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Australians have rich history in Kenya

By XN Iraki | October 4th 2020

Cattle grazing at a farm in Rumuruti recently. Harold White, an Australian who settled in the area after the First World War, was a prominent livestock farmer. [File, Standard]

Obsession with the present can deny us the joy of the past and its lessons. It’s in that spirit that I decided to follow a historical thread after finding out that the father to Alison Chartres, the current Australian high commissioner to Kenya, once worked as an assistant farm manager in Nyandarua County just before independence.

By a curious twist of events, the grandfather to a previous Australian high commissioner (1982-1986), Geoffrey White, once farmed in Kenya. He was Major Harold Albert Duckett White.

The Whites owned two farms; one in the wet and well watered Lesirko in Nyandarua and another in a much drier Ndurumo in Laikipia. They were part of soldier settler settlement scheme.

We noted earlier that Ndurumo is a misspelling of Ndururumo, meaning waterfall. Major White, a veteran of World War I, saw action in Turkey and Palestine, and is buried at Rumuruti. Last month, I set our to look for his resting place, driven by curiosity.

I was at Rumuruti at 7am, passing through Nyahururu - formerly Thomson Falls and once home to Afrikaans, complete with a Dutch Reformed Church that was sold to Africa Inland Church after independence. There was a school too, Jan Van Riebeck, now Ndururumo High School). An adjoining cemetery has most of its epitaphs vandalised.

From Nyahururu to Rumuruti, it becomes drier, flatter and warmer. This town seems to demarcate the dry north from the wet south. It is now the capital of Laikipia County, an old town going by its architecture. Streets have unusual names from Government Road to GG Kariuki and Kihika Kimani.

My interest was across the River Ewaso Nyiro on the way to Nanyuki, about one kilometre from the town centre. To the left after admiring the slow-moving river was a forest of mostly exotic trees. The river rises from the Aberdares  through Lake Ol Bollosat, a lifeline for Laikipia and Isiolo counties.

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“Where is the cemetery for mzungus?” I asked a bodaboda rider. “Over there in that forest.”

A left turn just after the bridge leads you to Rumuruti Club with buildings made of cedar, now an almost extinct tree. The club does not seem to have gone through any recent renovation.

I drove back about 100 metres and took a right turn through the tall trees. Another 100 metres and a magnificent house appeared, a complete contrast to the club. Like the club, it appeared in disuse. Some dogs next to a small house across the river with a concrete bridge betrayed my presence.

A young lady met me. “ Jambo, I am looking for a cemetery”. “Come I will show you,” she suggested.

We crossed the bridge and walked past her small house, crossed the river again over a makeshift bridge. “Over there lies the cemetery,” she told me then left.  I could only see tall trees. I kept walking, cheered on by the river as it meandered around.

Finally, in a section that looked abandoned and overgrown with foliage, I saw some tombstones with names like Irene Claire, who died in 1945 aged 10 months, Sara Louisa Grimeck who died in 1962 aged 90 and Charles Alfred Longsdon Butler. I walked around looking for a particular name. Some graves had their epitaphs removed. Why?

The foliage made it hard to identify more graves. Was this the cemetery of interest, I wondered. The place was unusually quiet and rays of morning light filtered through the tall trees. I decided to leave after failing to locate the tombstone I was looking for. Remember I was all alone, in a cemetery at sunrise.

But how could I give up after driving 250km?. One more round, I decided. What of the middle of the cemetery, despite the thick foliage? There was what looked like a big stone. I got closer and cleared the undergrowth with my foot.

It was no ordinary stone, it was the tombstone I was looking for! Major Harold A D White’s resting place. The mission was not yet accomplished. Where did he live? Where was his house?

My sources told me there is a mzungu’s house at Aiyam Secondary School about 10km towards Kinamba, not far from Kuki Galmann’s ranch. I drove to the school to find a young man, who showed me an old house partly made of bricks and partly cedar. Was this DA White’s house?

Simple house

I shared the photos with his grandson, Geoffrey in Australia; he had lived in that simple house with his grandfather around 1946. His grandfather had left Australia for Africa in 1919. Geoffrey confirmed it was indeed his house. 

I was surprised by the frugal nature of the lifestyle of these early farmers who took risks to introduce modern farming to Kenya. In Ndurumo, White was a breeder of fine Boran stud. He also introduced Ayrshire breed in Kenya. Is the school aware of the deep Australian connection?

It was time to drive back to Nairobi, with a stopover at Nyahururu Club for a game of golf. I also stopped at “Ha Menja” between Nyahururu and Ol Kalou. Lesirko, White’s other farm, is about three kilometres to the west of this bus stage. It was owned by his son Harold, from the 1930s.

A 1960 report by the Committee on the Organisation of Agriculture in Kenya was written by Sir Donald Macgillivray, Angus Lawrie and Harold White.

A new small shop by the road, painted white, has the name ‘Major X’. I wished the owner would ask me to solve for X.

On my way back, I wondered why Major White  settled in Rumuruti, a land dry and flat. He probably looked for a place that looked like the Australian outback. But why such a long trip? Is curiosity enough?

The 100 year-old Laikipia-Australia connection goes beyond grevillia and eucalyptus, the exotic trees native to Australia. It’s time we leveraged on this connection through tourism, cultural and educational exchanges and trade.

Why not twin Rumuruti with the city where Harold Albert Duckett White came from and where his descendants still live? Don’t we live in a global village despite the Covid-19 disruption, which will one day come to pass?

It is more than a 100 years since the white highlands and white plains were settled by mostly British settlers and other nationalities. It’s time to reconnect with these nationalities.

- The writer is associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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