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Climate change insights from World War veteran

By XN Iraki | December 1st 2020 at 08:30:00 GMT +0300

Major White’s resting place in Rumuruti, Kenya. [XN Iraki]

Major Harold Albert Duckett White, an Australian, fought in Gallipoli in World War I.

His exploits in the war earned him a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal.

After the war, he immigrated to Kenya from Queensland around 1920, according to his grandson Geoffrey White, who later became the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya in the 1980s.  

Major White got two farms under the soldier settler scheme. One was near Ol Kalou, 150km northwest of Nairobi in the well-watered highlands of central Kenya dubbed the white highlands.

The other was about 100km further north at Rumuruti, a semi-arid region but one with a scenic view of the snow-peaked Mt Kenya. Did Major White want a place that mimicked the Australian outback?  

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Last month, I visited his second farm in Rumuruti. The house he built using cedar wood 100 years ago is intact and so are some other houses, including a members-only club in the neighbourhood. 

How have the wooden houses lasted for 100 years? The secret is the cedar wood used, which appears on the Lebanese flag and also features prominently in the Bible.

It’s a tough wood, which is resistant to termites. The tree, however, takes too long to mature. Its range is also limited, growing only in high altitude regions.

The cedar posts my dad used to fence his land more than 50 years ago are still intact. The white settlers used cedar to make shingles for roofs because of its water-resistance quality. 

More poignantly, this tree is joining the list of endangered species. The tree can’t compete with fast-growing exotic trees like cypress, grevillea and eucalyptus, some of which were imported from Australia by Major White himself. 

He also introduced Ayrshire breed of cattle in Kenya. I recall with sadness the felling of the last mature cedar tree in my father’s small farm as a kid. The other small cedars will probably be harvested by my great-grandchildren. 

Major White, says his grandson, brought cedar posts to build his home in the drier Rumuruti using an ox cart from his Ol Kalou farm 100km away. I visited that farm and found no more cedar trees.

At independence, 57 years ago, the Ol Kalou farm called Lesirko was bought by the government and subdivided among small-scale farmers.

The place is now drier and unrecognisable to third-generation Whites who grew up there. The new farmers are more concerned about food crops than indigenous trees.  

The burning of the Amazon rain forest or the melting ice in Antarctica may attract more attention than the deforestation in Kenya, but the impact is equally negative on a planet in distress.  

Somehow, Major White, from experience and hindsight, saw the future. In one entry dated 1931 and shared by his grandson, he noted: “I will lay a shade of odds that in 1,000 years, the Great Pyramid will still be standing as a lasting monument to the builders and a record of their skill as architects, engineers, surveyors and astronomers.

“In 1,000 years’ time, the Pittsburghers will probably be living in a state of destitution due to their forefathers’ belief that the main aim in life was to convert their forests and natural resources into commodities.” 

His observation has stood the test of time. Beyond using wood, which can be easily replanted, Major White and his contemporaries used local materials like mud to build houses. They helped green the earth 100 years ago. At least two mud-walled houses still stand not far from White’s Ol Kalou farm.

One such house, formerly owned by Geoffrey Buxton, was built around 1908, says Juliet Barnes, who chronicled life in Kenya during the colonial period in “Ghosts of the Happy Valley.”  Another house still stands at Kipipiri with its gardens and an upcoming golf course next to it. 

Unknown to Major White, his home in Rumuruti would neighbour greenhouses growing flowers and horticultural products mostly for the export market 100 years later. One wonders what he would have thought about greenhouses doting his former farm today.

His house at Aryam Secondary School complete with a water tank and its cedar and brick walls has stood the test of time. Major White is buried at Rumuruti where he died in 1952 of pneumonia aged 70. His burial place is a forest of exotic trees by a big river which rises not far from his farm.

This is perhaps a fitting monument to his early encounter with climatic change when the issue did not make headlines, the Kenyan plains teemed with game and forests, and man and nature lived in peace.  

Finally, I would have loved to eavesdrop a conversation between Major White and Wangari Maathai.

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  

XN Iraki World War I Major Harold Albert Duckett White Wangari Maathai
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