They dot the countryside, standing out like lone toadstools. Some are in remarkable condition, others husks, forgotten and forlorn or competing with grass and other life, waiting out the arrival of the wrecking ball.
They live on in the rich flat farmlands of Kitale, and among the occasional thistly acacia in Gilgil. They cling stubbornly to pieces of real estate in Naivasha and also in the valleys of Wanjohi in Nyandarua County, with the impossibly beautiful blue of the Aberdares looming protectively ahead.
They vary, depending on the nationality of the former owner: The sloping roof models of the British; the non-flashy, square stones of the Boers. The creative, non-conventional assemblage by Americans. But they live on …
You are likely to see them, most likely not; it all depends on what the eyes choose to see. In the brave modern world, and to entrepreneurial eyes and land prospectors in the land-boom frenzy, the houses, most of them dating back a century, are structures that the land could do without.
But to aesthetes, curators and the keepers of history, the colonial-architectural houses are evidence, relics, reminders. And to descendants of their former owners, the houses are the last link to a once-thriving aristocratic era; places their kin lived and ruled.
From the start, the plan was to settle and establish a new life, permanence. For European settlers who arrived in the country soon after Kenya became a British colony, the new land was magical. There were endless tracts of the choicest land to tame and own, forests teeming with wildlife, fine weather.
Some of the settlers had been plucked from relative obscurity in England soon found themselves ennobled, affording a lifestyle made extremely comfortable by serfdom from native Africans.
According to the documentary Mau Mau trilogy, the British, both the government and the settlers hoped to make Kenya “A white man’s country”, not just in governance but also in lifestyle; the British sought to Anglicise the natives. The architecture; office buildings, homes were built to last.
IDEA IS BORN
Since childhood, Juliet Barnes, a Kenyan citizen of British descent, was drawn to conservation. Whether it was about trees, endangered animals, or rivers she had something to say, something to do.
But it was after university and entry into adulthood that her activism took a formal turn. She campaigned-albeit in a minor role, against poaching and actively took part in reforestation programmes.
“I am a conservationist at heart with an amateur interest in history,” she says. While touring several parts of the country, Juliet began to notice old buildings colonial-style houses left behind by settlers who opted to return to Britain after Kenya gained independence in 1963. Many of the homes had wasted away even as they clung to some of their old glory.
Barnes, the author of the book, Ghosts of Happy Valley, a seminal publication that captured the excesses and debauchery that permeated life among the settlers, especially in the Rift Valley, was appalled. “Shouldn’t something be done about the houses,” she would wonder.
But even then, she was conflicted. Having spent a large part of her life in Kenya, she was aware of the country’s unresolved past with Britain; the loss of native land and subsequent struggle for independence. Wouldn’t advocating for the restoration of tangible symbols of subjugation by her countrymen be scabbing at yet-to-heal wounds?
Around that time (2016), Barnes was contacted by former Speaker of Nyandarua County government who had read her book, asking for assistance in creating a tourism circuit. A discussion emerged — the establishment of a trust that would help protect the country’s built heritage.
Some of the homes formerly owned by the British and Boers had been left to Kenyan families, while others to the wild, thus the deterioration.
Barnes quickly hit the ground running, establishing the Happy Valley Heritage Trust (HVHT) in 2017. The trust has seven trustees, six of them Kenyans who offer their services pro-bono.
“Through HVHT, we hope to help preserve Kenya’s history espoused by historical houses,” says Prof XN Iraki, a trustee. “We could attract tourists and create jobs by leveraging on this history. That is perhaps the best way to revenge against colonialism.”
Beyond just restoring the houses, says Barnes, is an altruistic motive.
“What motivates me is a desire to assist those many Kenyans who live in poverty in and around some of those old houses,” explains Barnes. “I would love to see them turn the buildings into a source of income. These houses can be used as home stays, museums, visitor centres. The money would be used for upkeep.”
While most objects or structures associated with oppression engender ambivalent receptions, some countries have turned them into money minting machines. Cuba, for example, has the largest collection of vintage American-made taxi cabs in the world, some dating back to the 1950s. American tourists pay top dollar for a luxury ride to Havana.
The two countries, until recently, were arch enemies.
“I believe there’s a market for international tourism. I get calls from all over the world from those wanting to visit our historic houses. Then there’s local tourism. I’m delighted by the number of Kenyans of all ages who are interested in our Facebook page, contacting us to tell us about old houses in remote places,” explains Barnes.
“Other countries make money out of their historic buildings, including colonial ones. Why shouldn’t we?”
“We haven’t reached that stage yet in Kenya, but architectural tourism exists in other countries. “We need wealthy Kenyans to step forward and support the renovation of the old buildings,” she says.
There is a reason the trust included ‘Happy Valley’ in the heritage’s name. Many of these vintage houses are found in the area that earned the moniker due to the reckless lives that white residents lived. Some of the more lurid elements of the era were couple-swapping and drinking parties.
The oldest home located in Wanjohi Valley in Kipipiri, Nyandarua, was built by Geoffrey Buxton in 1908. What makes the house spectacular is that it is made entirely of mud, yet it has weathered the vagaries of weather and time without a crack. The one-storey house is sturdy, made more vintage by a coating of moss on the roof.
The wooden flooring is intact. A local family was gifted the house after the Buxtons left soon after independence.
A few kilometres from the Buxton house is the aptly named Happy Valley School. It is built on a piece of land once owned by one of the most dramatic characters ever to settle in the Valley — an American woman named Alice de Janzé. She once attempted to kill the man she would later marry.
Left to ruin, her former house-which must have been quite a sight back in the day, appears like scaffolding, a hall waiting to be cobbled back. Hardly anyone pays attention to it. As a matter of fact, one of the teachers asked to remark about the house replied, “I haven’t paid much thought to it.”
Alice is buried within the school compound. An avid florist, she planted many flowers along Wanjohi River; they still flourish and bloom seasonally.
Janze’s house is one that Barnes hopes gets repaired. “I am keen to get schoolchildren involved in tree planting and creating visitor centres in the historic buildings that lie within many schools, getting funding for libraries to promote their interest in history and conservation,” she explains.
Janfrans van der Eerden, a Dutch architect with a long history in Kenya including as a guest lecturer at Kenyatta University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, is excited about the prospects of reviving Kenya’s built heritage.
“We hope to inspire and help the directorate within the National Museums of Kenya dealing with monuments to have a more active policy towards protection and redevelopment of 20th century built heritage,” he says.
“Kenya has an interesting collection of buildings representing all global styles and fashions since around 1800.”
The Nation team had hoped to commit the Buxton House — the one built in 1908 — to film. But there was some rift in the household; a family feud, and they preferred that we don’t take pictures.
Walking down the muddy dirt road from the house, it was possible to relate that family’s conflict with the one we have always struggled with; reconciling the past with the present; living in a tenuous truce. Making peace with the fact that land was grabbed, and people died.
And another question arises; are the houses worth saving considering their association with the inhumane colonial rule? There are no easy answers; you see the houses or you see them without really seeing.