Monday, 20 April 2009

Homage to the Ancestors

Hi all

From Western Kenya, where I’ve been indulging in a spot of traditional ancestor worship, visiting some of the spots my ancestors frequented and marvelling, once again, at the feats they achieved.

The first ancestor due for some respect is my Mum. We visited the Kaplong mission hospital where she laboured for the best part of 48 hours to produce me (during which time she endured a minor earth tremor and a slightly alarming one-on-one visitation from the local village looney). Then it was but a small mission outpost in rural Africa, conveniently situated to provide succour to the massed labour forces of the tea estates around Sotik. Today it is a sizeable hospital serving hundreds of thousands of people. Even so, I think it would take considerable courage to book into their labour ward today, and I can only imagine how much courage that required 42 years ago! Respect, Mum!

Sadly, in the torrential afternoon rains that have become a feature of our lives since coming to Western Kenya, we didn’t have the time to find the Ngoina Estate near Sotik where my father was working at the time I was born. But we did manage to find a car very similar to the one he used to drive around in. He called it the Ngoina Ferrari. At 850cc, it may well be the smallest car ever built. Certainly the smallest car he’s ever driven. This specimen was found in the garden of a small lodge next to the Tea Hotel in Kericho, and seemed a suitable substitute. The kids loved it, too. So here’s to you, Dad!

From Kericho through Kisumu and Kakamega (where my grandfather once joined a swarm of other impecunious settler farmers in a largely pointless and unproductive goldrush) and on to Kitale. Kitale was the main town market town for my grandparents and retains a faded colonial charm lost in most of Kenya. It is also home to the Kitale Club, where my folks had their wedding reception and from which several of the photos on our mantelpiece at home were taken.

Amazingly, the Kitale Club has enjoyed a revival in recent years and is in immaculate form, complete with golf course, swimming pool and several rentable cottages. We stood on the front step for a mandatory photo, and then poked around inside. Although I obviously wasn’t there when my folks were married, I doubt it has changed much since then. All the photos on the wall date from the 1930s, and even the billiard balls in the billiards room are probably the same ones that were used after dinner at the club in fifty years ago.

We had an amazing piece of luck while there. I spotted a mzungu and approached him to ask if he knew the only contact I had in the area and, naturally, it was he. Tony Mills, one of the last white farmers in the Trans-Nzoia, who still has fond memories of my grandmother from when he was a child, and who instantly invited us all to come and stay at his farm. What a luck!

And so, on the next morning, armed with a 1950s map of the district (at which time there were 950 white farmers, now down to three!), we went on the ultimate pilgrimage, in search of Kimwondo, the farm my grandparents built from scratch on the slopes of Mt Elgon, and the farm on which my Dad was born and raised.

We found it. Definitely not in the same state it was when my grandparents left it in 1969, but very definitely still standing ( a minor miracle, given that it was built from timber nearly 80 years ago!).

As we climbed up the hill, the first thing we found was a sizeable collection of shops built around Mr Patel’s original Duka (which I think was this one below).

After that, the primary school my grandparents built, and then a secondary school that has since grown on the same site.

And then finally, against a backdrop of cleared fields and cultivation (where once there was forest), the original house itself, still standing and home to the Kiboi family, who have vague and largely unrealistic plans to turn it into a tourist attraction of some sort.

It was, of course, an emotional moment, seeing this farm that has been so much a part of my life, but on which I’d never actually previously set eyes. Although it seems hard to imagine now how remote it was then, the scale of their achievement in developing this small piece of Africa from nothing is still evident. I’ve never doubted that they were true pioneers, but it brought it all home for me, and I left with a strong sense of responsibility to continue the tradition.

And here ends the self-indulgent ancestor worship. We’ve loved every moment of it, and the whole experience has been much enhanced by the commentary (not to mention the extraordinary hospitality) of Tony and his wife Adrienne, who still farm the Trans-Nzoia without electricity, drawing water from a river and knowing every single one of their several hundred dairy cows by name!

Today we leave for Uganda, and tomorrow we will visit the source of the White Nile at Jinja.

More soon!


  1. very moving story, i was in Kitale last July, it has indeed marks of history and a slow pace; surrounded with maize plantations...
    Didn't know there were still Wazungu farmers. Greetings to the jangano tribe!

  2. Great story there. I am from around Kitale area though I now live and work in Rwanda. Kitale still remains to be a wonderful rural town and we have more white farmers than just Tony. We have Anderson and many others. Here is a link to another group that lived in the same area with your parents