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Eldoret or El Dorado? How a naming puzzle was solved

Ongoing construction of Eldoret 64 Stadium, June 15, 2022. [Stephen Rutto, Standard]

When the whites arrived in Kenya at the end of the 19th Century, they found many local names hard to pronounce. Many areas had Maasai names since the community used these locations as grazing and watering grounds for their cattle. Nairobi, Nakuru, Naivasha and many others are all 'modernised' Maasai names. 

Then there were those places whose names grew organically. Among these is Eldoret. Boers from South Africa and the British invaded the area in early 20th Century. There was a scramble of sorts for the rich Rift Valley highlands.

Uasin Gishu would have been the first African settlement for European Jews before such plans flopped in 1905. Two years later, British authorities made land offers to the Boers in order to exploit the farming opportunities in the region.

Among the Boers was Jansen van Rensburg who came to scout the colony in 1907. Rensburg was promised that should he bring up 30 families or more, Uasin Gishu would belong to South Africans with each settler getting a farm proportionate to the extent of his assets. The offer was too good for Rensburg to turn down.

The Boer secured promises from 50 families and started the trek from South Africa to Kenya in June 1908. Their arrival made authorities to subdivide land in Uasin Gishu into smaller plots.

Plot Number 64 fell on Willie Van Aardt though the local post office gave the plot's address as Eldore River that merged with Sosiani, or 'Saucy Annie' to the locals. The settlers called the place  '64', a name still used for some establishments like the main stadium in Eldoret.

Nobody, it seemed, was sure what to call the new urban settlement. A visit by then Governor Sir Percy Girouard solved the puzzle. One speaker, hoping to curry favour with the governor suggested the town be named in his honour. But the governor refused, saying no settler would spell the name while no local could manage to pronounce it.

"In view of the wonderful prospects of the young district, it was a happy omen that its present name should be so like El Dorado," wrote Christine Nicholls in Red Strangers: The White Tribe of Kenya. El Dorado is a mythical place early explorers believed was a city full of gold and other precious stones in the Americas.

Eldore River or 64 was Kenya's El Dorado. However, the governor suggested that a 't' be added to Eldore "as many place names in the district ended with this letter". And so we got a Kenyan name for a town in a region that would have either gone to the Zionists or became a permanent settlement for South African Boers.