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Taita Hills museum that hosts rich WW1 history

Thursday September 5 2019

Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge

Boxes containing a variety of items, such as tobacco, are displayed at a museum located in Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge on August 17, 2019. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

HILARY KIMUYU
By HILARY KIMUYU
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In a small room at the Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge in Taita Taveta County is a museum that captures rich World War 1 (WWI) history.

The museum is open to the public for free. Items on display include coins, spent cartridges, whiskey bottles, artillery and a 1914 gift box sent as a Christmas present to those serving the British Empire.

The box contains a variety of items such as tobacco and chocolate, and was donated to Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge by a tourist whose kin had served in East Africa during WW1.

There is also an HMS Pegasus plaque that tells the story of a ship from the British Royal Navy that was sank by the German Königsberg battleship during the Battle of Zanzibar.

Mr Willie Mwadilo, the manager of the lodge, told the Nation that a visitor once offered them Sh20 million for the plague, but they declined the offer.

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So why was a war that was supposed to be waged in Europe partly fought in Taita Taveta?

Mr Mwadilo explained that the Germans aimed to sever key British supply lines, especially the Uganda railway.

Asked why the museum is at the hotel and not at a public space where locals can visit and learn about their history, he says the hotel has tried to donate the artefacts to the Taita Taveta County administration but officials are not interested.

“When they are ready we will donate everything to them,” he says.

Mr Dennis Onsarigo, the Taita Taveta County Director of Communications, did not respond to our queries on the issue.

The museum owes its existence largely to Mr James Wilson, an author and former manager of the lodge. Mr Wilson is a battlefield enthusiast and historian who lives in Diani.

He mapped the area’s history from early 1900 and wrote a book titled Guerrillas of Tsavo, which details the East African Campaign — the name given to the WWI in this region.

WAR DETAILS

A copy of the book goes for Sh5,000 at the museum. It describes the first 22 months of WW1 in the Mombasa-Voi Command.

The book brings to light the extensive part played by East Africans — in particular communities in Taveta, Tsavo and the south coast — in shaping the course of Kenya’s history.

Over 250,000, about 25 per cent of Kenya’s population at that time, died in the war.

The war was fought in Kenya between August 1914 and March 1916. It ended two years before the official end of WWI.

British troops built a 27-mile railway line in February 1915 from Voi to Taveta terminus.

The line was a major target for German forces, which wanted to destroy it in order to cut supplies for the British troops. Today, the line is a tourist attraction.

EVICTIONS

Mr Mwadilo said that one of the hardest-hit communities was Wasigau, who were forcibly evicted and deported to Malindi and their land turned into a battlefield.

The sub-tribe suffered deprivation following forced eviction from their ancestral land by the British government. “To date they still lag behind in development compared to other communities,” he said.

Guerrillas of Tsavo is a product of Mr Wilson’s experience as an apprentice of John Alexander, a professional hunter and safari guide.

“While out with hunting parties, we would often find quantities of spent cartridges, ammunition cases and shrapnel having stumbled upon trenches,” he says in the book.

He describes how the German battleship engaged a far larger allied army and occupied the only British territory during WW1 running from Taveta to Tsavo West National Park and down along the frontier to the Indian Ocean.

British forces were weakened not only from fighting, but also from the hostile environment of wild animals, snakes, heat, thirst, malnutrition, malaria and other tropical diseases.

NO HERO'S WELCOME

The book tells how African troops walked barefoot on harsh terrain. They were the “feet and hands of the army”.

The British relied heavily on poorly trained and ill-equipped African soldiers and porters to provide ground support under treacherous conditions.

The war began on August 1914 as a conflict between European powers, but soon engulfed the world, resulting in millions of deaths before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. It was one of the defining events of the 20th century.

Poorly trained and in a war they did not want to participate in, Africans who survived did not receive a hero’s welcome.

After the war, nationalist movements emerged in the wake of the realisation that colonists were vulnerable too.

The movements played a key role in fighting for African countries’ independence.

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