Bad omen that birthed pioneer teacher training school

Ms Minnie Watson lays the foundation for Thogoto church, 1922. [File, Standard]

Every garbage heap has its uses as long as the wind is blowing in the right direction, so wrote Nigeria's celebrated writer, Wole Soyinka. But what good can come out of a series of natural calamities that wiped out more than half the population?

When Kenya's pioneer of primary and boarding school, Minnie Watson, arrived in Kikuyu in December 1899, nothing in the world could have prepared her for the death, suffering and anarchy that awaited.

Minnie, who was newly married to a missionary, Thomas Watson, was to be on honeymoon, having solemnised her marriage on December 18, 1899, but she was confronted by death.

A devastating drought had gripped the area since 1897. Rinderpest had wiped out all cattle. Hundreds of people were lying all over the area dead or dying of starvation. There had been heavy locust invasions in 1894-96.

And without wasting time, the newly married couple started off what can be described as the first famine relief. They started a relief camp at Thogoto on January 8, 1900.

"On the very next day, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the camp. By February 20, 1900, Thomas and Minnie were caring for 81 people with smallpox in small tent camps scattered around the mission area and were feeding another 200-300 people daily," reads an excerpt from the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

The famine was so severe that government records indicate that about half the people died from the twin disaster of drought and famine. To accommodate patients afflicted with smallpox, Watson built tents but even then, their relatives refused to take food to them.

The riverbanks were filled with the dead and although at first, the missionaries tried to bury the dead, they could not cope. It is in these camps that Minnie started what became the first missionary school.

Her husband, Watson, succumbed to pneumonia on December 4, 1900, leaving his young bride to soldier alone in caring for the sick even as she nurtured her pupils. Her rudimentary school at Thogoto administered from a wooden ramshackle meant to be the kitchen, however, performed miracles.

By 1920, pupils had increased to 3,000 among them Jomo Kenyatta, who confessed how he had been attracted to Thogoto by what he perceived to be the magic of education.

Serving as headmistress of the mission schools system, in the morning, Minnie taught the most promising students to be teachers, working with the teacher trainees to teach during the day and boarding school students in the afternoons, and the mission workers at night.