A Wondrous Place and a People of Freedom ; The story of Nyeri

The drive from the capital Nairobi to Nyeri will knock about three hours off your schedule, if your preferred mode of transport is the matatu. The highway to Nyeri snakes its way up towards the highlands criss-crossing through the counties of Kiambu, Machakos, Murang’a and Kirinyaga, and then finally to Nyeri. It is admittedly Kajohnie Kariuki that first made me think of Nyeri as quite a special and wondrous place. In his memorable album, Mwisho wa Reli, he retraces this route to Nyeri, and then to Nanyuki quite sentimentally making his brief stopovers at Karatina and Naromoru (to partake one – too many for the road) in apparent celebration what he refers as the New Highway, as the Kambiti – Sagana road had just been upgraded.

The three hours it takes to get you to Nyeri from the capital, for visitors, will usually prove worth the time. The county at large has for a long time boasted of a tremendous wealth in natural resources, mostly the tourist magnets of Aberdare’s and Mt Kenya National park, several wildlife conservancies and most of all a hospitable people eager for visitors. The county according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics is the most forested county with at least 4 in every 10 acres of land being covered in trees. The river Tana itself whose life-giving waters flow up until the Indian Ocean giving life to every single place it meanders through, is to a very large extent fed by ancient water catchment areas in the forests of Nyeri, now under strict protection from both the county and national government.


A section of River Chania, a main tributary of Tana River

Nyeri is at first glance a seemingly conservative, cultural town, with little but a friendly people going about their businesses of mostly running small businesses and selling produce from their farms, as indeed God has bestowed fertile land to its people for farming. It is on the slopes of Aberdare’s, the eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, thus one is gifted with a wonderful view of the seat of Murungu, the snow-capped Mt. Kenya especially on clear mornings. A sunrise over Mt Kenya may only be experienced properly by finding a suitable spot in Nyeri. The town, itself a creation of the colonial administration has served as a provincial headquarters previously and thus, because of the many vital amenities, there are many visitors from mostly upper north at any single point in time. Thanks also to recent development of several institutions of higher learning a highly diverse population of young Kenyans especially is gradually cropping up.On closer inspection however, it’s the history of Nyeri, far much more than its present that is much more intriguing and really that which sets apart Nyeri from any other place in Kenya and the whole world.

I remember reading stories of how the Agikuyu came to own what is now their ancestral land. That God took Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first man and woman in Gikuyu folklore to the highest peak on Mt Kenya and showed them the lands that surrounded them, and gave them dominion over all the land they could see from that particular peak. It must have been Nyeri that first grabbed their attention from that point, in my own thinking. Apart from its obviously very close proximity to the mountain thus a good line of sight, Nyeri geography is breath-taking. From the huge expanse of the Aberdare ranges to the cluster of hills at Tumu Tumu and the beautiful hilltops in Karima, Othaya, it must have been a quite a sight to behold. I also imagine that it is this site that first met the first European explorers of inland Kenya and Gikuyu land, and that they found it irresistible. When the Europeans came to Nyeri, they were met hospitably, showered with gifts and hailed with praises.


murungu seat
Mt Kenya, View from Nyeri County

Generously, Italian Catholics were gifted huge chunks of land in Mathari as the Scottish mission received the same warm reception in Tumu Tumu. There, they set up shop, converting many to Christianity and helping end some of the actually bad practices that had endured in Nyeri and Gikuyu land in general, including FGM. Schools and hospitals were a welcome development here. Many sent their kids to school to learn to read and write.  It is from that background and in the light of the coming of missionaries, that it must be noted by the turn of the 20th century, most if not all of the land that Ngai had given to Gikuyu and Mumbi in the beginning of time fell into the hands of the men Mugo the great seer had prophesied some 40 years or so before, by the power of their sticks that spit fire, literally. Despite the goodies the Christian missionaries brought with them, in the words of Jomo Kenyatta, they had the bible and we had the land, we closed our eyes to pray and when we opened them, they had the land and we had the bible.

The circumstances preceding the coming of the white man to Nyeri are not in any way unique but did definitely shape the destiny of Nyeri a great deal. By the time of Kenya gaining independence, the people of Nyeri had set themselves apart and forever cemented their position in history, in the dramatic fashion which they had taken themselves to the fore of the struggle for independence, taking up arms at a time when few had succeeded gaining independence this way. This is all thanks to the sons of Nyeri who, fortunately or unfortunately had gotten enlisted with the Kenya African Rifles to fight on the side of their colonial masters during the Second World War.

By far the most famous of these sons is Kimathi wa Waciuri, Dedan as he had been baptised by the Catholics in Mathari. The fierce black rights activist of the 60s in America Malcolm X once proclaimed in an interview when asked what price he was willing to pay for freedom, that “The price of freedom is death.” Kimathi is perhaps so significant today in contemporary Kenya because he epitomizes this ultimate price for freedom. One cold night as he snuck from his base in the thick tropical forests of Nyandarua, as he attempted to navigate across a trench that’s been dug to keep Mau Mau fighters out of the colonial villages, he was spotted by two colonial home-guards, Ngaati, shot in the leg and subsequently captured. After a brief kangaroo court trial in Nairobi, Kimathi was hang one cold night by the orders of the British administration. Today at that spot where Kimathi was shot, nothing grows there. Not even grass.  Kimathi today continues to inspire a whole generation of human and civil rights activist in Kenya. Another son of Nyeri, Boniface Mwangi perhaps in the footsteps of the men whose blood runs in his veins continues today with this fight for equality and economic emancipation. The gains the likes of Kimathi had anticipated once we had independence proved not forthcoming as, as it has been noted in many circles, the oppressor never left, he just changed colour.


Nobel laurette, the late Wangari Maathai

The courage of Nyeri women cannot be over emphasised. Nyeri women have been known to be smart, hardworking and in the face of adversity, courageous. In today’s Kenya, they are somewhat revered as the tough, no-nonsense women who will readily take up the position of men if their men fail to do so. I reckon that indeed that’s the woman from Nyeri.  And perhaps the most inspiring story to ever come out of Nyeri since Kimathi’s confrontation with the colonialists is that of Wangari Maathai. This daughter of Nyeri from Tetu who once served as both Member of Parliament and cabinet minister is the first Kenyan to ever receive the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. This time the fight was that of saving our country for our children. Wangari Maathai shot into the limelight as an environmental activist in the 90s fighting against the government regarding proposed developments in Karura forest and Uhuru Park.The question many asked even then is why would anyone, let alone someone as vulnerable as the Kenyan woman in those days risk her life for the sake of a doomed and according to some people pointless cause. But nothing would come between Maathai and what she believed. She sentimentally led a nation to understand the importance of conserving our God-given environment like the aquifers under Nairobi’s Uhuru Park which the developments paused a threat to. She further led a campaign all over the country of tree planting and the eradication of any kind of developments in our water catchment areas. Who knows how much we owe this awesome lady of courage as the gains of her campaigns cannot even be quantified monetarily, and for her selfless efforts earns her place in history.

It is impossible to talk about the great men and women of Nyeri without talking of the man who later became the third president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki. The Makerere educated economist indeed seals this list of my three all-time favourite Nyeri-ans. The 2002 general elections will last in the memories of those who were there to witness it as perhaps the most dramatic race for presidency in the history of Kenya. Foes and friends came together this one time to prove the proverbial “KANU will rule for 100 years” wrong. At the centre of it, Mwai Kibaki. With the firm support of Raila Odinga and Michael Kijana Wamalwa, the NARC coalition swept power in a popular democratic, landslide election flooring the KANU protégé Uhuru Kenyatta. The Rainbow coalition as it was called entered power on a promise of zero tolerance to corruption and development. A lot will be written about the NARC government and the subsequent election of 2007/2008 in history books, with Kibaki at the helm of power in Kenya, but something that will never be taken away from him is the immense socio political and economic changes – for the better – that he undertook. Free primary education, something that had been thought of as an impossibility and major infrastructure to name just a few. But perhaps his greatest achievement, righting the wrongs of the previous regime that had literally plundered and looted Kenya for quarter a century and laying the basis for an industrialized Kenya, curving a position for Kenya in today’s dynamic world. What an end it was for a political career that’d lasted 50 years for this great son of Nyeri.

Those are but a few names. Nyeri has much more to offer. It very so can be said  that the real heroes of Nyeri are the tea and coffee farmers, the women who have learned and passed on the skills of farming down generations, whose granaries never run empty, the young men and women riding matatus and boda bodas to fend their families, the traders who will already be buying and selling at  Soko Mjinga and Mudavadi by 3 am, the teachers, the builders, the honest hardworking men and women of Nyeri who will let nothing come between them and what they stand for. These are really the men who have placed Nyeri on the map.

They are the men of goodwill, courage and freedom.God Bless Nyeri, and every place else!




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