The earliest record of Machakos goes back to 1887 when it is claimed a trading post was established by Sakshi Shah. The town was named after the Akamba paramount chief and seer Masaku wa Munyeti who was grandfather to late veteran politician Paul Ngei.
In 1889, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) established a supply depot and a fort to serve caravans travelling from Mombasa to Uganda and back. The fort also served as a deterrent against the slave trade.
When John Ainsworth was appointed administrator in 1892, he sought to plan Machakos as the principal administrative centre for the region, creating separate residential areas for the growing number of Swahili porters and askaris, and Europeans.
By 1895, the building of the railway had been agreed and a number of Indian traders started arriving looking for business opportunities. Ainsworth managed to persuade two Indian traders to put up shops in Machakos guaranteeing them suitable premises and living quarters. Soon Machakos became a busy administrative centre, a military barracks and a commercial centre for upcountry British East Africa.
In the same year, the African Inland Mission (AIM) had set up mission stations at Nzai, Kilungu, Kangundo and Manyatta, and were looking to establish their headquarters at Machakos.
But Ainsworth’s plans and those of the AIM missionaries were thwarted when the railway line was routed 15 miles (24 kilometres) away from Machakos. The railway authorities insisted that Nairobi should be the new capital city of Kenya and in a twist of fate Ainsworth was transferred there in 1899 as the chief administrator. Buoyed by completion of the railway in 1901 and official encouragement by the British government, European settlement began in earnest.
By 1910 there were two schools of thought about African education. The settlers, worried about relying on expensive foreign Indian labour which was left over after the building of the railway, wanted Africans trained for technical education which would produce artisans to be employed in the European sector of the economy.
On the other hand, missionaries emphasised literary education which would turn out educated Africans who would become evangelists and teachers to other Africans, spreading the Gospel as well as adopting a European way of life.
But J.R. Orr, the Director of Education had a different view and for him the purpose of African education was to develop the reserves. He wanted Africans to be taught techniques which they could take back to their reserves and improves their livelihoods.
Because of his scepticism of missionary schools, Orr was anxious that the government itself create schools, if only to serve as models to other educators in Kenya.
Orr achieved his ambition in 1915, when he founded the Machakos Industrial School which became known as Government African School. He believed that the Kamba were the most fertile field for this government endeavour through a process of elimination of other tribes whom he considered unsuitable for various reasons.
The school opened in April 1915 with 26 boys and thereafter the government created a number of “bush” schools in the Machakos and Kitui Districts to serve as feeders to the central institution.
Unfortunately for Orr, even at the founding of the school in 1915, the Colonial Secretary Bowring wrote that the school would provide “a constant supply of trained boys fit to join the railway, public works department, and settlers requiring the services of trained artisans”.
Orr saw his experiment take a direction he did not favour and he was openly critical of this turn of events in his report of 1925. As if to add insult to injury, a branch of the Telegraphic Technical School was started in 1934 as a separate section of the primary school.
In 1946, the school admitted the first girls while in 1948 the Telegraphic Technical section was closed and transferred back to Karen in Nairobi.
The school came to be popularly known as “Kwa Mating’i” in reference to a Mr Martin who served as headmaster from 1946. After 1948, the school expanded rapidly and the facilities became overstretched forcing the boys to be relocated to the present site of Machakos Boys’ High School.
The name of the school was changed to Government African Girls’ Intermediate School. In 1959 the first Form 1 class of 12 girls was started and by 1961 a few of the pioneer secondary school girls joined Alliance Girls High School for Form 3 and 4. The school’s name was changed to Machakos Girls’ High School. The first 20 girls all passed their “O” level examination in 1963.
The first African principal was Mrs J. Ndile in 1966.
I recently visited the school and met the principal, Mrs Lucy Mugendi. The institution lacks facilities. Many of the classrooms and dormitories date back to the early part of the 1900s and have surely exhausted their usable lifespan. Although parents have recently funded the construction of a new dormitory and extension of the dining room, a lot more funding is required to give this iconic institution, which holds so much of our national history, a facelift.
Machakos Girls’ High School is the second oldest formal African school after Maseno, and I believe it deserves national monument status.