Heritage

How Eldoret etched its educational mark

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Settlement of the Afrikaners and later the British in Uasin Gishu saw the need to establish schools to cater for their children’s needs. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The Uasin Gishu Plateau is a rich agricultural area with rolling hills and meandering rivers. It had been occupied by the Sirikwa people for several centuries before the ascendancy of the Maasai with their superior weaponry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Maasai clan that took over the plateau were known as the Ilwasin Gishu, after whom it is presently named.

It will be recalled that in an attempt to populate Kenya with European settlers, the colonial government encouraged Afrikaners to occupy the Uasin Gishu area. The first of the Afrikaners to settle, in what would later come to be known as Eldoret Town, were the Van Breda brothers arriving in 1903. They were joined two years later by the Franz Arnoldi family.

In August 1908, 58 displaced Afrikaner families left Nakuru for the Uasin Gishu Plateau after a journey by sea from South Africa and by rail from Mombasa. They were led by Jan van Rensburg, enduring an arduous trek, laden as they were, with wagons that would often get bogged down in muddy tracks, finally arriving on Sergoit Hill on 22 October 1908.

The van Breda brothers had earlier surveyed the land and the new arrivals took up leaseholds of between 800 to 5,000 acres (320 to 2020 ha) on condition that they would develop within five years.

Each family built a shack, put up fences, hooked up oxen to simple ploughs and turned the first furrows. They sowed wheat, maize and vegetables transforming the plateau into a prosperous bread basket. The farms were later registered and given reference numbers.

Eldoret was established in the midst of farms created on what was known to the settlers as “farm 64” or “sisibo” to the locals because at that time it was exactly 64 miles (103kms) from the newly built Uganda Railway railhead at Kibigori. Willy van Aardt owned Farm 64 but all that is left today is the Central Lounge in Eldoret town.

As the settler population in Uasin Gishu grew there was justification for establishing a local school for their children instead of sending them off to Nairobi or elsewhere.

In 1928, a European Primary School to cater for the children of British and Afrikaner settlers in the White Highlands was opened on the banks of the Sossian River. Later, in the early 1930s the school was moved across the river to the present site of Hill School Eldoret.

The school was renamed Central School Eldoret and continued to serve a predominantly Afrikaner student population. There was some divergence of views between the British and Afrikaner settlers as to racial attitudes towards the African. This created tension between the two groups and the British were not happy with the domination of the Afrikaners in the school system.

Ugandan administrators of British descent also sent their children to European schools in Kenya and Eldoret, being close to the border and easily accessible by train, was a popular destination. They had a powerful voice and wanted their children to go to an English-dominated school.

In 1944, another school was opened in Eldoret, Hill School, taking over the buildings of a Royal Air Force base, ostensibly to address the tensions between the two groups of settlers.

After World War 11, the British Government encouraged white settlers to go to Trans-Nzoia and Uganda. This increased the number of children to be educated. By 1948, no teacher at the school spoke Afrikaans, so there was no instruction in Afrikaans. The headmaster, Hunter, refused to have books in Afrikaans in the library. By this time, the institution had been renamed Highlands School.

The Kenya Government wanted the schools amalgamated to diffuse the racial tensions. When Hunter retired in 1953, most of the children at Highlands School were Afrikaans-speaking.

Eventually, in January 1956 the amalgamation was pushed through. The Highlands became a new all-girls secondary school (ideally an extension of Kenya High School) while Hill School took on the student bodies of both schools, 500 in all, of whom 350 were boarders. The misgivings about the racial mix proved to be groundless and in fact in the next few years the Afrikaners and British were assimilated in a single education system.

The main building housing the administration and classrooms was put up in 1957 and bears an uncanny resemblance to that at Nairobi School.

After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the school experienced a sudden drop in enrolment as settlers left the country. The first African students were admitted in 1965. Daniel Arap Moi was elected chairman of the board of dovernors in the same year, a position he held until 2007. In 1978 the school changed its name to Moi Girls High School, Eldoret.

Notable alumni include Ida Odinga, Nancy Baraza, Phyllis Kandie, Esther Murugi, Margaret Kamar, Mary Nyachae, Caroline Kiereini and Linda Kimaru among others.