Chiromo House a legacy from colonial maverick Ewart Grogan

Chiromo House now hosts the Institute of African Studies of the University of Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE
Chiromo House now hosts the Institute of African Studies of the University of Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE 

There is a village in Malawi, on the way to Blantyre where two rivers, Ruo and Shire meet. The village is known as ‘‘Chiromo” meaning “meeting of two rivers” in the local dialect.

This is where the love-smitten Ewart Grogan was attacked by hostile tribesmen during his famed Cape to Cairo walk, losing his entire luggage and escaping death by a whisker. On his way to Cairo, Grogan passed through Nairobi in 1899, describing the emerging town as a “Tin shack”.

Grogan returned to Nairobi in 1904 triumphant, having impressed his father-in-law sufficiently to secure the hand of Getrude Watt in marriage, and quickly purchased 113 acres on a wooded site surrounded by two rivers, Kirichwa and Nairobi.

He commissioned London architect H.O. Creswell and a firm of local Indian contractors to build his home in Kenya which he aptly named “Chiromo” after the village in Malawi.

To the superstitious mind, this would appear to have been a stroke of genius as Grogan went on to become a very wealthy man, recovering the value of his lost luggage at Chiromo many times over. At the same time he also built a small hunting lodge below the main palatial residence which was known as Grogan Lodge.

Chiromo House is situated off Riverside Drive within the Chiromo Campus of the University of Nairobi. The house is of a Victorian design with butched stone external walls below a Mangalore tiled roof supported by massive timber trusses with high gable ends.

Internal walls are fabricated with mud and chicken mesh rendered and painted with extended width to make up for their lack of structural strength. Floors are mainly finished in parquet with red floor tiles to the entrance verandah. The ceiling is vaulted and finished in moulded chipboard. Doors are made of thick hardwood panels hung on wrought iron hinges which are extended across the face to symbolise a sword, as used by the Knights Templar.

Double doors are used to secure the conference room. Windows are glazed in rectangular steel casements.

There is a wide use of symbols on doors, windows and gables including the famous black and white felines on the roof and the occult “third eye”.

Anthropologist Kibe Kiragu confirms there are two tunnels under the building, one running west to the area near the Australian High Commission where there used to be horse stables and another running south to the Kirichwa River where there was a draw bridge. The area now used as a parking lot was an Olympic size swimming pool.

Grogan, ever the restless adventurer, hardly lived in the palace he built, being too busy exploring new possibilities up and down the country. Commissioner Sir James Hayes Sadler took full advantage and used the premises to entertain important guests including President Theodore Roosevelt.

It is also claimed that many key “cabinet” meetings were held here in the conference room offering creature comforts in a secure and serene environment. A connoisseur’s selection of wines and spirits was available after a hard day’s work. The site was like a castle surrounded by two rivers forming a moat which even had a draw bridge, making access difficult for unwelcome guests.

It appears that before Kenya became a full colony in 1920, the country was ruled indirectly by three powerful individuals namely Grogan, Delamere and McMillan.

Grogan bragged that he was the King’s representative for the area between Mombasa and Naivasha and Delamere for the area between Naivasha and Port Florence (Kisumu).

During his stay in South Africa, Grogan met and made the acquaintance of Sir Cecil Rhodes who schooled him on the policy of apartheid, practised in that country.

While Grogan believed the African needed to be groomed, he preferred a road of “separate development”.

Cruel behaviour

He was well known for his cruel behaviour towards Africans believing it was the only way to civilize them. It is claimed that within the underground tunnels at Chiromo House were cells where Africans were incarcerated after being thoroughly flogged personally by Grogan for minor transgressions.

In 1910, the Grogan Lodge was sold to Sir William Northrup McMillan prior to which he had apparently rented it from Grogan. McMillan was a superstitious man and it is said he is the one who put up the two feline figures on the roof of the main house as they do not appear in photographs taken before he bought the lodge.

Lucie McMillan enjoyed living here and also looked after the main house. There was but one problem. The railway line ran very close to the lodge and there was even a watering point where the train stopped to take on water for the climb to Kirungii (Westlands) causing a lot of noise and disturbance.

Lucie complained and immediately the railway alignment was moved towards Kibra (Kibera) where it was believed the natives would welcome the novelty of an iron beast passing in between their shanties spewing smoke and shaking the makeshift beds that they slept on! This demonstrates the power held by these wealthy individuals.

Chiromo House continued to be used for many state functions and during the Mau Mau uprising it was used as a command centre before operations moved to Ol Donyo Sabuk when the war intensified. Lady McMillan continued living in the Chiromo Complex with her African- American house maid, Louise Dekker, to whom she bequeathed the lodge when she died in 1957. Louise Dekker had come from Boston with Lucie McMillan at the age of 13.

The main house was donated to the government by Grogan in 1958, lying abandoned and neglected until 1964 when it was leased to the British Institute for East Africa for 19 years up to 1983.

Today, this site is a gazetted national monument and houses the Institute for African Studies of the University of Nairobi, Chiromo Campus.

Louise Dekker bequeathed Grogan Lodge to the East African Women’s League who, for some reason, were unable to maintain it and auctioneers were called in to sell the building.

John Lee (Lee Funeral Services), an avid restorer and art collector, got wind of it and alerted Dr Bonnie Dunbar, an American lady who had earlier purchased Frank Sutton’s classic Swedo House (Karen Blixen Coffee House).

The building was moved brick-by-brick to Karen and rebuilt in 2007 by John Lee, where it now forms part of the Karen Blixen Coffee House. The property was recently advertised for sale at a record price of Sh800 million.