Like much else in life, history, too, has two sides to it. Often, the warrior’s version of events differs greatly from the tale told by the hare during a fireside chat. Each dwells on triumph and none talks of defeat. Each has versions of great courage and none talks of fear. Each talks of happily-ever-after; none talks of tragedy and misfortune.
But all these come into play in the story of Kenya’s white population. Fortune and misfortune sit side by side, courage and fear co-exist, and tragedy and triumph afflict bloodlines in equal measure.
With every passing generation, it seems that the collective histories of this segment of population are slowly being forgotten or deleted from the nation’s memory. Yet, just like many of those who call Kenya home, there exists, within this population, men and women on whose back the country was, and continues, to be built.
But first we have to acknowledge the history of Kenya’s former colonial masters. The atrocities carried out will forever be remembered by those who lived through one of the country’s darkest periods, and their collective grief is carried over generations in the hearts of survivors.
The first time I met Martin Evans and his son, Matt, there was little time for pleasantries. Conversations around the country, and most importantly in Laikipia where the Evans family lives, were centred on violent attacks and the equally bloody reprisals that followed.
- 1 Untold story of Kenya’s last white settlers
- 2 The secrets of Aberdares and the Blue Ocean Strategy
- 3 White farmers lived in squalor, had to contend with jiggers
- 4 The secrets of Aberdares and the Blue Ocean Strategy
- 5 White farmers lived in squalor, had to contend with jiggers
Property had been destroyed and a few good men had been lost — killed either by bullet, spear or arrow. Tensions were high. When we walked into the family ranch house, we were met by a fully kitted officer from the British Army, an M16 rifle purposefully in his hands.
The rolling hills that surround the Evans farm did little to muffle the sound of sporadic gunfire in the distance.
As guests, we were ushered to the back of the house; past 20-litre bottles of mineral water and tins of homemade biscuits before settling on a veranda overlooking an airstrip. This, it seemed, is where everybody wanted to be.
A refrigerator stocked with bottles of beer provided companionship. Those with a preference for more fiery drinks sat next to a table lined with gin, vodka and brandy.
“Have a drink, guys,” Matt told us.
We were at the end of a long journey on the trail of cattle herders who were moving from one farm to another in search of pasture. In their wake they left a trail of death and destruction.
At the time, it seemed that there was no right or wrong side; only sides between which loss and heartache lay sandwiched. It is here that the Evans family had found space. Martin, the patriarch whom we had hoped to have a conversation with, was not at home.
As the chair of the Laikipia Farmers Association, we figured that he had a lot to say about what was going on at the time. Farmers like him called it an invasion while cattle owners spoke of reclaiming their ancestral lands.
We wanted to speak to Martin on the push and pull between landowners and pastoralists, and the political undertones of the moment. But, most importantly, what solutions could be arrived at to end the hostilities and killings, and restore calm.
But Martin was in Rongai attending to matters at another family business. So we put our feet up, grabbed a few beers and prepared for what we thought would be a long wait.
When we were done with the first beers, we were told he had left Rongai. By the time we were halfway through the second beers, a fixed-wing plane touched down on the runway and a smiling Martin disembarked, ready for our interview.
We talked about the farm invasions and the needless loss of lives; both of landowners and cattle herders. Our time in Rumuruti and the greater Laikipia was punctuated by gunshots and billowing smoke from burning lodges and farm houses.
The Evans family is one of many whose grandparents left England to settle in Kenya. The 2019 census estimates that 20,000 White Kenyans still call this country home — a number that has reduced significantly since Independence. The reason, they say, is that they were never seen as being ‘Kenyan enough.’
The second time I met Martin, there was less drama. There were no killings but only the memory of past deaths. Instead of a cold beer, there was tea that was brewed by dipping a fistful of tea bags into a pan of water over a noisy 3kg gas cylinder in a 20-foot container that served as an office.
Matt poured the black tea into a cup before filling it with long-life milk retrieved from the fridge. A wide assortment of seeds lay scattered around the office. Matt said the family was trying its hand at large-scale crop farming. As we sipped on the tea, Martin arrived in a white Land Rover.
“My grandfather and grandmother are buried in a Nakuru cemetery. My uncle is buried there as well,” Martin said. “I was born in Nakuru. Why would anyone think I am not Kenyan?”
The story of the Evans family, like that of many other settler families, begins with war. In particular, it begins with the battle for Longido in Tanzania.
On September 20, 1915, the British Royal Forces planned what they thought would be the last attack to capture an area that had been fought over on several occasions against German forces since the start of World War 1.
On this day, an assault on Longido Mountain in Arusha District was planned. Three British companies were set to launch an all-out attack on German positions, take the hill and consequently dent the prospects of German dominance in East Africa.
But fate had other plans. From the very beginning, the British forces had got their intelligence wrong. They had underestimated the number of German forces. Reconnaissance missions by the British estimated the Germans to be only 200. In reality, at least 600 well-armed enemy soldiers lay in wait.
The plan was to launch a surprise assault at dawn. The 1st Company of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) was to get in position above the enemy on the mountain before first light when they would proceed with a silent bayonet attack.
The 2nd Company was to take up position below the enemy and advance towards the enemy as soon as the assault started. They also had orders to attack if the 1st Company had not reached its position by dawn.
Two other regiments, the East African Mounted Rifles (EAMR) and the KAR Mounted Infantry (KARMI), were to position themselves on a ridge to the north overlooking the enemy’s position. The idea was that the Germans, finding themselves surrounded on three sides, would retreat in the only direction left open, and into the arms of the 4th Company that would be waiting in the plains.
But all did not go according to plan.
“The First Company was not able to reach their position by dawn. The Second Company proceeded alone, but quickly became entangled in thorn hedges that had been erected as defence by British troops who had previously occupied the area,” writes Sally Wilson in her book The Mules Are Splendid, which chronicles exploits by British forces in WWI.
“This resulted in splitting the Second Company into several smaller groups. The noise made by these men attempting to communicate with one another alerted the Germans of the attack. As the Second Company crested the ridge, they were met by heavy fire from the Germans and, unfortunately, from the EAMR and KARMI,” Wilson writes.
From then on, it all went south and the British troops retreated. When the dust settled, official records show that 41 British soldiers lay dead. Among the many wounded was Pole Pole Evans.
“He got badly hurt in his back and leg,” Martin said. “But he played dead among the deceased, injured and bleeding.”
That is where the triumph started for the Evans family.
Family lore has it that Pole Pole survived for a couple of days, evading critical German eyes that roved over former British positions in search of the wounded, killing every living soul in their wake. The Germans, according to Pole Pole, were not interested in prisoners of war.
In a strange twist, the Germans eventually abandoned Longido Mountain and British rescuers visited the battle ground to cart away the few remaining survivors and the dead.
“They told him he would never walk again, “Martin said. “He was badly off.”
But Pole Pole regained the use of his legs, slowly shuffling along and dragging one of his feet. After being released from the army, Pole Pole did not return to Britain. Instead, he joined his mother — Martin’s great grandmother —who had come to Nyeri to run a coffee plantation more than a decade earlier, in 1902.
Pole Pole’s brother, Kiberenge, had also ventured into Africa. But he was not an army man, more of the adventurous type.
“He was a sailor,” Martin said. “My great grandmother told Kiberenge that before he settled in Kenya, he needed to get some money of his own.”
Kiberenge, Martin’s grandfather, had to have cash if life in this new British colony was to be tolerable. “He bought a hunting license and came to Africa with three of his friends. They started their journey from Cape Town, moving north.”
This was in 1908. The four men made their way up through Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, hunting elephants along the way.
“They didn’t have a license for German East Africa. I think he was poaching,” Martin said.
Back then, game hunters who survived goring from startled buffaloes hired porters to transport ivory and other game products to the nearest port. In most cases, this was the port of Beira in Mozambique. The loot was accompanied by a letter to the hunter’s bank manager instructing the money man to sell the merchandise and bank the money on behalf of the hunter.
While the game exports made a few settlers wealthy, the natural wealth that was shipped from deep inside Africa contributed significantly to the advancement of the West. Entire enterprises in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Spain and Germany were built with proceeds of Africa’s resources.
After months spent moving up the continent, Kiberenge arrived in Nyeri in 1910. But the weather on the slopes of Mt Kenya did not favour the sailor. He left Nyeri and the family-run coffee plantation and headed to Mogotio in Baringo.
“He loved the place,” Martin said.
Kiberenge bought a farm and named it Alfega, a play on words from the Greek Alpha and Omega. The farm still stands and is run as a sisal estate.
But Kiberenge was not done. A few years later, he married and bought another farm in Tinderet that he put under tea. He bought a third farm in Kambi Moto, which he sold to a prominent family in 1968 to buy the Ol Maisor Ranch.
Thirty-one-year-old Matt prefers farm life to everything else. Although he was born in Nairobi, he is at peace in Rumuruti.
When he leaves, it is to visit friends or to oversee affairs at the other family business, Rongai Workshop and Transport Limited. He also dashes to Nanyuki to stock up on essentials.
The police reservist talks like any other middle-class Nairobian of his age, sprinkling his speech with Kiswahili.
“This farming maneno is ngumu bana,” he says. “You wake up kila siku at like 6am. Non-stop for like eight months straight.”
“Ngombe was pole pole,” he adds, “But this shamba is crazy. Everyday is a Monday bana. Full-time. I have got to lima, prepare man, hard work.”
Ol Maisor was initially nearly exclusively used for cattle rearing. With the third generation of the Evanses now easing into the running of the business, Matt and his brother are going back to crop farming.
As arid as it might be in Rumuruti, the family focuses on large-scale wheat and other grain farming.
“We have gone a bit high tech,” Matt said. The wheat fields stretch over 3,000 acres and ploughing, planting and weeding is done with the aid of GPS.
“The amount of work we put in every day is what makes me wonder why people might look at us as foreigners,” Matt said, before his father interjected. Martin is passionate about the question of Kenyan-ness.
“In 1963, Jomo had a big meeting in Nakuru and called all the mzungu farmers. My father was there. Jomo told the farmers that he knew they were scared of Independence and were thinking of fleeing Kenya. But he wanted us to stay so that they could build Kenya together.
“Many left. But the ones that stayed wanted to be here. This is where we want to be. This is home. We are doing our best in helping build the nation,” Martin said.
Like other Kenyans, the family, too, is unhappy with the current state of governance.
“The economy of the country is based on tourism and agriculture, but the government doesn’t really care about the farmers. They do not care at all. The whole system is manipulated and rigged against the farmers,” Matt said.
As if on cue, the older Evans jumped into the conversation. “When I started wheat-farming in 1980, we produced almost 80 per cent of the wheat we needed. But now, all the good farms have been sub-divided. The best wheat land is being used by speculators. Do they not think of the future? That is why we are moving into more marginal areas.”
He continued: “To me, cities and towns should be going up, not sideways, and put up on rocky grounds. Sadly, planning isn’t happening. All the nice pieces of farmland are being converted into malls, estates and shops. Does Vision 2030 address the containment of cities? Good farmland is being put to real estate.”
I got the feeling that the sorry state of agriculture, the problems farmers are facing and the feeling of abandonment by the State in this sector was a common dinner-table conversation at Ol Maisor.
But these challenges can be fixed. If not from an industry point of view, then politically. But the Evans family and others need to be actively involved.
The perception surrounding White Kenyan families is that of obscene wealth; a microcosm of society that doesn’t identify as Kenyans. A life of secluded Karen Cowboys going about their business as if they live in a different world.
Yet the reality is that most of them feel like they belong. Kenya is home and they know nowhere else. But their participation in governance, politics and ongoing national conversations is heavily muted. How then do they claim to belong in this fast-evolving society? How do they claim recognition for the roles they have played in nation-building, just like the pioneering entrepreneurs and farmers that existed when the nation was cobbled together?
“Our absence from politics is an important point. But we like to stay under the radar. We have to keep it low,” Martin said. “We want to keep to our business.”
The community, though, has had some politicians of repute — Bruce Mackenzie, Philip and Richard Leakey. “But they didn’t do very well, did they?” Martin said. “We may not want to be seen publicly but we do support politics.”
Matt’s explanation about this tendency to stay in the background reveals an awareness of racial undercurrents.
“There is always a question of our origins,” he said. “You are asked wewe umetoka wapi? I tell people I am from Nakuru and they refuse. Ask me again, nyumbani haswa ni wapi? It can be frustrating. But ni namna hiyo tu.”
Despite these questions on origins, Matt said he believes their enduring spirit will carry the day. “This is home. We are here to stay. Kenyans are all the same despite the colour of their skin. We all want a better life for ourselves and our kids.”