Kericho, Kenya: Kericho, unlike the rest of the greater Rift Valley, does not pride itself in having the best athletes. Neither is it home to the world’s best freshwater lakes. Its pride comes from something less grand.
On the way from Nairobi, Makutano Shopping Centre branches from the main Nakuru-Eldoret highway like an elbow, forever cursed into a right-angle position.
If you drive on, you get to Eldoret Town in slightly more than an hour. If you turn left, you surrender yourself to undulating tarmac that leads straight into the heart of the former White Highlands, Chepsir, then St Paul’s Church.
To the left and the right of the house of God are acres upon acres of indigenous trees. Then the tea plantations pop up and seamlessly blend into what has come to be accepted as the natural vegetation of Kenya’s largest tea growing zone.
Little blocks of off-white walls and red roofs disrupt the greenery. Strands of smoke billow from the small chimneys, rising into the thin crisp air, and eventually disappearing into grey skies, heavy with an impending afternoon drizzle that can drag on for hours.
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“No matter how many times you use this route, you never get used to this sight,” my driver, Joseph Kibiator offers.
The Nairobi-Kericho route has been his playground for the past five years. But he has called Kericho home for the 33 years of his life.
“Nisimame upige picha (Should I stop so that you can take photos)?” Kibiator offers, sensing the awe of a newcomer.
It’s a tempting offer, but I turn it down, feeling a growing impatience among the rest of the travellers in the eleven-seater matatu.
At Kaisugu, a handful of employees are hard at work. Years of practice ensure they only use their thumb, index and middle fingers to cut, tear and curl the buds.
This bountiful harvest is Kericho’s pride... tea. World famous tea. Green tea. Black tea. Purple tea. All kinds of tea.
Almost single-handedly, the tea industry has been the driving force behind not only Kericho’s economy, but its very existence.
But, close to 100 years since the beverage was first introduced to the area, a big part of this way of life is under threat. At the core of this disruption are two of Kenya’s most emotive issues – land and historical injustices.
Kispigis folklore has it that one night, two brave men, concerned over the speed at which the white man’s machinery was mowing down sacred trees to create room for more tea bushes, ventured out to put a stop to this.
They had neither weapons nor intricate plans of sabotage. Theirs was a simple mandate: To walk as far from their village as possible and put up a beacon that would mark the boundary of the tea plantations and the villages.
Laibon Kipchomber arap Koilegen and Laibon Kiboygot were afraid that, given a chance, the white man would cut all their trees and the community would have nowhere to source medicine or put their traditional beehives.
“The next day, the white men could not work. No matter how hard they tried, they could not cut down any more trees. That boundary exists to date,” Mzee Elly Sigilai, an elder among the Talai Clan of the Kipsigis, told The Standard on Sunday.
But the damage had been done and more lay in wait. In creating space for the tea plantations, thousands of families were evicted from their ancestral land and shepherded into reserves.
In 1934, on behalf of King George V, the then governor Henry Conway Belfield signed an ordinance to provide for the removal and settlement of laibons (traditional leaders) from Kericho to Gwasi.
“In exercise of the powers conferred upon me by section 1 of the Laibons Removal Ordinance, 1934, I do hereby appoint the 25th day of September, 1934 as the date upon which the said ordinance shall come into operation,” reads a letter by one Juxon Barton, acting for the then colonial secretary.
On October 22, 1934, the families were moved at a cost of Sh16,926. The money was to cater for logistics such as paying the government workers and buying food for the long trek. Other families were to follow suit; the Kalenjin uprising had to be quelled.
“Wachane jaduong,” Sigilai greets a friend along one of the crowded streets of Kericho Town, and continues the conversation in Luo. He is fluent in both Kipsigis and Luo.
He says he was among the people that were moved from Kericho to Gwasi, Lambwe Valley in 1934. In his shirt pocket is a foolscap, neatly folded, with names of those his family lost during the move.
“Malaria, sleeping sickness, snakebites… plus the loss of a will to live. Those were the things that killed our people,” he says.
Although the Laibons Removal Ordinance Act partly came to an end after the second world war, Sigilai says the scars from his family’s uprooting still ache like fresh wounds, and little was done for the victims. Even after the colonial government decided to send some of the displaced families back to Kericho from Gwasi, the decision met some resistance. On November 13, 1947, the Kericho district commissioner’s office sent a letter to the Nyanza Provincial Commissioner.
The letter reads in part: “With all respect I think we should face up to the fact that we should concentrate on the children, and brutal though it may seem, leave the old men to die out gradually in Gwasi. If we concentrate on the children…
“I am quite agreeable to the old and young women returning here gradually, but quite frankly I have little sympathy with the actual age grade who made life so difficult for government in the past…”
In discussion was the possibility of moving 20 young exiles who had attained marriage age back home. The taboos and norms of the exiled Kipsigis did not allow them to marry among the Kuria or Luo that lived around them.
Mzee Sigilai demands the multinationals leave Kericho. “If they think they brought us the tea, they can uproot their bushes and leave with them. We want our soil,” he says, his voice trembling with emotion.
He, like his forefathers, still maintains the white man and all he represents must leave his town and the ridges that Kalenjin clans once occupied, but are currently covered with picturesque tea bushes.
The only difference between him and his grandfather, Koilegen, is that he will not use spears to wage a war, but the law to stage a battle.
Recently, the county assemblies of Kericho and Bomet passed motions in the two houses for compensation for unlawful and forceful acquisition of land by the British colonial government in 1918 to pave way for the tea plantations.