Friday, May 15, 2015

Eldoret, the town that South African Boers started

Let us celebrate 100 (plus) years of Eldoret.

If you look at the old Kenya Gazette Notices of 1912 (and they are now online) you will find that most of the locations in Uasin Gishu had no names on government records. They were simply: Farm 1, Farm 2, Farm 3…

What is today Eldoret Town fell on Farm No 64 and for many years the town was simply known by that number. One of the cheeky stories of Eldoret was about the trust that pioneers traders had in each other. There is of course the hard-to-verify tale of the unmanned pub where revellers would walk in, drink and leave the money at the counter.

Space to breed

It is also the story of how some two revellers one day found the door locked (by mistake) and they removed the door, drunk the beer, paid and left. For many years, some historical wags say, the bar remained without a door! But seriously, the story of Eldoret is worth a tome. It was built by Boer rogues who had decided that they had had enough of British rule in South Africa and trekked north to protest the annexation their Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State to South Africa after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1988-1902.

It was in 1909 when a heavily-armed group of 280 Boers arrived in Kenya from South Africa. With them were prefabricated houses, wagons, ploughs, cattle and sheep. They wanted land, if not peacefully, by force. And they were willing to fight.

The Nandis were elbowed out of their farms around Uasin Gishu as they cut huge chunks for themselves and that had been surveyed by Royal Engineers. Their leader Meneer Van Rensberg had arrived in Mombasa with another group aboard a German vessel, Windhoek, and by July 1908 he was in Nakuru where he was directing the new farmers.

The families that set out for Uasin Gishu had heard stories of land that looked like the South African kopjes. Here, they spanned out with the single believe that “here is a land where our women can breed in space…”, according to Negley Farson in his 1947 book ‘The Last Chance in Africa’.

Colonial writer, Elspeth Huxley in her book ‘No Easy Way’ captured the drama too: “To get heavily-loaded wagons up this steep escarpment along the rough, narrow, treacherous track, with inexperienced oxen and in a wet year, was a truly remarkable feat, and only Afrikaners could have performed it...”

Heavy safe

Every time I look at the Standard Chattered Bank in Eldoret, it reminds me of the story of a heavy safe that had been brought in from South Africa by the boers and was full of cash.

It was at Farm 64, the story goes on, that the safe fell and the few boers present could not lift it back to the wagon.

To protect it, they built a bank around it — a branch of the South African Standard Bank! But the South African bank at first refused to have a branch in a mud house but later gave in. A historian, A.T Mason recalls the arrival of the instruments to operate a bank: “All the paraphernalia of city banking arrived, including a brass plate, which was quickly affixed to the mud and wattle wall.

On one occasion, its manager J.C Shaw told the office boy to patch the flaking mud but the Kiswahili of both the manager and worker was meagre with the result that when Shaw returned he found the wall had disintegrated under repeated onslaughts with buckets of water and the safe was outside in the mud!”

For a long time, Eldoret was the only town where the Boers used Kruger coins as currency, and for a long time – even after they were not in use in South Africa.

Also, they protested any sign of British control and got away with lots of murder and mayhem.

Today, the agricultural town they started has grown beyond Farm 64, just after 100 years. It is a lengthy story…


Margaret Gachihi said...

This is a potentially great tourist circuit if only the remnants of the grand old Boer homes- most of them dilapidated- can be restored. I wonder if this is in the national museums agenda?

Timothy Kiplimo said...

the wagon wheel?

Frankayub said...

Didn't they opt to travel by train then?

Ombese said...