Chiromo, the 160-year old house protected by mystic powers

The imposing house that is now part of the University of Nairobi.[Photo: Amos Kareithi/Standard]


By Amos Kareithi

The arched black cat standing on the spine of the roof of this mansion has defied conventional wisdom. With is paws clawing the 156-year-old red tiles, the black feline is supposed to be submissive to its parrying partner.

Some observers are convinced the black creature is a cat, but others argue it is a dog, which is on its guard eyeing the white cat from a distance.

Between the black and the white cat, which anthropologists explain represents white supremacy and dominance over black, stands what masters of mysticism call the third eye, the occult symbol which is supposed to have offered protection to the house and its occupants.

To the anthropologists, the black cat is a god, Ju, that represents black and by extension Kenyans, while the white cat symbolises Ja, a god who is superior just like the white settlers who dominated the indigenous people. These experts of the supernatural powers believe the two are West African gods, after which one of the most expansive states was named after Juja, which is now a vibrant town.

The name Chiromo too is derived from a place in Malawi where the original owner of the house Ewart Grogan who is reputed to have trekked from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo was attacked. At Chiromo, the cantankerous settler was robbed almost all his luggage and in his twisted humour decided to immortalise the incidence by naming his house in Nairobi, Chiromo.

To put up the fabulous house, Grogan bought 113 acres of land. He decided to set his house at the junction of Kirichwa and Nairobi Rivers and enlisted the services of an architect, H O Creswell while Indian masons were recruited to construct. And what a house he built.

Some of the tiles removed from its roof when it was being rehabilitated tell a tale of their own. The brick-red roofing tiles indicate that an Indian, Bastel Mission of the Tile Works Company, Mangalarole of India, manufactured them in 1865.

There are more imprints from India as the artisans and masons who dressed the stones and constructed the monumental structure were also from India. The window seals retell the story of masons who loved carving with stones and left nothing to chance.

“The timber was imported from Canada, while the wooden floor tiles were imported from Europe. This is the timber that was used to make the wooden panels all over the house. The wooden door leading to the main house bears Grogan’s name and the year, 1905,” explains Kibe Kiragu, an anthropologist.

The most striking feature of the house is its windowpanes at the front verandah. The intricate occult designs are still intact, with the main door embellished with a coloured glass bearing Grogan’s initials: ESG.

Designs intact

Kibe explains that the existence of the glass is an indication that since the house was constructed in 1900, the glass has remained intact. The anthropologist does not appear surprised by this fact, despite the turmoil that has hit Nairobi and Chiromo for the last 112 or so years.

 “Grogan was not an ordinary person. He belonged to a secret society that believed in mystic powers. Here are symbols and other indications that his house was a Templar Lodge, frequented by Free Masons. Their power is believed to have prevented the house from being vandalised,” Kibe adds.

The tales surrounding the house kept vandals at bay even during long interludes when it was abandoned. Some of the most conspicuous symbols of the mystic power include the white and the black cats, the circular occult eye, likened to the third eye of an ogre, and protruding stone structures that signal there are more powerful powers superior to the earthly beings.

Just at the entrance of the outer compound of the house overlooking the parking outside the Institute of Anthropology Gender and African Studies is a tiny metal bolt protruding from the cemented base.

The metal protrusion that looks like the head of a bolt is surrounded by a rectangular drawing and an arrow, which according to Kibe is aligned to the occult eye on the roof of the mansion, placed between the two cats.

However according to Judy Aldrick, who recently published a book, Northrup, The Life of William Northrup McMillan, the miniature statues at the roof of Chiromo house are not two cats but a black cat and a dog.

“The back of the cat is arched, the tail held aloft ready to resist the approach of the jolly dog that barks and wags his tail. Perhaps this is meant to symbolise the basic differences in nature of man and women, or perhaps it is a subtle comment on the characters of the house owners, Lucie and Northrup,” writes Aldrick.

She explains that as pictures of the house taken when Grogan owned it do not have these animals and proposes that McMillan, who first rented it out in 1910 before he consequently bought it from Grogan in 1915, could have placed them.

Back to the house there is evidence that the Lunatic Express as the Uganda Railway was called when it was constructed, passed just behind the house. This is evident from the now dry fountain that was used as a watering hole to cool the train as the noisy engine chugged on its way to Kikuyu and Western Kenya to Uganda.

“The railway was, however, relocated after Lucie, McMillan’s wife, complained that it was disturbing her peace. At the time, she was very influential as she was the chairperson of the East African Federation,” Kibe says.

The rail was relocated from the Norfolk–Chiromo route and rerouted to Kibera, a native location where Africans would not mind even if the train made noise during the day and at night. About 20 feet from the watering hole is another ancient piece of evidence linked to the 1900 era when the likes of Grogan McMillan and Lord Delamare were like a law unto themselves and could challenge courts.

Dr Thomas Mwangi, who has done extensive research on McMillan explains that the gigantic fig tree at the back of the house is more than a century old and was at one point used by the settlers to hang, flog and humiliate Africans.

“We call it the hanging tree. Grogan, who was notorious for mercilessly tormenting Africans would parade their servants at the tree and hang them from the branches. At times he would grab victims who had just been sentenced by a court and offer his version of justice,” Mwangi says.  

Concealed tunnel

A tour round the house that now serves as part of Nairobi University’s Chiromo Campus, accommodating the Institute of African studies gives credence to some of the unpopular uses. There is a concealed tunnel that leads out to a cubicle where a settler could easily sneak out of the house and head to the stables and gallop undetected to the nearby St Mary’s Msongari for reinforcement.

Alongside the tunnel, expertly concealed by the wooden tiles are cells where undesirable Africans were locked up if they crossed the Grogan’s the wrong way. There is a small panel that was used to deliver food to prisoners held there.

Besides being used as a centre for disciplining errant Africans, Aldrick hints that Chiromo was at one time used as Government House or State House in today’s parlance, especially by Sir James Hayes Saddler the commissioner for British East Africa.

It is believed that key decisions affecting the whole of Kenya, which was in the early years under Imperial British East African Company before being transformed into a protectorate, were made at Chiromo. Saddler preferred to use Chiromo instead of Government House for entertaining important guests as the guesthouse was more spacious. In one of the rooms, a wooden seat set by the window served as an armory as it could be opened and hunting guns stored.

Even after the immensely rich McMillan died in 1931, his wife Lucie continued residing in Chiromo until 1957 after which it was abandoned and neglected.

Its fortunes changed in 1964 when it was rented out to British Institute in East Africa for 19 years until 1983, when again it was abandoned. This time, the residence that had at one point been used as State House by the colonialists was reduced into a garbage-dumping site.

Never vandalised

Interestingly, despite being abandoned and used as a dumping site it was never vandalised and to date retains some of the fittings that Grogan had supervised as Indian artisans fitted a century later.

Despite the rough patches the house has been through, it is snow sparkling, its mahogany beams shining from constant varnish. The walls that held cases of whisky are now empty and so are the kitchen closets that held aristocratic cutlery. The walls that once held cabinets to store carefully selected vintage wines and spirits are now empty although grey metallic shelves now hold countless pots, wooden trays and other African anthropological material.

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