The roughly hewn wooden planks standing at the heart of the ancient town hint of a glorious past when it had an impenetrable fort.
However, the inscriptions are just a promise, like the maze of paths paved with sand stones, once beautified by the now withered duranta hedge and a dried water fountain. This is just a facade masking a century of neglect and postponed dreams and unrealised aspirations.
The half a dozen people relaxing in the park waiting to be served at Machakos Police Station are unaware that had fate not played tricks on their town, perhaps this would be today’s Vigilance House, the Police Service national headquarters. The coming of the white man had promised Machakos a special place as Kenya’s capital but fate snatched it away.
Now more than 100 years later, all that is left are faded memories and a collection of ancient precolonial buildings.
This epoch is summed up by a black plaque placed right in the middle of the park. “These pillars mark the gateway of the old Fort of Machakos established by Mr Fredrick Jackson of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1889, enlarged and strengthened by FD Lugard DSO.”
The fort was flattened
The plaque further reads: “It was the first post founded by the company in the interior of East Africa and from it Mr John Ainsworth established law and order over Ukambani. It was demolished in 1921.”
The office from where Ainsworth established his authority, stands a short distance from the pillars long after the fort was flattened is vividly described by a pioneer who once worked in the area.
The pioneer, Francis Hall, has this to say of Machakos in a letter dated October 2, 1892 which is reproduced in a collection edited by Paul Sullivan and bound into a book, titled, The Kikuyu District.
“This place, Machakos is a grand post, situated right up on the mountain. It is for natives, utterly impregnable. The fort is built square and it has a six foot ditch guarded with barbed wire all around. Inside the four walls are houses and stores all around it and the center in prettily laid out with flowers with the flagstaff.”
The flagstaff which Hall saw in 1890s still stand but instead of the Union Jack fluttering atop it, a Black green, red and white Kenya national flag now dominates, as a symbol the law and order Ainsworth sought to establish in Ukambani and the entire country.
Miraculously, the mud-walled building which he used as his administration headquarters is still standing but is a far cry from the national heritage site that would attract droves of tourists being enticed by the wooden sign at the park.
Its tattered roof looks like a variegated leaf which has been eaten away by a team of hungry army worms. During the day, the tiny holes allow rays of sharp light in to the ancient building.
In a corner below a dirty white wooden shelf where Ainsworth once deposited ultra-secret state files, sit three bags of cement, whose outer cover has been eaten away by the elements.
“I am surprised that cement is still there. I have not been to that place for the last three years. We had brought in the cement to rehabilitate the building because a friend, retired Justice Kasanga Mulwa wanted to transform it into a museum,” Martin Masai explains.
Masai was the chairman of the team which had been picked by the retired judge to rehabilitate the dilapidated building in the hope of transforming it into Justice Kasanga Museum.
Mulwa’s dream was to save the ancient building from collapse and turn it into a museum which would be a depository of historical artifacts of administration, especially capturing the colonial era.
In it, the retired judge hoped to preserve the old Akamba way of life such as mode of dress, weapons, as well the ever changing police uniform, dating back to the colonial times.
All these dreams were wiped out when Mulwa died in March 2016. But his efforts were not in vain because, as Masai puts it, had it not been for the rudimentary repairs he did on the building, it would have collapsed.
“When we started working, the walls were collapsing. There were cracks and in fact one could see through the mud walls. That is why we plastered the walls. We were in the process of repairing the floor when the philanthropist died,” Masai adds.
Now this relic which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the history Kenya’s administration as well as the soul of Machakos County is an eyesore owing to its state of dereliction.
The evidence of this neglect is planted all around the old Ainsworth building. The mabati fence surrounding the building is falling apart. The posts have been gnawed away by aunts and are now leaning on the weeds which are growing wildly.
The five fig trees which according to locals have colonised the compound for more than a century are growing wildly, their wide towering branches dangerously overhanging the rusty roof. Beneath them waist high weeds have ran riot and cover every available space.
Although the original architects constructed it as a fort, fashioning out its two feet-thick walls from mud, unbreakable sandstone and termite resistant timber, the sands of time have been very harsh to the building.
Most of the panes are shattered, the dirt caked floor is now a parchment of loose fragments, which look like a broken pot.
Mulwa’s attempt to breathe life back to the building was not without drama. Shortly after the renovation started in 2015, some pieces of timber and iron sheets which had been removed to pave way for reconstruction went missing. A resident recounted how one day Mulwa came to his pet project and was shocked to find some material he had brought stolen.
The retired judge confronted the Administration Police officers whose offices are just next to the building and threatened unspecified action if the items were not returned.
But what was security like at Machakos Fort like in 1890s? According to Hall, when he visited there was a garrison of 50 men who were used a police or dispatch runners. The climate at the time was described as grand as it was not too hot during the day nut at night it could get so cold that one had to use three blankets.
Machakos, at the time was used as a deport for goods and food for caravans on their way to Uganda. Because of the cost of running the deports which at times required a garrison of up to 120 men, IBEA was in 1892 contemplating losing it down because of being attacked by either the Maasai and Akamba.
Long before the coming of IBEA in what we know as Kenya today, the Akamba had established themselves as long distant traders, transporting ivory and other goods to the Coast through the torturous routes that were later adopted by caravans of Arab slave traders.
When IBEA officials started passing through Machakos on their way to Uganda, a 700 mile journey which lasted for 76 days,Machakos was first identified as a viable station by Fredrick Jackson in 1889 when he established a fort and later reinforced by Fredrick Lugard in 1890.
It is from the safety of the fort, Sanderson Beck writes in his book, East Africa: 1700-1905 that the IBEA officials used their superior firepower to raid native communities to loot grains and livestock instead of buying.
Gerald Portal in a letter to his wife in 1892 wrote, “By refusing to pay for things, by raiding, looting, swashbuckling, and shooting natives, the company have turned the whole country against the white man.”
Although it was bypassed by the Kenya Uganda Railway, owing to a disagreement between Ainsworth and the railway engineers, consequently relinquishing its position at the colony’s headquarters to Nairobi, Machako is now the county headquarters.
There are still talks of rehabilitating the Ainsworth building as Henry Kioko, the chief officer, in charge of tourism youth and culture at Machakos County explained.
“We have approached the National Museums to advise us because we want to carry out what will not undermine the building’s age and design. We are waiting for the experts but we hope to to finalise this before the end of June this year,” Kioko added.