By Helen Kinuthia Gathenji
Thika town

“Thika in those days – the year was 1913 – was a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain,” inscribed The Flame Trees of Thika novelist, Elspeth Huxley.

The wild grass is thick and tall haphazardly, growing haphazardly in the confined highway divider. It moves rhythmically from side to side as though the wind affecting this motion were a mother gently lulling a baby to sleep. The soft, furry look makes me want to reach out and run my fingers through it. The morning is clear and bright, the balmy sun already out, but with the promise of much warmer temperatures as the midday hour approaches. I take in a gulp of fresh air as the wind blows through my car window and enjoy the sweet warmth of the sun that spreads lavishly on my bare skin.

An untouched expanse of land – a rare thing along the Nairobi-Thika stretch today – emerges as I drive along the smooth asphalt of the Thika highway, and somewhere far ahead I spot nondescript hills, before they are quickly obscured by tall buildings that now line the modern thoroughfare to Thika town. The wilderness that once was, 100-plus years back when Europeans and Asians first move  to the area, is no more, and neither are the scores of wildlife that roamed the open plains freely. This was no man’s land in those days and travelling in a car to Thika, or even the trip taking just 45 minutes, would have been an inconceivable luxury. As I cruise the highway, other motorists whizzing past me, it’s incredible that it could all have been so different. But it was.

“Thika in those days – the year was 1913 – was a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain,” inscribed The Flame Trees of Thika novelist, Elspeth Huxley. At 6 years old, Huxley and her mother, Nellie Grant, took on a two-day journey from Nairobi via ox-cart and made their way to settle in Thika, a lonely piece of earth on a map, in a land that was itself, little more. Then, if one was not walking the 40km distance – though that figure varied considerably depending upon the quality of shortcuts used – to and from the capital city as most natives did, you were riding in an ox-cart, which was a privilege of sorts.

Those who walked trekked a path through towering forests, cut out by others who’d made the journey before, a trip that would start at first light. While the human population then was diminutive in the area, the wildlife was plentiful, and running into them was not uncommon.

I pull up to the traffic lining Garissa Road before branching onto Kenyatta Highway, which leads into the now bustling town. Where there were no buildings before, erected structures occupy the streets, archaic in the pale morning light. Their yellow, blue, green and red paint coatings appear washed out, and the characteristic red soil of the old town embellishes the offices, businesses and hotels with its own layer of pigment. I drive past a fuelling station lined with noisy matatus; past parked tuk tuks and motorbikes waiting to offer any of the many pedestrians a ride; past the post office and at least three different banks; past a large supermarket – all the way down a narrow road lined with parked cars.

 A lot has certainly changed, but the leafy, green trees, the rich red soil and the roaring Chania and Thika Falls, which even then were a sight to behold, remain a testament to a land that once was.

Untamed Territory

December 1901 saw the completion of the railway line, commonly referred to as the Lunatic Express. However, what would become one of Britain’s major investments in the colony proved initially unprofitable, as local Africans were averse to utilising the mode of transport for trade. This was “a great encircling continent where cities, friends, and civilized ways were not to be found,” Huxley wrote, “not for thousands and thousands of miles across plain and bush and forest.” Determined to develop some business around the railway line and create commercial usage, Britain widely marketed the protectorate for its investment opportunities, land and good farming climate.

old thika retail store

The retail and agricultural store Shah Vershi Devshi & Co. Ltd, which was started by three brothers and a cousin in Thika, 1919.

Allen Charles Harries was 53 years old when he first heard about British East Africa, seated at a bar in South Africa. “My great-grandfather [Essex Harries] left Wales in 1836 or somewhere around there for South Africa,” says Mike Harries as he recounts his family history. “My grandfather [Allen Charles Harries] was born in South Africa in about 1850, after the family had been there for a few years. They were farmers and I think the Boer War had a very negative effect on the family fortune. I think the farm went through a very difficult time.” In Kenya, the plains and bush and forest that were Thika were home to a small populace of Kikuyu, Masaai and Kamba people before pioneers and settlers relocated to the area, almost at the turn of the 20th century.

“At the end of the 1800s, there was a lot of rinderpest,” Mike states, adding that it had affected the cattle, and smallpox had affected the people. “So, there was a lot of death of people and livestock and the population was largely decimated. When the first wazungus [Caucasians] started wandering around here, this was an empty piece of land.” And that land was free for all, the concept of selling it, not to mention the use of paper currency, unheard of by the locals. “People would go into the forest, because it was not owned by anyone, clear up the piece of land they wanted and it was theirs,” says 89-year-old James Njuguna, a native of the region. Ninety-one-year-old Evans Njoroge, a neighbour, close friend and relation to James, agrees – “People owned land wherever they farmed.”

But for settlers and pioneers, finding fertile land to farm in such a vast country as Kenya was not resolved by merely making their way into the territory. For one, the natives occupied parts of the country, wildlife was wide-ranging and rampant, and finding areas with adequate water resources was always challenging. Nonetheless, in 1904, Allen made his way to Mombasa and then into Nairobi, along with his son, nearly 10 years before Huxley’s father, Major Josceline Grant, made the same trip. Over a period of six weeks, Allen and his son would traverse the Kenyan plains – Naivasha, Kericho, Nanyuki – in search of ideal settling grounds.

For Major Grant however, he “had picked out on a map five hundred acres of blank space with a wriggling line, presumed to be a river, on each side,” noted Huxley, paying GBP £4 per acre, a purchase made at the bar of the Norfolk Hotel. So, on that hot day in 1913, the oxen trudged along the dirt road, thick hooves and large, round iron wheels swathed by spongy African earth with each step. There was not a shrub or leaf within eye level that wasn’t wearing a coat of the red soil that seemed to rise effortlessly with every gust of wind.

The air was teeming with heat and it helped none that every cloud of red dust enveloped and concealed Huxley and her mother, prickling their noses and clinging to any bit of exposed, moist skin. Untamed territory is where they now were. This was a world of nothingness and abundance; a place that promised grand adventure, but just as much, hardships and great toil. Here, their dreams could be as vast as the land that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was grasping and making those dreams a reality that would prove to be the challenge.

The Birmingham of Kenya

There is an ancient feel that envelopes this town, and though making my way about the streets of Thika is taxing with the hordes of people walking and many cars on the road, that lingering historic aspect does not escape me, carved, particularly, in the old clock tower still planted at the roundabout on Kwame Nkurumah Road. The town abounds with stores, mobile phone and accessory shops almost wiping out the provisional and agricultural stores that were customary in the 1900s. These shops were owned by Indians who settled here, the earliest – Shah Meghji Ladha and Meghji Kanji – coming to the area in 1910. “The Indians were some of the first immigrants there. They built shops and homes out of iron sheets,” James recalls. “The whites came shortly after that to Thika and started coffee plantations,” Evans continues.

thika road dirt highway

In the early 1900s, the road from Nairobi to Thika was a rugged dirt highway.

I make my way to Sat Punja’s house, just across the bridge from Chania Falls. I’m trailing David Harries (another of Allen’s grandson’s), who, after my exploration of the town, I’ve spent the morning with. We get on a dirt road once we are past the bridge and on the other side of the Thika Super Highway. There are new villas coming up in the area and large lived-in mansions on either side of the road. Sat’s house is safely tucked off the dirt road on a slight bend. “I have lived here for 50 years now,” Sat professes after we get to his home and settle in his living room. The home is comfy, the couch’s fluffiness wrapping me up in comfort. It’s a modern-day stone built home, nothing resembling the old Asian housing.

“In those days, in Thika town, there were not more than 10 cars. Now to find where to park – there is no place,” the elderly lawyer sighs. Courteously, he begins to tell me of the Asians who first moved to the area, “Shah Vershi has controlled most of it,” he says in relation to the start of stores and businesses in Thika.

At least a half century before Sat would call Thika home, an Ismaili by the name of Jamal Hirji Ojami opened the first store in 1914. Kanji Mepa & Co. also started a store in Saba Saba, and soon after, in 1919, three brothers and a cousin – Shree Vershi Mepa, Mulji Mepa, Devshi Mepa and Devshi Hadha – started Shah Vershi Devshi & Co., which specialized in retail products and farming supplies. “They became the major provider of provisions for farmers,” David inserts. Gradually, the settlement was being transformed from a sparsely populated bush area to a growing industrial town.

However, before the town, once known only as Chania Bridge, would attain its name, history indicates that the Maasai and Kikuyu communities that lived here battled fiercely over the area where the pools of water from Rivers Chania and Thika provided ideal grounds for the grazers and farmers, respectively. “This area in Thika,” David points out, “the Maasai didn’t really fancy it for grazing, but, [nonetheless], they did come here and graze, and then they had conflict with the Kikuyu who lived higher up because they were arable farmers and they wanted to be somewhere where rainfall was guaranteed and crops were assured.” The many tribesmen that perished were buried there, this potentially being the origin of the town’s name, “Guthika”, which means “to bury” in Kikuyu.

Nonetheless, in 1924, the name Thika was made official and the place finally chronicled. Thika would expand to become a prominent metropolis, the setting of major industries, including Kenya Canners, which later became Del Monte. In those early years, “everything was Asian owned,” says Sat, “But for Edmunds Butchery, which was the only European owned retail store in Thika,” a bespectacled David inserts. “They called Thika the industrial town, the Birmingham of Kenya.”

Making a Home in Thika

Another trip into the town, and I’m struck not only by the convenience of how close Thika is to Nairobi, but how built up it is compared to many of the country’s other satellite towns. Off exit 16 on the Thika Superhighway, I hit a dirt road with rocks jutting here and there. Parked on one side of the road is a line of lorries with drivers, who, when commissioned, will drive down the same winding road I’m on to a quarry not far off and load the trucks with blocks of construction stone. This is Harries Road, named after the family when they acquired the land. “He came to this place,” Mike, a lean, tall fellow, tells me of his grandfather as we sit across from each other in his office. It’s an oldish concrete building that seems to have been host to important meetings over the years, and remains rooted in its place, even as “the landscape has changed dramatically,” Mike conveys, “because back 110 years ago, most of this was open plains with very few trees.” It’s a 7km drive into the property, the road not lacking activity as pedestrians walk by and motorbikes ride past me, a notable distinction from former times.

thika white sister mission

Today’s Mary Hill Girls High School in Thika is rated amongst the top schools in the country. It however started out as Thika White Sisters Mission.

Even so, it was a good location, one that not only offered an expanse of 5,000 acres for possession, but whose nearness to a consistent water supply made it ideal for would-be farmers. Remnants of 100-year-old coffee trees still exist on the Harries farm, a representation of history, the start of which was not an easy feat. “When [my family] first came here, they thought well, what do we grow? They came with a little bit of money, but not much,” Mike says, explaining that the only fancy thing about the home was a piano and a cooking stove, both unique to the area. David had indicated that a lot of settlers who came to the area, including Huxley and her parents, “were of British aristocracy, of British English Anglo-origin. When we came here in 1904, there was nothing aristocratic about the Harries family, whereas when you go to the Grants, the Delameres, they all had titles and most of them came with a bit of wealth.”

But the one affinity that they shared was that they all owned tracts of land that were barren, and toil, sweat and hard work would be the determinant factor to their successes and continued survival. The realities of Africa at that point quickly became an equalising factor. The land Major Grant had obtained was in the middle of ‘nowhere’, shrouded in grass, shrub and rocks. “If it was not quite all that Tilly [Nellie], at any rate, had expected, it was nevertheless there, under all that coat of grass and bush,” Huxley recorded in her autobiography. “There was order waiting to be created out of wilderness, a home out of bush, a future from a blank and savage history, a fortune from raw materials that were, as they then existed, of no conceivable value at all.”

Firstly, they had to build homes, and because of the nature of the land and available resources in those days, “houses were built using sticks and grass and cow dung,” James had narrated. “The sticks were planted into the ground in a circular design, in two rows. In between, the sticks were tightly stuffed with leaves and grass, then finally held together using cow dung.” He and Evans had taken a moment to laugh – that disbelieving laugh of two old men, two old friends, who’ve come from an overly simplistic life to stone homes and roads with cars. “This home was the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom and the goat shed,” he’d continued, Evans adding, “The houses had no windows; they were built plainly, the inside lined with a type of fern plant and grass.”

There was no need for nails, or wood, to hold the house together, nor was there partitioning to determine what room was what. It was one round unit, a rondavel, something that Huxley’s father could not comprehend. Mike recalls that his family, “For the first 10 or 12 years, they just lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof.” Not so with Major Grant. He wanted a rectangular home with two bedrooms and a living room. The Kikuyu men that he’d commissioned to help him questioned his idea, because in their tradition a house had no corners and was built in a day – any later would mean the welcoming of evil spirits to dwell in the structure. Regardless, he purchased long nails from an Indian shop, which to his frustration soon vanished, no thanks to the Kikuyu’s fascination and curiosity over the thick, iron pins.

“Those things,” Huxley noted one Kikuyu telling her father, “they are useful, but it is wrong to put iron in houses. Iron is for weapons and for ornament. Let us build the house according to our custom and keep the iron for bigger things.”

And so they compromised, building her father’s design, but with traditional materials. Everything was peculiar, as Huxley notes, from the ticks and painfully stinging red ants to the creepy crawlies that homed with them, to the black python nestled in a cave by the river, to the smell of the land and the people. But, as everything with time, they’d soon become accustomed to their surroundings and their native neighbours.

Life, As it Was

“A white man was referred to as bwana and a woman as memsab,” says James, and in Huxley’s case little memsab, because she was young. It must have been intriguing to see a person with skin, as the natives referred to it, the colour of the underbelly of a frog. These were people who’d lived in a natural habitat, knowing only their kind and benefiting from what nature bestowed upon them. They were guided by customary laws that everyone adhered to and sought to adapt to nature rather than alter it. I imagine this introduction of another ‘strange’ people in the locale must have been daunting, not to mention the new inventions they came with.

kikuyu woman in traditional wear

A Kikuyu woman dressed in traditional garb and ornaments takes a moment from her chores.

In her book, Huxley reflected on how, even though the Kikuyu had names for trees, plants and birds, they took no possession of their country; “They had not aspired to recreate or change or tame the country and to bring it under their control.” That, however, was about to change.

“The first thing they tried,” Mike recollects of the early attempts to utilise the land beneficially, “was ostriches, because in those days the wazungus in Europe used ostrich feathers in their hats as it was fashionable.” This source of income was shortly banished by Queen Alexandra based on cruelty to the animal, leaving the Harries family with 200 ostriches that, when set free on the outskirts of the farm, found their way back to the homestead.

Mike lets my laughter die down before he tells me that soon after they got rid of them, they tried a little bit of market gardening and managed to acquire some livestock. The cousins – Mike and David – today live about 15km from one another, much of the land acquired by their grandfather sold or donated for community development over the years.

When she wrote, “The natives of Africa had accepted what God, or nature, had given them without apparently wishing to improve upon it in any given way,” Huxley was quite right. Before Europeans appeared, food grown was limited to what the land provided and what crops, to that point, they were aware of. And even though nature was, for the most part, unaffected, the local communities grew what they could, which according to James, “wasn’t much of a variety. We used to plant mwere (millet), njahi (black beans), njũgũ (red/white beans), thuu (small green peas) and thoroko (small peas).” A range of fruits and vegetables were introduced, and as intriguing as it was to the local inhabitants, it must have been quite challenging for the influx of white farmers, not forgetting that the crops were just as new to the uncultivated land, wild grazers and scorching environment as the planter was to the area.

When they were not destroying the crop or stealing livestock from the homes, wild animals made for much entertainment. “If you went beyond Ol Donyo Sabuk, that was the wilderness, full of wildlife in those days,” says David, remembering how safaris, camping and game hunting then were ideal pastimes. Still, their way of life to the native was like chalk and cheese. For where the African had used spears, bows and arrows to hunt, the settler used a long weapon – a gun – that made a loud noise when fired. “There were no matchboxes, so our fathers would light fires by rubbing sticks together,” utters James. To see a matchstick light up by striking it against a box was a thing of wonder, he tells me with a smile that reveals gaps in both his upper and lower front teeth. “The sight of a tongue of flame imprisoned in a bubble, independent and mobile,” wrote Huxley, of Africans first witnessing a lantern, “must have appeared altogether miraculous to those confronted with it for the first time.”

But these miraculous wonders are what would bring the communities together. “We as kids enjoyed mixing freely,” David remembers, “but as you grew up, then tradition sort of dictated that we went into the English system. But that’s the way it was in those days. The Asians went to their schools in Thika and the Africans had their schools.” However, the farms wouldn’t do without the services offered by Africans, and neither would the crops germinate without the range of agricultural products sold by the Asians. In a roundabout way, it was a give and take, the marvels of Africa being things Huxley and others would not have been exposed to in England, nor would have the local people and land been introduced to new inventions and methods of crop growing.

Blue Post

Streams of water gently flow under the Chania Bridge, an old, narrow, structure – which was much younger when Huxley crossed it for the first time, as she made her way into the country – with iron bars on either side. “We came at last to a stone bridge over the Chania River, newly built, and considered to be a great achievement,” she penned. The pool of water runs quietly before suddenly gushing into a beautiful cascade, the forceful spurt a tranquil, pleasant sound. The Blue Post Hotel, founded in 1908, is just around the corner, the makuti thatched entrance – stunningly encircled with flowers and perfectly trimmed shrubs – instantly welcoming. David Kuria, who has worked at the hotel since the 80s, will tell me in a while that the place hasn’t changed much since the days of Edward Sergent’s ownership, who himself acquired the place from its initial owner, Captain Ward, described by Huxley as “a military-looking, sprucely-dressed man with a bald head and a long moustache, who had the misfortune to be very deaf.”

old blue post hotel

Pre-colonial Blue Post Hotel, a modern looking establishment today.

Before making their way to what would become their home, Kitimuru Farm – the stream running through the land evoking the name – Huxley and her mum made a stop at Blue Post. “It consisted of a low-roofed, thatched grass hut whose veranda posts were painted blue and gave the place its name,” wrote Huxley. I walk up a small ramp with thick ropes over wooden handles, to Sergent’s Bar. Blue neon lights illuminate the semi-circular bar. Two strong pillars in the middle of the room, tightly wound in brown rope, support the building.

“The colonialists used to come in on horses and on those pillars,” Kuria explains, as he points to the popular pillars whose blue colour is now concealed, “that’s where they’d tie their horses and then get a drink.”

Outside, the grounds are pristine, beautified by trees of sorts. A variety of guests lunched on a sumptuous display of salads and entrées, an indulgence preserved back then for only the Europeans, Africans and Asians not permitted in the premises. There wasn’t really much to it then besides the bar, just three rooms for guests and some stables for the horses. It was “the main pub, a social waterhole for people from Nairobi,” as Mike remembers it, particularly settlers who were travelling between Nairobi and Nyeri.

In modern times, there’s much to keep one occupied at Blue Post; the animal orphanage, where a large ostrich walks freely about, reminiscent of bygone years, and the African curios fashioned from modern designs, yet sold in mud huts, are a testimony of how time continues along its way. It’s the voluble Thika Falls that grab my attention, however, naturally beautiful and still gushing water after all these years.

A Town Forms

The region was picking up as more settlers moved to the area. A town was steadily forming around Asians, Whites and Africans, and while they all had their distinctive qualities – Asians were business minded, Whites were farmers and Africans were herders – it seemed that they were all striving to better themselves – Asians looking to grow their businesses, Whites farming extensively and Africans observing and absorbing what they could from these new people in their land. The first car in the country was introduced in 1914, shortly after the railway line from Nairobi to Thika was established in 1913. Transport woes thus became somewhat resolved. In 1922, the Thika Sports Club was erected, and two years later, electricity was introduced, as was the Thika Water Works. But one thing that remained asunder were relations amongst the three communities. “We had a working culture where you integrated,” explains David, but “social life was quite segregated.”

While social integration issues would not be resolved until the 60s, work relations continued to mature. Captain Herbert Cowie, who lived in Parklands, Nairobi, was an importer of produce. As it happens, one of his introductions to the country was pineapple, but unfortunately they were not taking root in Nairobi. Frustrated, he tossed them out, only to have them picked up by Mike and David’s grandmother, who was Herbert’s mother-in-law. The pineapples were planted on the Harries farm, and with a combination of weather, soil and time, they thrived. By the time the Second World War ended and the labours of coffee planting started to materialise, Bobs Harries, Mike’s father “had probably more than 50 acres of pineapples for the local market.”

In 1948, with companies such as The Kenya Tanning Extract Co. Ltd and City Brewery Ltd, among other companies, putting the metropolis on the map, “a man from England called Theo West, who ran a big canning operation in England, decided to expand into pineapple production,” reveals Mike. “He went into partnership with my father and in 1949 started Kenya Canners Ltd, which was bought out by Del Monte in about 1965.” International markets making their way into Thika and increasing industrialisation gave birth to the city, the population growing from 4,500 people in 1948, to nearly – according to David’s estimate – 500,000 today.

A Revelation of Time and Toil

“We came up as, probably, pioneers in Africa,” says David referring to his family. “It wasn’t really the sort of venturous drama a British person might find if they came out here for the first time living amongst wild animals.” It’s difficult to determine how life will turn out, more difficult even, I’d imagine, when one ventures into untried and unfamiliar territory. “Doesn’t it strike you as strange that nothing people have created here has survived?” Huxley narrated one of her then neighbour’s concerns. “Not even a few traces? No ruin of cities or temples – no ancient over-grown roads – no legends of past empires – no statues hidden in the ground – no tombs or burial mounds? No sign that generations of people have lived here, lived and died.”

Today there are three temples in the town. Surrounding Thika War Cemetery, which salutes Second World War veterans, the buildings are aged, telling of years passed and the many who have lived and died in the years since it was established. No longer is it just grass and plains with Acacia trees as David remembers it, his overriding recollections being of retail services – cobblers, tailors and hair dressers – provided by Asians. “There are still remnants of that left, but now Thika is just a hub of mini-let shops. I just remember the spaciousness of it all.”

That largess still prevails, albeit taken up now less by animals and plains and more by people and buildings. Ol Donyo Sabuk is now a national park, sheltering the animals from the ever expanding urbanisation. All the same, there are parts of Thika, at least, where one can still enjoy the beauty and shade of its prominent trees.

“The classical tree here is the Muhuti (Flame) tree,” says David and after a heartbeat adds, “But there is a dispute as to whether Huxley is talking about the Nandi Flame Tree or the Red Hot Poker Tree.” That we might never know for sure, but one certain thing is that she never forgot her Thika, or Africa for that matter, making frequent trips to the country and the continent before she passed away on Jan. 10, 1997. “It was, as I remember, a cloudy day, with a sky of storms, low and threatening. Yet the sun threw long, triumphant shafts down the ridges to make huts and trees and goats look hard and solid, as if carved from wood, like objects in a toy farmyard,” inscribed Huxley of her final day in Thika.

“Perhaps it is all a mistake, our trying to change them, and introduce new worries, like Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” Huxley wrote, quoting one of their neighbour friends. But I think, possibly, it was inevitable that change would eventually take place. How wondrous it is that a land, which at first glance may appear empty, desolate and insufficient, would, in its own appointed time, turn about to reveal all its abundance.