The day Kenyans dug out cash to receive first bank

By Wainaina Wambu | Published Tue, July 11th 2017 at 09:40, Updated July 11th 2017 at 09:42 GMT +3

August 1965 marks one of the most peculiar incidents in Kenya’s banking history. This is after Barclays Bank set foot in Lamu Island.

As soon as the bank opened, residents rushed for their spades and started digging out their savings from pits underneath their homes.

For centuries, the people of Lamu had been cut off from the mainland mainly by floods and had resorted to burying their money or stuffing it under their bedding, wrote the East African Standard (now The Standard).

Barclays was the first bank to dock there. “Out  come Lamu’s savings,” screamed a headline on the August 6, 1965 edition.

That day, clerks must have hurt their backs, because according to the paper, “a steady stream of people” kept them busy by depositing amounts ranging from a few shillings to several pounds.

The area District Commissioner B.A Osundwa described it as one of the biggest phenomena to ever occur on the island, pointing out that some people were still in possession of old Abyssinian coins.

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“There are even people on the island still hoarding the old Abyssinian Thalers (old silver coin currency) because they haven’t been able to bank them in the past,” he was quoted as saying.

The Shifta had also been robbing money from the residents after cattle auctions; they now had a bank near them. Earlier in May 1958, a telegram written “operation porcupine complete” had been sent from Kapsabet to London.

The message was meant for Sir Julian Crossley, the chairman of the Barclays Bank DCO (now Barclays Bank Plc). It was a code to signify an important event in the history of British banking – the opening of the 1000th Barclays Bank office in Kapsabet.

Another unusual incident had also occurred in Northern Africa after the opening of a Barclays Bank branch. A herdsman turned up at the bank one morning with a sheared sheep to submit a strange cheque.

On the sheep’s back he had written ‘cheque’ and astonishingly it was honoured. This peculiar case was being reminded to Mr J.B.K Russel, a Barclays Executive from Nairobi, by Somali tribesmen who had travelled to Garissa to witness the opening of the first Barclays branch office in North Eastern Kenya as captured in the East African Standard.

This was in March 1965. Before then, money had to be flown in from Nairobi and would sometimes be collected by road from Thika.

Decades later, Barclays is exiting Africa hoping to rebrand with a new name and Barclays Bank Kenya has already announced the closure of seven branches starting October.

Branch openings

Notwithstanding, the history of Kenyan banking cannot be told without Barclays which set foot in Kenya over 100 years ago.

It also takes the cake when it comes to bizarre bank branch openings in the country. In 1968, when Barclays opened a branch in West Pokot, the DC G.W.L O’Amoth urged residents to sell their cattle and bank the money because government couldn’t afford askaris to man the cattle at night.

He also argued that instead of drinking too much, the herders could now save the money. By August that year, Barclays had 100 offices in the country with Mandera being the latest addition.

Over the years, Barclays would be a bank of many firsts. In 1959, it opened a school for cashiers and employees on its Government Road branch (now Moi Avenue). Later in 1967, the school would produce the first African women cashiers to be employed by Barclays Bank.

The two, Amina Rajab Abdullah and Zeinab Maulidi, were 19 years and had been students at Nairobi Muslim Girl’s School. And in 1977, Mrs E.M. Okelo became the first woman bank manager in Kenyan history.

She would head the Westlands branch. By 1986, the bank had started selling shares to the public. Barclays also did not hesitate to wade in into the murky politics of the day.

For example in 1967 they hit out against the Tanzanian government for planning to nationalise the Tanzanian banking industry. “Tanzania is not only prejudicing her chances of external assistance in future, but also breaking up most of what has been achieved so far,” it said.

However, it landed on the wrong side of history by choosing to trade with the apartheid regime in South Africa. This led to the calls for boycott - both at home in England and in Kenya.

In 1977, the bank was reported to have bought South Africa’s defence bonds. This did not sit well with those against the regime.

The All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) closed its accounts with the bank in protest and transferred them to the National Bank of Kenya.

AACC General Secretary Canon Burgess Carr then rallied member churches to completely cut ties with the bank.

“The South African government adopted a policy of belligerency and terrorism against its African population who were demanding freedom from apartheid,” said the AACC.

In December 1964, Sir Julian Crossley said the most important contribution by the bank to new East African nations was the assistance they had provided in introducing modern banking systems.

“If we are asked what contribution we have made to the advancement of the developing countries, the answer need not be confined to the work of financial development,” he said.

He noted that the help that Barclays had given the new countries to enable them establish their own banking system had been a satisfying experience and up to now, even as it fades away, most Kenyan banks are modelled on the British banking system.