BY DANIEL WESANGULA
(Article originally ran in two parts in the Standard on Sunday on October 12 2014)
Kericho, unlike the rest of the greater Rift Valley does not pride itself of having the best athletes. Neither does it pride itself of having the world’s best fresh water lake destinations. Its pride comes from something less grand and less flashy.
On your way from Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Makutano Shopping Centre branches out of the main Nakuru- Eldoret highway like an elbow forever cursed into a right angle position. If you proceed on, you get to Eldoret town in just over an hour. If you turn left, you unwittingly surrender yourself to a path of undulating tarmac that leads you straight into the heart of the former White Highlands.
Chepsir, then St. Paul’s Church. To the left and the right of the house of God are acres upon acres of indigenous trees. Then, the tea plantations pop up and seamlessly blend into what has come to be accepted as the natural vegetation of Kenya’s largest tea growing zone.
Little blocks of off white walls and red roofs intrude the greenery of the tea plantations. In that sea of green, the houses look like Lego pieces abandoned by a bored child. Strands of smoke bellow from little chimneys hanging on to the walls of these houses, rising into the thin crisp air, eventually disappearing into grey skies, heavy with an impending afternoon drizzle that can drag on for hours.
“No matter how many times you use this route, you never get used to this sight,” my driver, Joseph Kibiator offers. The Nairobi- Kericho route has been his playground for the past five years. But he has called Kericho home for the 33 years that are his life.
“Ni simame upige picha,” Kibiator offers sensing the awe of a new comer.
“Hapana. Tuende,” I reply, a growing impatience among the rest of the travelers in the 11-seater Matatu has emerged after Kibiator decides to cruise into town at the mind boggling speed of 40 kph. He, like I, wants to take in the post card view.
We continue to rumble past young, new tree bushes that have replaced old uprooted ones. Life’s cycle must continue. Then we get to Kaisugu where a handful of employees are hard at work. Years of practice ensure they use their thumb, index finger and middle finger to cut, tear and curl the buds.
This is Kericho’s pride. Tea. World famous tea. Green tea. Black tea. Purple tea. All kinds of tea. Almost single handedly, the tea industry has been the driving force behind not only Kericho’s economy, but its very existence. And after almost 100 years since the beverage was first introduced to the area, a big part of this way of life is under threat. At the core of this disruption are two of Kenya’s most emotive issues- land and historical injustices.
Kispigis folklore has it that one night, when the skies were tui missing, two brave men concerned over the speed at which the white man’s machinery was mowing down sacred trees to create room for more tea bushes ventured out to put a stop to this. They had neither weapons nor intricate plans of sabotage. Theirs was a simple mandate.
To walk as far out from their village as possible and put a beacon that would mark the boundary of the tea plantations and the villages. The two men, Laibon Kipchomber arap Koilegen and Laibon Kiboygot, were afraid that given a chance, the white man would mow down all their trees and the community will have nowhere to source for medicines or put up their traditional beehives.
“The next day, the white men could not work. No matter how hard they tried, they simply could not cut down any more trees. That boundary exists to date,” Mzee Elly Sigilai told the Standard on Sunday.
But this was too little too late. The damage had already been done and more lay in wait. In creating space for the tea plantations, thousands of families had to be forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands and shepherded into reserves. Lives and properties were destroyed.
In 1934, on behalf of King George the V, the then governor Henry Conway Belfield signed an ordinance to provide for the removal and settlement of Laibons around Kericho who were thought to be leading an anti- settler wave within that region. The 12 Laibons and their families were to be evicted from Kericho to Gwasi.
“In exercise of the powers conferred upon me by section 1 of the Laibons Removal Ordinance, 1934, I do hereby appoint the 25th day of September, 1934 as the date upon which the said Ordinance shall come into operation,” reads a letter by one Juxon Barton, acting for the then colonial secretary.
On October 22nd 1934, the families were moved at a total cost of 16,926 shillings. All the money was to cater for the logistics such as paying the government workers and buying food for the long trek ahead. Other families were to follow suit. The thirst had to be quenched and the Kalenjin uprising quelled.
Mzee Sigilai walks with a slight stoop to his left. He is dressed in a faded blue pin stripe suit, white shirt and a faded baseball cap under which white hair escapes in tufts along the cap’s rim. On his feet are black Safari boots polished to a shine. Two of his bottom teeth are missing.
“Wachane jaduong,” he greets a friend along one of the crowded streets of Kericho Town, as he continues the conversation in dholuo. “I am fluent in both Kipsigis and dholuo.”
He says he was among the families that were moved from Kericho to Gwasi, Lambwe Valley in 1934. In his shirt pocket is a foolscap neatly folded with names of those his family lost during the move.
“Malaria, sleeping sickness, snakebites… plus the loss of a will to live. These are the things that killed our people,” he says.
Mzee Sigilai demands the multinationals leave Kericho and hand the land back to the community.
“If they think they brought us the tea, they can uproot their bushes and leave with them. We want our soil,” he says, his voice trembling with emotion. Behind the hazy curtain that covers his brownish eyes is a steely determination.
He, like the forefathers before him still maintains the white man and all he represents must leave his town and the ridges that Kalenjin clans once occupied, but currently covered with pittoresque tea bushes. The only difference between him, and his grandfather Koilegen, is that he will not use spears to wage a war, but will use the law to stage a battle.
Recently, the county assemblies of Kericho and Bomet passed motions within the two houses for the compensation for unlawful and forceful acquisition of land by the British colonial government in 1918 to pave way for the tea plantations.
Current Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony has set his sights on what the Kipsigis call Kibulgeny– the promised land. To get there however, he must negotiate a legal minefield.
“Historical injustice by the British led to displacement of hundreds of families all across this region,” Chepkwony says. “In Chagaik, Cheymen, Chemosit and Mau, and other areas.”
Almost a century later, many of those who were affected by the expansion of the tea estates, think time has come for them to get what they say is theirs. They say, for them, the tea has been nothing but a curse that evokes painful memories of loss, disenfranchisement and a constant reminder that they truly do not belong.
“I will never forget the day I made my father cry. I had never seen his tears. But on this day, a simple question made him sob in front of me, his grown up son,” Daniel Rono says.
For the better part of his childhood, Rono grew up on Saosa tea estate. His grandfather was a cook for one of the many masers within the estate. When his grandfather, became too old to make the perfect English breakfast or make biscuits for the afternoon tea, his son, Arap Kiprono, took over. Before Rono inherited his predestined place in the Kitchen, uhuru came. So he went to school instead.
On the day his father cried, he had asked him what he thought was the simplest of questions;
“I asked him where our ancestral home was,” says Rono.
His grandfather, Joseph Kiprogo arap Kiget was chased from Saosa Tea Estate Farm. So were other members of his clan, the Kapsaos.
In the move to a reserve in Kipkelion he lost all his uncles and all but one aunts.
“Seven of the eight who were moved did not survive the move,” Rono says.
Now, after the death of his father, he says he has no more family left. He is the sole bearer of a proud family name. He too wants the tea estates owned by British multinationals to own up and pay for the past.
“If they had a conscience, they would do the right thing. Do you know how it feels not to know your home, yet you are among your people,” he asks.
For others though, one’s ancestral home should remain a footnote in the past. A necessary memory not attached to the present.
On his days off Kibiator, the driver, likes to catch up with child hood friends. To do this, he walks to the town’s main bus terminus where he was a tout before he got into permanent employment as a matatu driver. He does not need to call in advance. His closest friend, Mathew Kibet, is just about to retire his white Toyota Probox that plies the Kericho- Chepkembe route for the day. It is some minutes past 7pm on a Friday. The bus stage is buzzing. All around speakers from music vendors are blaring songs by the current local celebrated musician Sweet Star.
The mood is set for a night out. Destination, the nearby Whistles Bar and Restaurant.
I ask the two young men what they think of the compensation demands.
“Hio ni mambo ya wazee. Sisi hatujui hio maneno,” Kibet says sipping his beer. His chatter is a mixture of Kipsigis and Swahili. The most important points of his argument, the most emphatic it seems, are made in his native tongue. His argument is quite simple.
“Some of us were born and raised in town. Though our parents and grandparents told us where we were evicted from. To me Kericho town is home. If you were to take me say to Chepalungu, I would not fit there,” he tells me, the emotion seemingly lost in translation.
The motion of compensation was passed by both the county councils of Kericho and Bomet. The main tea estates cut across these counties and part of Nandi too.
For him, the multinationals should just be forced to do more for the community.
“These compensation issues and telling the companies to leave Kericho will just bring us trouble. We know the history the country has had over such things. Only a handful of people will benefit from this. Mismanagement will kill the tea industry. What will happen to the thousands employed there,” Kibet says. “Some of these things need to be separated from the politics of emotion.”
Kibiator isn’t as detached though.
He says after all these years of multinationals ‘milking profits’ from their land, it is their turn to eat.
“The money these people have made from our land cannot even be counted on one calculator. Are they not satisfied? They should give us back our land and if they want to stay behind, we will interview them and employ them. We want o be the landlords,” he says.
By now, the music inside Whistles has gone up a notch. Conversations are becoming strained. It’s cold and raining outside. It is hot and smoky inside. The bass guitar on one of the songs reaches fever pitch and goes out on a solo. At the end of the song, Kibiator leans over and shouts to both of us:
“Pesa mashinani,” and breaks off into a dance. More of their friends walk in. Drenched from the rain but hugs and hearty handshakes go around. In Kericho, wetness is an accepted accessory.
On those occasions when the sun fights off the grayness and comes out, it is a glorious sight. Bright but not too hot. Just the right temperature to remind a visitor of home but still distant enough to allow one keep his jacket on.
If you want to go to the Kericho headquarters of Finlays Tea Estate, you go to the main bus stage and take a matatu to Chepkembe or take a taxi. If you decide on matatus, you will have two choices. A Probox or a 14-seater van. If you take the Probox, it will make no difference whether you pay for the front seat or one of the available five slots on the back seat. Wherever you decide on, you will be squeezed for the duration of the 30 minute journey. Same if you decide on the 14-seater. The only difference is that a Probox will get you there faster.
The trip is like an odyssey into a jungle of midget trees. Black tarmac roads snaking their way through hills and valleys with nothing but tea bushes and trees.
Once in a while, a school pops up the landscape. Often, a village is seen. If you do not take a wrong turn you will get to a manned barrier where a search of your vehicle will be done, all electronic devices examined and registered, then you will be allowed to pass.
Then you drive to Kubayo, past the Elgon Estate with its little red walled and green roofed brick huts. Then you will pass baby cypress trees and drive by Elgon Estate Number Six with the same red houses but with many banana trees leaning against the red walls. You will drive past Purple Tea tree bushes, then Marynyn Dispensary.
You will see a sign post to the Kararan Guest House to your left. Then Toek Guest house to your right. After a few more kilometres you will see a sign board for the fertilizer store as well as the airstrip. The road will arch right, and then swerve left uphill where a sign post showing the Finlays Head Office will sneak up on you. Turn left, and then take an immediate left into the visitor’s car park.
The head office is a collection of single storey white buildings with green roofs arranged in an L pattern. To get to the office of the cooperate affairs director, you have to go through the receptionists office. The receptionists’ rectangular office has one large working station with a high wall. She sits behind it furiously typing away at her computer.
She looks up then smiles to the visitors. Protocol demands that I fill out a small sheet of paper that requires my name, occupation, reason for visit and the time I will have my appointment honoured. After I fill it out, she shuffles across the polished wooden floor and through a door that requires an access code to open.
She returns a few minutes later.
“He will see you shortly,” she says. Other than her voice, and the only other sound heard within the office complex is the chirping of birds.
“It is very quite up here,” I say.
“Yes, on a good day, you can hear your thoughts,” she says then goes back to work.
Directly opposite her is a wide photo of Finlays first factory in the area. She doesn’t know exactly when it was taken.
Sammy Kirui’s office is a modest one. Large, airy and simple. A desk and two visitors’ chairs make up the furniture. Maps and pictures hang on the white walls. From behind this desk, Sammy Kirui is in charge of cooperate communications of the giant tea firm Finlays.
He has heard about the motions in county assemblies and the clamour for compensation over past injustices.
“That is all in order, but as far as we are concerned, we have nothing to worry about. Our land lease in nowhere near expiry. Plus… we bought the land legally,” he says.
Kirui says the slightly under 10,000 hectares currently occupied by Finlays was bought from individuals.
“We were never given this land. We bought it from officers who had been allocated by government. So we have nothing to worry about.”
He says fact should be separated from fiction in the compensation debate.
“We are not outsiders. We are and will remain an integral part of this community. We support more than 16000 out grower families. We have built schools, health centres and continue to educate students at all levels of education from this community,” he says, pointing towards a list on his office walls with a detailed list of scholarship recipients.
For the 1750 founded Finlays, just as Mzee Sigilai, Rono and the many others the Kericho highlands too is home. Finlays’ Tea Estates in Kenya cover more than 6,300 hectares with a further slightly under 3,500 hectares of trees.
It is part of this land that Rono says needs to be reverted to the people.
“They should show us prove that they bought the land. They could not have bought it from any individual since back then, land was communally owned. There was no capitalism,” Rono argues.
But there is no clear line showing what the compensation will be about. Mzee Sigilai says they want the land back. Nothing short of returning what he says is rightfully theirs and an apology from the queen and the British government over atrocities committed in the early years.
“We need our ancestors to rest easy knowing that their home has been restored,” he says.
Rono says it will be difficult to trace lineages and hand over land. His argument is that even back then, the land did not belong to any individual.
“We just want them to give more back to the community,” he says.
As processed tea leaves Kericho, to Kaisugu, St. Paul’s ACK Church, Makutano then eventually onto the great A104 Road and into Nairobi for destinations far and wide, divided hearts are left behind. A past generation pledging it allegiance to injustices meted out on forefathers, and a current generation that somehow believes in the status quo.