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VAS

ELECTION 2022

Meet colonial-era cooks and farmhands who hold Kenya's rich history

OPINION
By XN Iraki | May 8th 2022 | 4 min read
An old colonial house in Happy Valley formerly owned by Sir John Ramsden. [XN Iraki]

They did not go to the battle front. They remain in the shadows but hold the secret to colonialism. They are the men and women who worked for the Mzungu during the colonial era. They worked on the farm and in kitchens, and interacted with Mzungu daily. Yet, scholars have forgotten them.

Last week, I went looking for two former workers. Both were cooks, with official title of ‘kitchen boy’ - never mind they got their jobs aged 20. Other similar titles were head boy, second boy and shamba boy; rarely girls.

One, Mwai son of Karuma, lives in Lariak, Laikipia County. He previously lived in Mwenje in the same county but insecurity took him to present residence. He still keeps his 1955 passbook and employment cards.

I met Karuma in Nyahururu golf club for a chat. Now 87 years, he retains his sharp memory and is in good health.

“I started working for Jabby Trent in Laikipia around 1950,” he told me. He got tired and left for another Mzungu not far away, Walter Lowi.

The small town in Laikipia called Ol Jabet should just be called Jabby (after Jabby Trent). It’s not clear how the town name became Ol Jabet. But locals are right when they call the place ‘Kwa Njebi’ - Jabby’s place.

Worked for Mzungu

Karuma came from Nyeri to Laikipia where his parents were working for the colonials. As was tradition, their children too worked for Mzungu. His chief in Iria-ini location, Nyeri was E Mugo. The elderly always recall their chiefs.

In Lowi’s home, Karuma worked for about 40 years till his employer’s death in 1990. Lowi, a Jewish medic, had fled Czechoslovakia during WW II.  It is said the Nazi were after him. He came from present day Czech Republic.

There was another doctor in the neighbourhood, Anne Spoerry, who founded the Flying Doctors Service. She too fled Nazi Germany, but questions have been raised about her story. Curiously, I got Dr Lowi’s student pilot licence. Was he also a flying doctor? Did the two doctors interact?

Lowi practised medicine in Nyahururu, then Thomson Falls, and was one time the police pathologist, quoted in criminal appeal 54 of 1985. Locals remember ‘Kwa Lowi’ clinic.

Karuma says Lowi never took alcohol or smoked, but he kept all types of beers and wine in his house for his visitors. He recalls pushing a cart for the visitors to pick their drinks.

He says he lost his teeth because of eating sugary things in the Mzungu’s house.

I asked what he remembered of Lowi. He said he helped him educate his children up to high school and shielded him and his co-workers during Mau Mau. They were never repatriated to their home districts, nor took oath.

Lowi lived with his wife Lene but seems to have remarried a local girl. The house Lowi lived in is now owned by Waithaka Mwangi, former Nyandarua governor. His clinic is now a hotel in Nyahururu.

After his death, he was cremated and his ashes buried next to a tree in his former home. He had two children whose contact I am yet to get.

Waithaka’s daughter Wambui says they found lots of books in Afrikaan in Lowi’s former house. How did they get there? What is the connection between Lowi and Afrikaans (Boers), many of whom who lived around Nyahururu?

Karuma was paid Sh25 per month with annual increment of Sh2, says his employment card. Was it enough to cover inflation? He had ration (food) worth Sh13 per month and was housed. He had to get permission to leave his work place and he rarely travelled.

There is only one entry on his passbook. He went to Nairobi on October 20, 1956 and returned the next day. The passbook says one had to use the “most direct route”. The permission was given by E A Dodds on October 17, 1956. Who was Dodds?

I asked Karuma about the Mzungus he met. He remembers Cunningham and Robert, among others. As I dropped him at Ol Ngarua bus stage, he reminded me how empty that town was in the 1950s.

Another 35km drive to the south, I was in Shamata, Nyandarua County overlooking the Aberdares on the eastern edge of the Happy Valley. I was looking for another cook. When I visited England last month, Penny Hargrave, whose father Kenneth Wilfred Nunn (Kîhuko) farmed in Shamata asked about Joseph, who was their cook. I promised to look for him.

Munyari Ndirangu, who herded sheep for Nunn, led me to Joseph Ndungu Nginga. We arrived at his home around 5pm.

Old workmate

Nginga was surprised to see his old workmate. They seem not to meet often despite living in same neighbourhood. Nginga was a kitchen boy for Nunn. But he did not work as long as Karuma. Nunn was there for a short period, less than 10 years before independence swept him away.

Nginga recalls cooking for Nunn and someone else taking the food to him. Nunn does not seem to have lived the spartan life of Lowi. Nginga did not share his records like Karuma did of his employer.

One observation from Nunn workers is that he did not want to leave Kenya and his 800-acre farm. He had even suggested that his workers should contribute money and buy land in Thika. That never happened. 

I connected Nginga to Penny Hargrave by a video call and they had a lively conversation. They last met about 70 years ago when both were in their youth.

It was a nostalgic end to my search for cooks who once worked for Mzungu. Their stories might not excite professors of history, but they are authentic and original. Better than any textbook you will ever read.

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