James ‘Jimmy’ Brooks can be two people at the same time. He can be hard to convince. He can be cold in conversation and dead set in his beliefs and perceptions. For him, there exists little room for grey areas in his human relationships. You are either friend or foe. With him or against him.
But he can also be extremely funny, cracking jokes at the drop of a hat, breaking into anecdotes of his childhood and the adventures that he, as a young boy, went through while growing up in Homa Bay.
In these two contradicting qualities, Jimmy, like the rest of us, is human and he wears his emotions, his feelings on his sleeve.
For decades, a section of Kenyans remains excluded from conversations that are hoped will shape the nation. Excluded from the day-to-day politics of the country and are often thought of as wealthy outsiders carrying the sins of their forefathers.
Now, the descendants of European migrants speak up and say they, too, are as Kenyan as anyone else who claims ownership of this East African nation. We share their dreams, thoughts and fears, and why they are here to stay.
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Jimmy is one of them.
If you drive from Kisumu towards Kericho you will get to Awasi after 40km. About 8km after passing Awasi, turn left towards Muhoroni. At the Muhoroni’s main junction, turn right towards Fort Ternan, then turn left, abandoning the main road, at boda boda stage.
Here, behind an M-Pesa shop, a small kiosk stocking sodas, doughnuts, milk, cigarettes and cakes, and next to a woman selling roast maize, is a brown and white signpost, towering over all other signage.
The signpost reads Homa Lime Company Limited, Koru. It is not very big, but is just large enough for the raucous laughter from the boda boda riders to bounce off every so often. After taking this junction, you drive further up the road, past Koru town, then take another sharp right turn at another signpost and through giant jacaranda trees lining up the driveway, and finally onto a double faced gate.
Here a guard will make you write your name on a visitor’s book. He will then ask you where you are coming from, the message you are bringing and the target recipient of your message. Thereafter he will spray your hands with some sanitiser and direct you to the main administration block.
To the right of the door, a watering point stands. On it, a bottle of hand soap sits. Right behind it is a carton box with a packet of serviettes. It is mandatory to wash your hands before proceeding deeper into the bowels of an old stone building with a low ceiling.
Rather be somewhere else
Once you go through the doors, a polite, motherly woman will hear you out, and direct you to sit on what looks like a chest of drawers with its top modified, through the attachment of a cushion, transforming it into a seat as well.
But in the middle of all this, if you were to stand up and yell, “Odiero!” One man would walk out from deeper still in the office and answer to that name.
This man would most probably be Jimmy.
“An Jaluo (I am a Luo),” he says as he walks out of his office to receive the pesky reporters at his doorstep. As we walk into a modest room that looks like a small classroom in rural Kenya, but serves his company as a boardroom, we have a feeling that he would rather be somewhere else. Maybe at the company’s yoghurt shop in Kisumu. Or at his farm inspecting his horses. Or at the nearby kiln inspecting the production of lime.
For all the individuals intended for interviewing during this project, Jimmy was the most difficult. His initial emails were terse.
“I am reluctant to give any newspaper interviews because in several previous interviews what is printed is a fabrication from the reporters’ mind rather than what was said or even written down,” he wrote in his first response. “Is this going to be an article about what your impressions are about the settler community or is it going to be a factual reporting?”
As a black Kenyan man in conversation with a white Kenyan man, perceptions would always pepper our questions and answers to each other. So when Jimmy came out of his office, in a beige khaki pair of shorts, black shoes and a matching striped short-sleeved shirt, we both buckled down and for the next several hours, race, economic empowerment and disempowerment, origin, community relations and participation in national discussions dominated discourse.
But first, the origins of the Brooks family.
“My paternal grandfather came to Kenya before the (First World War) war broke out in 1914,” Jimmy says. “After the war he bought his first small farm in Karen,” he says, before joking: “It’s a pity he sold it. I can only imagine how much it would be worth right now.”
After his grandfather, who at the time worked for Lunatic Express after retiring from the British Army, sold off the Karen farm, he moved to Ruaraka and bought another piece of land.
At the time his paternal grandfather came to Kenya, his mother’s father also made way to this East African colony. But unlike most who ventured inland toward Nairobi, his maternal grandfather first settled in Kwale, established a coconut plantation and got into the prospecting business.
Prospecting took Jimmy’s grandfather from coconut plantations in Kwale to the limestone deposits in Homa Bay.
“He went into partnership with John Riddoch, a prominent Kisumu businessman at the time, and together they set up Homa Lime in 1929,” Jimmy says.
The company was not, however, officially incorporated until 1938.
Five years later, they bought an adjacent piece of land to grow trees to provide the wood fuel needed to fire the kiln used for lime processing. Limestone mining was quickly becoming a profitable business at the time. Other farmers around soon started setting up their own mines.
“These other farmers in Koru were at an advantage; they were nearer Kisumu, meaning they had less headache to get their product to markets through the railway,” Jimmy says.
Because of this, the two business partners decided in 1951 to buy out the farmers in Koru and move the entire Homa Lime Ltd operations from Homa Bay to Koru.
“That’s the short version of it,” he says.
The moving of Homa Lime from Homa Bay to Koru and the subsequent acquisition of land by his grandfather leads us nicely into another of the conversations that has followed white settler families for generations; land ownership. “Unfortunately those of us who own property are so often portrayed as multi-millionaires, who have no care in the world, and exploiters of wananchi rather than as businessmen or women struggling, like most Kenyans, to clothe and educate our children, and maintain our farms in good condition to pass them on to future generations while attempting to ensure our employees also keep their jobs,” Jimmy had written in a previous email conversation with me.
Homa Lime Ltd occupies some 3,000 acres. On it is the limestone factory employing about 500 people at any given time. He has a dairy farm and a milk and yoghurt processing plant that employs dozens others.
“You hear all this maneno that land must belong to indigenous Kenyans. Who are these indigenous Kenyans?” he asks. “Nobody thinks of this when all these sentiments come up.”
To one end of the farm lie the tracks to the now defunct Kenya-Uganda railway crippled by years of plunder and mismanagement. For an older generation, the railway represents a period of conquest and adventure. For another generation it represents intrusion into the peace and serenity of life and the fulfilment of prophesies past. For another generation, the railway line represents a period of infrastructural functionality.
Yet in Koru the railway line represents an unofficial boundary.
“Right now we have problems between the Luo and the Kalenjin, both communities claiming land before and after the railway and Sondu River. Homa Lime lies in part within this disputed section. If I’m kicked out, who’s next?” he says. “If you allow this sort of thing to happen it is a short step from kicking out the non-indigenous person to kicking out the person from a different tribe.”
And this perception of always being looked at as an outsider has weighed him down.
“I am perceived as not being Kenyan enough and this has become a burden,” he says, gently scratching his white beard.
This is partly because of what Jimmy calls a failure of our education system.
“Unfortunately the history syllabus doesn’t cover our history. We learn about the Arab slave trade, the building of the railway, colonialism, then the history books go blank. What else happened in the country before 1960?” he asks.
But even as his Kenyan-ness is questioned, he believes all is not lost for those who will come after him.
“We have to stop looking backwards and start looking forward. We have to try and get a peek into the future of our country,” he says.
It sounds almost too simplistic of a solution in a country as complex as Kenya. Looking forward for him and other Kenyan of European descent might require more than the passive suggestion of solutions and getting involved in the day-to-day running of the country, not just from a business perspective but also on other fronts as well.
The success of a country is determined, yes, by economic prosperity, but this cannot operate in a vacuum. Intercommunal relations need to be right. And the politics too.
“I haven’t given a lot of thought on our involvement in politics,” Jimmy says. “But who amongst us is willing to stand up and be counted with regard to political representation?”
Jimmy says a lot of Kenyan whites prefer a low profile because “they don’t want to bring attention to themselves and have a lot of people coming up with things about them”.
“We are second class citizens… since the 60s we have had reverse apartheid in the country. We are not first class citizens,” he says. “If I stand to vie for an elective position there won’t be a chance in hell that I will win.”
As Jimmy, who also answers to “Odiero” talks, it is easy to see the conflict within him. On the one hand he wants to belong to a country he has called home all his life, but on the other is aware of the limitations around his claim to his nationality.
“You just hope that everyone can become integrated and accepted for what they are and not what they represent historically,” he says. “It is difficult to put it in words.”
The mood within the boardroom has moved from excitement to that of deep reflection. Every word that leaves Jimmy’s mouth now seems to have a particular significance to him.
Then he remembers a conversation between the teenage him and his father.
“He tried to persuade me to leave Kenya and settle somewhere else. He told me that I had no future here,” Jimmy says with a wry smile that has a tinge of defiance.
It is not clear whether the sparkle in his eyes is from the regret of not heeding his father’s advice or from the triumph of defying a patriarch and succeeding at it.
After a noticeable pause, he continues: “I refused to listen. Kenya is my home…I’d be very sad if I had to leave for any reason.”
After close to two hours of conversation, Jimmy needs to get back to work.
“Warn me when you are about to take a photo,” he says. “Sitaki watu waone tumbo yangu kubwa. Lazima watu waone pia sisi tunafanya kazi.”
Parting company with Jimmy leaves me deep in thought about the perceptions, assumptions and undertones that form the basis of everyday conversations.
Conversations between friends. Conversations between strangers. Conversations about nationhood. Conversations about what it means to be Kenyan and most importantly why one might think of themselves as more Kenyan than the person seated next to them.