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Culture shock for pioneer African residents of Karen

The Karen Blixen Museum
The Karen Blixen Museum. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Today’s Karen residential area was born out of a 6,000-acre farm, purchased in 1916 by the Karen Coffee Company which was owned by the Karen Blixen family from Denmark. Six hundred acres of the farm were used for a coffee plantation while 3,400 acres were used by natives for grazing and 2,000 acres of virgin forest were left untouched.

The farm was managed by Europeans but the labour was provided by “squatters”(Africans) who guaranteed the “owners” 180 days of labour, per annum, in exchange for wages and the right to live and graze on the uncultivated lands, which in many cases, was theirs in the first instance before the British laid claim to them.

Karen Blixen’s husband Bror was more interested in hunting and other not so noble social pursuits and eventually the marriage fell apart in 1925, leaving Karen to manage the farm on her own. Despite her industrious nature, her love for the land and her native workers, the soil on her farm was simply not suited for coffee growing. The farm experienced several unexpected dry years with low yields which, coupled with declining world coffee prices, drove the business further into debt until the family corporation forced her to sell it in 1931.

Jean Remi Martin, a visionary young banker in town, bought the farm and named it Karen Estate carving it into 20-acre parcels for sale in what must have been the first large subdivision scheme in Kenya. The terms of approval required, among other things, that the developer provides water to the scheme and Mr Martin set up his own water company to supply water from several boreholes. Mr Martin also incorporated a golf course and clubhouse in the design which is today’s Karen Country Club. Because of the size of the parcels, the land remained classified as agricultural by the municipal authorities, thus continuing to attract preferential local authority taxes.

Karen Estate soon became the preserve of the European adventurer, those who loved the wild outdoors, living where lions, giraffes, leopards and the antelope family roamed freely. It was one of several residential areas reserved for settlement by Europeans, others being Muthaiga, Kitisuru, Lavington, Woodley and Kilimani while Africans largely resided in Eastlands. Many residents of Karen kept and reared horses, some for racing.

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As the wind of change began to blow in the late 1950s it became clear that independence and an African majority government was inevitable. Some Europeans, fearing that an African government might be vengeful, decided to sell their interests and leave the country.

The first African on record to purchase land in Karen was Paul Mwangi Ayub Kariuki. An alumnus of Mang’u High School, Mr Kariuki had worked for Barclays Bank as well as the real estate firm of Donald Vincent while moonlighting with the Rwathia Group sorting out their accounts in the evenings. In the process, he had managed to establish a number of successful grocery stores in Eastlands while living in Makadara.

One day in 1962, while Mr Kariuki was doing his normal banking at Standard Bank Delamere Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue) he overheard two Europeans talking about five acres which for sale on Three Dee Lane in Karen. He expressed interest in buying the land and was introduced to the seller, a Major Lamb who told him he was a cheeky young man to think that he could afford to buy land in Karen. Major Lamb was surprised when Mr Kariuki paid a deposit and took over the mortgage of Sh10,000 at the bank. Mr Kariuki took possession of the property on 27 December 1962 and within one year he had repaid the balance of the mortgage in full.

Mzee Kariuki is unfortunately now deceased but I recently met his two sons Antony and John who shared their memories about the transition from Makadara to the European suburb of Karen. From AQ (African Quarters) 486 in Makadara which was basically two rooms behind a shop for a family of eight children to a four-bedroom bungalow on five acres in Karen was quite a traumatic experience.

For the first time there was a flushing toilet inside the house and not a bucket which had to be emptied regularly, a bathtub, a fridge, an electric cooker (not a smoky jiko), a manicured lawn and trees within the compound. They could not see who their neighbours were because the compound was large and neatly fenced off.

When their father sought to have them admitted at Karen European Primary School (current Karen C Primary School) he was politely reminded that the school was reserved for Europeans only. Anthony and John had to continue school in Eastlands and their father had to drive them there every school day.

Shopping at Karen Provision Stores was segregated and there was one area set aside for African workers. Services at the local Regina Caeli Catholic Church were segregated with the early service being for Africans while the Anglican St. Francis Church did not entertain Africans. There was a sign at Westwood Park Hotel “Kafirs and dogs not allowed”.

After independence, Anthony and John were reluctantly admitted at Karen European Primary School in January 1964. Their biggest problem was the language because in Eastlands learning was conducted in Kiswahili. However, within the first term they were able to communicate effectively in English. One thing that greatly puzzled Anthony and John was that they were not caned as they were used to in Eastlands. In Karen they got off with a friendly reprimand or a slap on the wrist from the teachers.

Over time, as more Africans settled in Karen the racial barriers were relaxed and many Africans joined the Karen Country Club.

My friend Martin Karanja, keen to outdo the Europeans and fellow Africans, used to ride his horse “Suzie” complete with a cowboy hat and tether it outside the local pub in the late 1970s.

Today, residents of Karen generally mind their own business in an atmosphere of live and let live.

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