By Amos Kareithi
It was the photographs of rolling plains populated by wild animals lurking in the background of spear-wielding cattle herders prominently displayed in a Wembley exhibition that did the trick. The spell cast by the irresistible beauty of a land begging to be conquered was enough to drive the budding scholar out of the prestigious Wellington College into the lawless jungles. With only 100 sterling pounds in the wallet and a shotgun stashed in one of his tin boxes – just in case it was needed in Africa – the young man boarded the SS Matiana, destined for Mombasa. Michael Blundell was barely 19- years old, when he got on board the ship in October 1925.
His mission was clear: he was determined to tame Africa and learn farming. A month later Blundell was disabused of all his romantic dreaming of Africa when his ship docked in Mombasa and he had to wade through deep waters in a boat to dry land as there were no berth.
Opted out of law degree
The recollections of the man who opted out of a law degree to venture in Africa where he would chart Kenya’s post- independence and colonial times, acting as a bridge between the colonialists and the freedom fighters are captured in his book, A love Affair With the Sun. Rail commuter transport at the time was at its infancy.
It was so rudimentary that passengers travelled in small box-like compartments where food was stale lentil soup heavily spiced with tomato sauce. This was at a time the man-eater lions of Tsavo that had earlier made the construction of the railway difficult vanquished, although elephants were apparently trying to emulate them. They would plant their massive bodies along the line at night and refuse to budge to the chugging train that desperately hooted in the dark; eager to proceed past the dusty Taru Desert wastelands. Blundell says there was no road transport, as both the tractor and the lorry were yet to be introduced. Most of the gifted 20,000 settlers rode on oxcarts. Majority of the settlers who were World War I veterans had no idea about farming and lived in squalid conditions that could make a contemporary street boy squirm in discomfort at the mere suggestion of spending a night in similar quarters.
Although he had sacrificed the comfort of London to learn farming in Kenya, Blundell was shocked to learn that he was to break his back for the next one year without pay. But he considered himself lucky because some sons of Britain’s aristocracy had to pay as much as £30 a month to be taught how to tame the African jungle by failed farmers.
Kipkarren Valley, the pioneer settler’s open school was some 27 miles from Eldoret town where former soldiers tried to tame wild game, as they acted as the buffer between the Nandi and the Uasin Gishu Maasai. The average size of the pioneers’ farm was between 2,000 and 5,000, where an army of workers served them as they tried to experiment with all sorts of farming.
This was at a time light after sunset in most parts of the country could only be provided by fire brand and settlers used kerosene lumps that were hung on posts inside their grass thatched mud walled hovels. “The floor was rough, beaten earth, infested with jiggers and fleas.