family who lived on their mixed farm Hoggsback, Peddie District, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

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After the end of World War I, the British government was once again keen to encourage European settlement in Kenya. In response, John Randall emigrated to Kenya in 1925 and settled in Nanyuki where he established a sawmill, a cattle ranch and a wheat farm. The Nanyuki area became attractive for farming when the branch railway line was opened in 1926.

John Randall brought with him the first group of the Sobayeni family of the Xhosa tribe from South Africa, referred to as Group A, one of nine Sobayeni family groups to come to Kenya. In 1928, Cliff Randall, the son of John came to Kenya with six other groups of the Sobayeni family. Group F of the Sobayeni family came to Kenya in 1929 and joined the other members in Nanyuki. This group was headed by Richard Sobayeni and his wife Martha, the parents of my friend Norman Nzaba Sobayeni.

The Sobayeni clan came to Kenya as indentured labour and the terms of their contracts were that they would give five years of service to their employers and would be free to return to South Africa or remain in Kenya where citizenship would be guaranteed as long as they were law-abiding and loyal to the Kenya government. Most of the Sobayeni family opted to stay but, as we shall see later, this promise was never formalised by the colonial government and resulted in many immigrants being stateless.

John Henry Randall, popularly known as “Harry”, died on July 21, 1937 and was buried at the Nanyuki cemetery.

Norman was born on September 29, 1940 in Nanyuki. He recalls that his mother, Martha, always made sure they sang hymns from the Xhosa hymn book, which was a translation of the Church of England hymnary.

Richard and Martha Sobayeni moved to Nairobi in the late 1940s living in Ziwani and later Kaloleni in Eastlands. Richard worked as a carpenter while Martha was a domestic worker in European homes.

Norman was one of the pioneer students at Morrison Primary School, Bahati in 1955. Due to his mother’s encouragement he developed a passion for music and joined St. Stephen’s Church choir under the tutelage of the renown George Zenoga Zake.

In 1959, he was awarded a Grade 1 certificate in Theory of Music by the Royal School of Music.

After sitting his Kenya African Primary Examination (KAPE), Norman was admitted to Alliance in 1961.

While at Alliance, Norman excelled in music and he was a member of the choir that presented our national anthem for the first time in front of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1963.

From 1965 to 1966 Norman was employed as an untrained teacher in Eldama Ravine where his elder brother Reuben Natanyi Sobayeni was the Education Officer. Joining Kenyatta College in 1967, he studied an S1 diploma course until 1969. Fate brought us together again as our family friend Simon Njage was the principal administrator at Kenyatta College and I would often visit his son Owen over the school holidays.

Soon after successfully completing his S1 course, Norman was posted to Koelel Secondary School situated within the military facility at Gilgil in 1970. His special subjects were Music, Kiswahili and English.

Percy Randall was a member of the Randall family farming in Nakuru.

His first wife was white but he later married a Kikuyu lady from Naivasha. One of his offspring from the latter union was Mary Jane Randall whom Norman met when he was at Kenyatta College while she was training as a nurse in Nairobi. In a twist of fate Norman married Mary Jane in 1970 becoming the brother in-law of the freedom fighter Fred Kubai who was married to her sister.

Together they had two boys and a girl. Unfortunately, Mary Jane left for further studies in the UK in 1976, never to return, leaving Norman to bring up the children single-handed. Her father died in 1977 and was buried on his farm in Nakuru.

LAND IS KENYA

Norman, who was by now known as Nzaba, was transferred to Narok Boys Secondary in 1980 and then to St. Anthony’s Secondary School, Nairage Enkare, Narok as headmaster in 1988. He retired in 1995 after which he was employed by Roadstar company in Narok, overseeing their property investments.

After Independence, it became apparent that the colonial government had not formalised the citizenship of the Sobayeni family as promised. It was only after the intervention of ole Ncharo, the Principal Immigration Officer in 1985, that the matter was regularised.

Nzaba bought land, built and settled in Narok which he regards as home. I met Nzaba again in 1998 when I established a private school in Narok town. Our latest meeting was last week in Narok.

I asked Nzaba whether he would live his life any differently given a chance and his answer was a definite “No”. He has found Kenyans to be welcoming and at no time has he ever felt out of place. He has visited South Africa twice since his retirement.

In the words of Roger Whittaker, for him, “my land is Kenya”.

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