Society

How Juja town got its name from superstition

juja

A view of Juja town, Kiambu County. PHOTO | FILE

Lord William Northrup MacMillan was a man of considerable girth, towering over his fellows; some say he weighed over 300lbs (136 kilogrammes). He also had a heart to match, being an overly generous and philanthropic person.

Born in Scotland in 1872, his parents emmigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was brought up. MacMillan became a decorated soldier but the family’s immense wealth was created through contracts for manufacture of railway freight cars for the American railroad.

After serving in the army, he tried his hand at ranching and caught the bug of the outdoors and big game hunting.

MacMillan and his wife Lucie came to Kenya in 1901 on a big game-hunting safari and immediately fell in love with what they saw, deciding to make it their home.

Before the MacMillans came to Kenya, they had visited West Africa and left with two statues of lions representing the idols “Ju” and “Ja”. The West African witchdoctors had told MacMillan that if he did not preserve them he would die at sea.

MacMillan, ever the superstitious optimist, believed what he was told. In 1904, he bought 19,000 acres of land in Ol DonyoSabuk at a time when the maximum a settler could buy was 5,000 acres. As if to prove his point, he attributed his luck to the idols.

He developed an obsessive fascination with the idols and the entire farm became wrapped in an aura of superstition. His Kikuyu neighbours and workers christened it “Ju Ja” farm.

MacMillan may have had brawn but his wife Lucie had the brains and she did not buy into all this mystic stuff. Fed up of the superstitions, Lucie had the two statues secretly buried somewhere on the expansive farm where, to date, they have never been found.

MacMillan threw a tantrum and tried to find them, but he never did.

The story does not end there and there is an interesting twist involving an equally large and rambunctious gentleman.

The farm covered the land on which Juja town stands today which was then known as “Weru wa Ndarugo” (Ndarugo Plains).

On it, he built an imposing estate house and hosted some of the wildest parties of the early colonial era in Kenya. His guests would include Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and many other dignitaries.

By 1909, MacMillan was socialite #1. His parties had all the hallmarks, including barrels of wine and whisky, and the occasional wife-swapping, as he spared no expense to lavish his eccentric guests.

Of course, they were later to be overtaken, in notoriety, by Lady Idina Sackville’s alcohol and drug-fuelled, full blown orgies of the Happy Valley set which made MacMillan’s parties look like child’s play.

At the same time as he bought the Ol Donyo Sabuk farm, MacMillan also purchased a townhouse in Chiromo, Nairobi from his peer and fellow eccentric, Colonel Ewart Grogan.

The MacMillan family had made friends with President Theodore Roosevelt(Teddy the Moose) through their railroad business and their shared passion for big game hunting.

Teddy was a cowboy and he brought that persona to the Oval office when he assumed the Presidency in 1901.

He worked hard to retain that macho image and after retirement in 1908 he decided to come to Kenya on an extended big game hunting safari with his son Kermit. The trip was outfitted by the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum in the world.

Before making the trip, Teddy wrote to MacMillan, who was by then considered to be one of the most prolific settlers in Kenya, requesting to be hosted.

Reception

Teddy and his entourage arrived at the port of Mombasa in 1909 to a high profile reception by the Deputy Governor, who escorted them to Nairobi and into the very capable hands of their hosts, the MacMillans.

Roosevelt and his son were in Kenya to do two things; to hunt and to rave. Whenever they were not out hunting or making friends, they were at the Norfolk Hotel, the party spot of choice for settlers and tourists.

MacMillan allowed them the use of his Chiromo House to avoid them driving “under the influence” all the way to Juja at night.

It was after one of those nights of raving at the Norfolk that the drunken father and son pair noticed something interesting outside of the Khoja Mosque(a temporary iron sheet structure by then).

They stopped the car and in an adrenaline-rush moment, stole a pair of lion statues that had been placed on either side of the mosque’s gate. The Roosevelts returned with their quarry to MacMillan’s Chiromo House.

Allow me to digress a little here. I must confess, at grave risk to myself, that I am probably not the most suited to pass judgement on this type of behaviour.

I recall my days at the University of Nairobi in the 70s when a number of us would be returning from a night out on the town in the wee hours of the morning, after receipt of our student allowance.

Upon reaching University Way, we would replenish our energies at Chege’s kiosk, next to Vic Prestons Petrol Station, with eggs and sausages and, in a moment of frenzy, some of us then proceeded to uproot road signs, complete with their concrete bases and take them to our halls of residence. If only we had known that we had such royal precedent!

Returning to the story, the mosque officials woke up the next morning to find empty pedestals where the lions had been. The Roosevelts left the lions in Chiromo and returned to their hunting exploits at Juja.

In the meantime, a furore erupted in Nairobi with the Ismailia community protesting about the theft and the colonial government launching investigations.

The lions remained unnoticed at Chiromo for several days until a government official, on a casual visit to the MacMillans house, noticed them, to his astonishment.

Realising the diplomatic scandal that was most certain to arise, he organised for the lions to be secretly transported to the Ol DonyoSabuk farm and buried. The cover up worked and the debacle was forgotten.

By 1937, the farm had changed hands several times and was now owned by the Nettlefold family. While their workers were cultivating the farm they came across two statues and in their minds they thought they had unearthed Ju and Ja from West Africa.

However, analysts from the Nairobi Museum confirmed that they were the ones from Khoja Mosque. Unfortunately, by now the entire area was known as Juja and a new settlement had grown along the road and taken the name Juja town.