Colonial hub now a ghost town - Daily Nation

End of railway services dealt town a major blow

Sunday January 7 2018

The main railway office in Kipkelion.

The main railway office in Kipkelion.  PHOTO | ANITA CHEPKOECH

By ANITA CHEPKOECH
More by this Author
By GODFREY SANG 
More by this Author

Looking at the undulating landscape and panoramic beauty of the surrounding farms with lush maize and healthy livestock, it is easy to see why prominent British colonialists like George Hamilton and John Usher-Jones settled in Kipkelion town.

Located in Kipkelion East Constituency in Kericho County, off the Londiani-Muhoroni highway, the old town, which sits next to a railway siding, is littered with colonial structures that tell of a glorious but long bygone era.

The railway station was the last stop in the highlands for travellers from Nairobi heading to Kericho and Sotik, and the first for those going to Nairobi from Kisumu.

Once a thriving township, it was reduced to a ghost town when railway operations on the route were stopped in 2011, followed by the closure of industries in the area.

The place known to the Kipsigis as Kipkelion was later renamed Lumbwa following a strange ritual, during which the Kipsigis and foreigners slaughtered a dog as a peace agreement. This was after the local people rebelled against colonial rule and threatened to stop the railway from passing through their land.

BLOOD BROTHERHOOD

The first such ritual was first conducted in the 1840s, when Arab traders realised that the shortest route to the Kingdom of Buganda passed through Kipsigis country.

To guarantee their safety, anthropologist G.W.B. Huntingford says, the Arabs came up with a “blood brotherhood” ritual, during which they asked the Nandi and Kipsigis to sit down (kalia hapa in Kiswahili) and make a cut on their arms and suck each other’s blood, signifying that that they would never attack each other again.

The peace ritual came to be known as kalya or kaliet among the Kipsigis, and its use later spread to other Kalenjin sub-tribes. However, this foreign peace-making process meant little to the Kipsigis, who continued attacking the Arabs – until they heard of a more effective solution. Someone had told to them that a ritual that involved killing a dog, known as mumiatab ng’okto, would bring lasting peace.

The ritual, whose terms the Kipsigis were expected due to the dire consequences of disobeying its terms, earned them the nickname walioua mbwa (those who killed a dog), or walumbwa in short. The name stuck for a long time and even today, some people still refer to the Kispsigis as walumbwa.

When the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) entered East Africa on behalf of the British government, they decided to make treaties with tribal leaders and chiefs throughout the territory. So on October 13, 1889, IBEAC agents Frederick Jackson, James Martin and Ernest Gedge made a peace agreement with Menya arap Kisiara, the leader of a Kipsigis war regiment, Ngetunyo, and a veteran of the Battle of Mogori war.

CHIEF OF WALUMBWA

Kisiara was a member of the Kapkaon clan and lived in Sotik when he met the British and signed over Kipsigis territory to the IBEAC. To seal the deal, two dogs were killed.

The incident is vividly explained in the diaries of Ernest Gedge, which are part of a collection at the University of Cambridge in the UK. However, the British were more interested in the imprint of Kisiara’s right thumb on the piece of paper, something he was probably doing for the first time.

Kisiara was described by Gedge as the “Chief of Walumbwa” meaning the name “Lumbwa” was already in common usage by the time the British came to Kenya. The “treaty” with Kisiara, the IBEAC’s 65th, was submitted to the British Government for approval on May 28, 1891 and passed by the House of Commons on June 30, 1891.

However, the IBEAC went bust in August 1891 and the British Government took over. They declared Uganda a protectorate in 1894 and the rest of British East Africa the following year. The construction of the Uganda Railway began in 1896 and by 1899, it had reached Londiani, which lay at the northern edge of Kipsigis country.

Fierce fighting with the British had started as early as April 1895, in what came to be known as the Nandi Resistance. The Kipsigis vehemently fought against the railway and in 1900, the British political officer, Charles W. Hobley, organised yet another peace “treaty” at the point where the railway would descend the valley. The place, Kipkelion, was a short distance from Londiani. Hobley called for a peace ceremony, during which a dog was killed and buried close to the railway line. The tree marking its grave stands to this day.

“It’s ever green, even during the worst of droughts. I have looked around places I visit, like Meru, Isiolo, Narok, Kisii, Ainamoi and even Nyanza, but have not seen anything like it, so it has no name,” says Mr Joshua Kikwai, a resident.

ATTRACTIVE TO SETTLERS

There was a Kings African Rifles camp nearby and the area was renamed Lumbwa because of the dog-slaughtering ritual, which allowed the railway to descend the escarpment and reach Port Florence (Kisumu) in 1902. The Kipsigis found the name Lumbwa derogatory, but the British maintained it, and it was not until after independence that the township reverted to its old name, Kipkelion.

Despite the peace agreements, hostilities persisted. Fearing that the Kipsigis and the Nandi might unite against them, Hobley authorised the officer in charge of nearby Fort Ternan, Capt E.H. Gorges, to find land and establish an administrative post far from the railway line. In May 1902, Capt Gorges established Kericho, and a township grew around it.

To sustain the railway, the British encouraged settlers to take up farming in order to get cargo to transport. The soil and climate around Kipkelion were very attractive to British settlers, who envisaging and the prospects of making a good life, apportioned themselves huge tracts of productive land and built palatial homes in locations they considered both prestigious and strategic for their security.

The first settlers in the area were Messrs Henry Edward Watt, who established Kipkelia Farm, and Hugh Stewart Smith, who arrived in 1904.  They were soon joined by Elioenai James Cocker, who established Lancashire Farm in 1905, followed by John Usher-Jones in 1907; he established Orange Grove Farm.

Most of the settlers were dairy farmers, and their herds did so well that the Lumbwa Creamery was established in 1913 to process their produce, which was transported by rail to Kisumu, Nakuru, Nairobi, Mombasa.

The largest farm belonged to Messrs Russell Carr and Joseph Hannigan, who grew wheat, peas and linseed. Linseed did quite well in the area. The settlers also grew flax and established a flax treatment factory.

The Lumbwa Industrial Mission was established in 1906 by the Rev Willis R Hotchkiss in nearby Chesinende. Hotchkiss, an American missionary, wanted his mission to be self-supporting and considered agriculture the way to do that. He later move to Chagaik, near Kericho town.

RACIAL SEGREGATION

Before long, the Indians building the railway line were allowed to establish a commercial section. They supplied the Kipsigis and settlers with consumer goods. A post office, police lines and a dak (Indian term for government constructed multi-purpose building) were also built.

The Kipkelion railway station. In the background are some of the houses built by Indian traders.

The Kipkelion railway station. In the background are some of the houses built by Indian traders.PHOTO | ANITA CHEPKOECH

Farmers held meetings and auctioned their goods at the dak, which also hosted the local Kenya Farmers Association, believed to have been started by Lord Delamere. Meanwhile, passengers in transit were served refreshments in it.

When the British realised that tea could do well in Kericho, the African Highlands and Brooke Bond built their godowns at the station, where they would pile packaged tea and export it on Tuesdays. 

In 1925, Sarah Ann Cocker, the wife of, Elioenai J. Cocker, financed the construction of a new Anglican church in memory of her husband, who had died while on a visit to England in November the previous year, after living in Lumbwa for about 20 years. The land on which it was built was donated by George Hamilton. The church is still in very good shape.

Interestingly, racial segregation was practised even in religion. Initially, Africans were not allowed to worship in the church. However, as independence drew near, a strict timetable was drawn, with the Europeans attending the first service while Africans attended the second. The racial barrier was eventually broken.

Among the prominent church members was Cara Gurney Buxton, a spinster who owned substantial land in the nearby Kedowa. Ms Buxton died in July 1936 shortly after winning the election for Lumbwa Ward of what was then the Nyanza Council.

She beaten another prominent settler Maj William S. Belfield and became the first woman elected to a civic post. However, she served for only three months before she died.  Her remains and those of about 50 other settlers lie in a one-acre churchyard next to the Lumbwa church.

Their graves are marked with white headstones. Other prominent settlers buried in the churchyard are Capt. Arthur H. Hutchinson, a pioneer farmer in Kericho and later of Tunnel Estate in Fort Ternan, who died in November 1950; and Hamilton, who donated the land and died in November 1955 at the age of 58. In November 1957, Capt. Edward Martin was buried there.

BELLA VISTA

Mr John Oundo, a church official, says that the deceased’s relatives and friends still visit their graves and place fresh wreaths on them. Today, some of the old colonial structures still look beautiful and well maintained while others are dilapidated.

Still high visible in Kipkelion are English and Indian architectural styles a testimony to their presence at the beautiful hills. Overlooking Kipkelion town is a beautiful red-roofed, timber-walled mansion known as Bella Vista (Italian for beautiful vie’), which was built in 1914 by one Laura Grundy.

Part of the rich but little-known history of Lumbwa is that in January 1914, the chief Kipsigis Orgoiyot (spiritual leader) Kipchomber arap Koilegen, and his two brothers, Kipng’etich arap Boisio and Kibuigut arap Sing’oei, were arrested and detained by the British and sent into exile through Lumbwa. They boarded the train at the station, never to be seen again. Koilegen was sent to Fort Hall (Murang’a), Boisio to Nyeri, and Sing’oei to Meru.

It is remembered that the brothers crossed the first bridge built in the area by the Europeans over the Kipchorian River that flows parallel to the railway as it descends the escarpment. Made of heavy steel and concrete in 1901 and refurbished in 1934, the bridge is still in use.

As the second most important town in the then Kericho District after Kericho town, Kipkelion enjoyed major developments, but its economy slumped with the stoppage of railway services on the railway route, which led to the collapse of the milk, grain, and coffee factories that provided jobs for locals in the olden days.

Yet, looking at the station setting today, you would think a train is just about to pull up. Things are undisturbed, save for the fact that the offices and stores are locked, the waiting bay is empty, and cattle are grazing in the once restricted, well-kept fields.

Local elders say there is a need to cleanse the town by the communities that participated in the dog-killing ritual if development is to resume. “We want the British High Commission to send an envoy so that we can cleanse the town together,” says Mr Elly Sigilai, a great-grandchild of araap Koilegen.

Godfrey Sang is a publisher and a researcher