Long before the drums of war and songs of redemption echoed in the ridges, valleys and mountains in Central Kenya, a group of uneducated clansmen started charting the destiny of their country.
Seizing the most powerful tools of violence from their masters, guns, the elders then waged a psychological and physical war on their rulers and stirred Rift Valley into a rebellion, which sent chills down the spines of the colonialists.
The colonialists in turn employed a force so brutal that its effects are still being felt 84 years later. The scars of the colonial blow are still raw despite the passage of time.
In 1925, the Talai, a clan whose members were residing in Nandi, were found in possession of 25 guns that had been snatched from government security agents by some warriors who were unhappy with the colonialists.
This was just five years after Kenya became a colony and the government was preparing a major offensive against some restive residents who had made parts of Rift Valley ungovernable.
This marked the beginning of a humanitarian crisis where an estimated 700 members of the clan, their children and livestock were being condemned to death from diseases and exposure to unfavourable weather. But this was hastened by an incident in Kinangop.
This was after a home of a European settler couple, Alex and Stella Semini of Kinangop, was broken and the owners assaulted and their guns stolen.
There was something akin to mass hysteria among the whites after Alex died shortly after.
David M Anderson explains in his book, Black Mischief: Crime Protest and Resistance in Colonial Kenya, that at the time there was a wave of increased insecurity in Nandi and Kipsigis areas, which were characterised by theft of guns and ammunition where settlers were targeted.
Initial investigations by security agents concluded that the attack had been perpetrated by eight men believed to be of Kipsigis origin. This was used by settlers as an excuse to implement hostile policies towards the community.
Apparently, the colonial administration finally got a justification to target a group of people they feared for wielding enormous psychological power on the Kipsigis and the Nandi.
In 1934, Kericho District Commissioner Douglas Brumage also investigated the issue and concluded that there was systematic organisation of the Kipisgis communities under the spiritual guidance of their Talai, variously known as Laibons, in readiness for a major confrontation with the government. According to the government’s intelligence, there had been an armament race by the local people who had been stockpiling weapons to attack the government at the direction of the Laibons.
The colonial administration was terrified of a repeat of 1895 unrest, when a guerrilla outfit armed with crude weapons under the leadership of Koitalel arap Samoei, tormented the British colonialists for 10 years. Intelligence reports indicated that a major meeting had been held in Belgut in 1928 and was attended by all the Laibons, where it was resolved to procure as many guns as possible in readiness for a major operation.
At the time, the government believed the Talais had eight Laibons and 60 principal agents, and all people owing allegiance to the institution of the prophet were supposed to pay tribute, whose currency was millet, money or goats.
The millet was stored in special granaries and was later collected by the agents who, according to Brumage, were “slaves” of the Laibons as they were terrified of their masters who had ”powers” to compel thieves to commit crimes on their behalf. Brumage was convinced that the only solution to the growing uprising against his government was the removal of the entire Talai clan from the Kipsigis reserve as they had evil influence on the whole population.
In one report to the Nyanza PC dated February 5, 1934, Brumage expressed his displeasure with the government’s unwillingness to “exterminate the evil doers” whose hold on the local population was more effective than that of the colonial government.
There had been a series of attacks between 1927 and 1930 targeting government agents, masterminded by a Laibon, Kiboin arap Sitoni, who was the son of Kichomber arap Koilegen, who had been detained in Murang’a in 1914.
The warriors allied to the prophet had been attacking settler farms, garrisons and were accused of stealing rail bars and inciting the locals against paying the Sh12 hut tax and Sh6 tax charged on an extra wife. When the government apprehended Sitoni, he was accused of being in possession of eight guns and 300 bullets, and was subsequently jailed for eight years by a court in Kisumu.
As the colonialists debated the pros and cons of implementing the mass deportation in their air-conditioned offices and chambers, the Talais were unrepresented.
Curiously, 39 affidavits allegedly signed by some members of the Talai, confessing that the Laibons had evil powers, were tabled in the Legislative Council (Legco), facilitating the unanimous passage of the bill into law. In a chamber which was hellbent to collective punishment of an entire clan by banishing them from their ancestral land, the member representing Aberdare, Rev Canon G Burn, was the only voice of reason in the Legislative Council.
Questioning the logic that a community of 700 members was behind a wave of well-organised cattle theft, Burn wondered how the same community had only 3,000 head of cattle.
“If they have been receiving the proceeds of stolen stock for a number of years, one would expect them to be much wealthier than the average resident,” Burn told the Legco.
He further observed that the Gwassi area in Nyanza, the intended resettlement area, was unsuitable as 60 per cent of the local residents had perished from malaria while sleeping sickness was still endemic.
“It is a very malarious area and the people who know the Laibons will admit they are very susceptible to malaria. Also the area is barren and has no water,” the member said.
His opposition notwithstanding, the bill was passed into law and the colonial regime now had a more potent weapon to contain a rebellion they had been unable to quell, even with the use of reinforcements from South Africa, Sudan and Uganda.
In response to Brumage’s prayer in May 1934, Attorney General William Harrigan drafted ‘The Laibons Removal Ordinance’ (no 32 of 1934), which justified the mass deportation of the Talai clan and stipulated how this was to be done.
The government further arrested and jailed 13 Talai elders who were charged with being in possession of guns, participating in cattle raids and having powers to make rain. They were jailed for between six months and eight years.
Most of them were later exiled to Gwassi, together with their clansmen, but would later be isolated to Mfangano Island on Lake Victoria, where some died.
Brumage used the activities of the Talai elders who had prophetic powers to push for the elimination of the entire clan, which he feared had influence to faraway places like Nakuru and Rumuruti.
His method of getting information used to charge the Laibons were dubious as he admitted in some of his reports that he had relied on inmates to snitch on their colleagues in a policy he called “Laibon eat Laibon”.
Consequently, Sitoni, Muneria arap Tonui, Marumah arap Bore, Ngasura arap Chomber, Kiberenge arap Tonge, Chebuchuk arap Boigut and Sauli arap Mibei who were all sons of Kiotalel’s brothers, were arrested and incarcerated.
A colonialist opposed to the communal punishment of the Talai was quoted saying, “I believe it is a fact that the Laibons cannot intermarry with the residents of South Kavirondo reserve.
That is to say they have to procure their wives from other parts of Lumbwa, and if they are kept from contact with them, they can only procure wives from among themselves and naturally they will die out.”
A letter written by Brumage 13 years after the Talai were moved to Gwassi shows the administrator’s real intention when he proposed that all the elderly clan members be left to die in Nyanza so that a new generation of Talai who were obedient to the government would be nurtured.
Reacting to reports that one of the Laibons had been frequenting Gwassi too often, the DC retorted on November 13, 1943 that, “I think we should face up to the fact that we should concentrate on the children and brutal as it may seem, leave the old men to die out gradually in Gwassi. I have little sympathy for the actual age group who made life so difficult for the government.”
As Kenyans marked 55 years of independence last week, the country should have spared a thought for the descendants of the Talai Laibons who were held in captivity for 30 years because of their opposition to colonialism.
These are some of Kenya’s true heroes whose real contribution to the country’s liberation has been ignored and their children left to wallow in poverty as squatters, while coffee estates blossom on land they were uprooted from.