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Echoes from the past: Nanyuki, colonial settlers and the donkeys

NATIONAL
By Amos Kareithi | May 10th 2021
Nanyuki cash store in the early 1920s. [Courtesy]

Bogus agreements, randy donkeys and ice on the equator have at different times described one of Kenya’s oldest towns.

The name Nanyuki, to historians, evokes memories of a time when illiterate Africans signed off their land rights to colonialists. It also brings back echoes of revered Maasai leader, Lenana ole Batian, the prophet who was tricked to move his people from the Laikipia plateau at the expense of his people so that he could be made a colonial chief. The Brits also named one of the peaks of Mt Kenya after Lenana’s father Mbatian to placate him after he died from a disease the colonial hospitals could treat but they did not intervene.

But the legacy left behind by the colonialists who moved to Nanyuki in 1907 following the Maasai Agreement of 1904 which was later solidified by another in 1911, still lives on. When this picture of Nanyuki as a trading centre with grass-thatched buildings serving as stores was taken in 1920, Kenya was already a colony.

The Second World War was Nanyuki’s turning point as the colonial government hived off 950,000 acres in 1919 which was used to reward white soldiers in what was described as the Soldier Settlement Scheme. These are the militants who would later try to make Kenya an exclusive whites man’s country.

Not many of the soldiers could invest £1,000 (Sh150,000 in present-day), a condition set by the government, and many of them had to forfeit that privilege to the few moneyed settlers.

The colonialists went ahead to establish the White Highlands which unofficially acted as the headquarters of the settlers from Nanyuki. Their women came up with rules some of which banned among others female donkeys from being found in the town. This was after some donkeys were seen mating causing a rampage in town.   

And just as the town near the Equator had attracted the colonial settlers, hotels and merrymakers followed suit, perhaps also drawn in by the allure of nearby Mt Kenya. In the meantime, the colonial government elevated Nanyuki into a district headquarters for Laikipia, a status it would retain up to 2013 when it lost the headquarter status to Rumuruti town.

The colonial-era settlers may be gone but the town is still populated with Jonnies, courtesy of the British Army Training Unit situated within the town. This and the presence of topnotch hotels and ranches which operate game sanctuaries guarantee the town a steady flow of tourists, giving it a unique identity.   

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