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Kenya killing stirs bitter past

Anything less than a full trial of accused white land owner could spark violence.

By Rob CrillyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2006



GILGIL, KENYA

Serah Waithera Njoya gets up from the fire where she is cooking dinner and welcomes the latest visitors to her mud-brick home set deep in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

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Government ministers, MPs, church officials, and tribal leaders have all stopped by recently.

There, over plates of steaming rice and potatoes, Ms. Njoya tells visitors how her life has changed since her husband was shot dead earlier this month by one of Kenya's most prominent white landowners.

"He is a heartless, merciless man. He is 'mnyama,' " she charges, using the Swahili word for animal. "He has left me with four young children and no breadwinner."

The target of her anger is the Honourable Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced CHUM-ley), her neighbor and sole heir to the fifth Baron Delamere.

Mr. Cholmondeley, great-grandson of the country's most famous British settler, has admitted to shooting her husband, Robert Njoya Mbugua, whom he believed to be poaching on the 100,000-acre Delamere estate near Lake Naivasha in central Kenya.

Cholmondeley pleaded not guilty to murder last week. His attorney, Fred Ojiambo, said that Cholmondeley shot the victim inadvertently in self defense while aiming for dogs that the victim unleashed on Cholmondeley after the man was caught poaching an impala.

Mr. Ojiambo has expressed concerns about the ability for Cholmondeley to get a fair trial due to the publicity the case has received and to the fact that it revives simmering and bitter memories of colonialism. "In this case the lies are being orchestrated to make him look like the guy who shoots Africans for sport," Ojiambo said.

The trial is set for late September, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.

It is the second time in little more than a year that the bespectacled aristocrat has admitted killing a suspected black trespasser.

Last time he was charged with the murder of an undercover wildlife ranger. Cholmondeley said he fired in self-defense and was released after a month on the orders of the attorney general, who said there was no case to answer. This sparked angry demonstrations against the government.

The second killing has reawakened feelings of resentment towards the descendants of white settlers who still own swaths of Kenya four decades after independence from Britain.

"It is like we are living in neocolonial times," says Njoroge Weidener, a field monitor for the Kenya Human Rights Commission, as he listens to Njoya's story. "People like Cholmondeley think they can do what they want because it is their land and they make rules."

Anything less than a fair trial could spark violence, says Mr. Weidener.

Njoya's funeral, held on May 18 at the family home near Gilgil, beside the Delamere estate, attracted about 1,500 mourners and a handful of politicians.

"It is time for these white settlers who are killing our sons to be kicked out the country as they are of no assistance," Stephen Tarus, deputy local government minister, told the crowd.

Newspaper columnists here have written with envy of Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe, reviled by most of the world, has seized land from white farmers and distributed it to his supporters - with disastrous effects for agricultural production.

Nowhere is the anger in Kenya more evident than this part of the Rift Valley where whites run flower farms, cattle ranches, and tourist lodges.

It was here that the third Baron Delamere arrived at the end of the nineteenth century and bought up tracts of land.

He encouraged other Europeans to follow and the area became known as the Happy Valley, infamous for its excesses.

Today, Happy Valley is long gone, but Njoya and the other three families who live on six acres of maize fields bordered on three sides by Cholmondeley's Soysambu ranch, say the Delameres enjoy a life they can only dream of.

"We have to go onto the land to collect firewood but we get chased," says Serah. "We aren't allowed there but people who have been tell us that their house is big and that they have horses and everything for a good life."

That way of life is under threat from several directions.

White-owned farms have been invaded several times in recent years by members of the Maasai ethnic group who claim the land was taken from them illegally and that tribal elders were duped into signing an unfair treaty more than a century ago.

And the area has seen a spate of killings. In the past couple of years, two European flower farm managers and a hotelier have been murdered by intruders.

Earlier this year Joan Root, a British filmmaker and conservationist, was killed in her home close to Lake Naivasha.

Residents often travel in convoy at night and have compiled a database of blood types so that transfusions are available quickly in the event of an attack.

"Everybody here knows people who have been carjacked or worse so there was quite a bit of sympathy for Tom last year. When you are confronted by a stranger on your land, the most likely explanation is that something very bad is about to happen," says one white resident.

For its part, the government has upgraded Naivasha's police presence to "division" status, attracting additional resources. Roadblocks along the main route to Nairobi are a common sight in an attempt to deter armed gangs.

However, Alfred Mutua, government spokesman, rejects the idea that law and order is breaking down.

He says vigilante action would not be tolerated on either side and asked for people to wait for the justice system to run its course.

"Naivasha is no different to anywhere else, and we have already taken steps to improve security nationwide by increasing numbers of police officers being trained and using community policing throughout the country," he says.

"But somehow the white people around Naivasha seem to think they are different."

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