Rattling over African roads in my Roho

RenaultRohoRenault Roho (see below)

In the early 1970s, I spent two-and-a-half years in Kenya. I wanted to gain a real understanding of Africa, but there was no point pretending that I was anything other than a white Canadian graduate student. On the other hand, I didn’t want to emulate some of my fellow Europeans, living in expatriate ice castles, being waited on hand and foot by African servants. Avoiding that turned out to be a tall order.

It was in Nyandarua District, a rural area northwest of Nairobi, the capital, and northeast of Nakuru (see maps below) that I learned how to navigate my African life. The people I particularly wanted to get to know — for purposes of my research and out of personal interest — were small farmers who worked their land mainly by hand labour. Many of my academic colleagues referred to them as peasants, but it was clear that the small farmers who understood English would not wish to be referred to that way.

In posts to come, I hope to acquaint my readers with some of the people and places of Nyandarua, and perhaps gain some Kenyan readers who are interested in the lives of their grandparents — interesting lives, in the sense of the Chinese curse. Among the hundreds of small farmers I got to know, most had lived through the Emergency, the brutal crackdown when the British were still trying to hang on to their colony.

Some had fought for independence in the Land Freedom Army (the British called the Africans who fought against colonial oppression Mau Mau, and pretended it was somehow connected with alleged African savagery). And all the adults I got to know had been part of a mad scramble for land that accompanied the British relinquishment of their colony.

For a number of months in 1971 and 1972, a Kikuyu-speaking research assistant and I bumped — and on the frequent rainy days, slithered — on the rough roads of rural Kenya in a battered Renault Roho. A frequent refuge from the road was a small town near the centre of Nyandarua District, where Mwaniki or Waweru and I sometimes stopped in at the local hotel for tea and a Mandazi.* Ol Kalou lies at the foot of a range of hills lining Nyandarua’s western boundary. To the north and east, away from the hills, extends the high plateau called the Ol Kalou Salient and beyond it the blue Aberdare Mountains overshadow the eastern part of what is now called Nyandarua County.

AberdaresFrmOlKalouGoogle Maps (click to enlarge)

KenyaMap1Google Maps: Kenya and neighbouring countries (click to enlarge)

Ol'KalouGoogle Maps: The Ol Kalou area (click to enlarge)

Mt.KenyaAberdaresAberdare Mountains, Mt. Kenya in background

On a clear day, it’s possible, from some points near Ol Kalou, to look eastward and take in a vista that includes the Ol Kalou Salient, where the nomadic Masai* used to roam, the Aberdares, and, in the distance, the traditionally sacred Kirinyaga — Mt. Kenya — located in the heart of Kikuyu country,* on the far side of the Aberdares.

Before the British seizure of much of Kenya’s best land, Kikuyu traders used to set out for Masai country to vend their goods. In the 20th Century, British and South African settlement blocked the Masai from using that land, and destroyed the traders’ livelihood. At independence in 1963 the Europeans left in their turn and Nyandarua became Kikuyu country. That’s what it was when my research assistants and I roamed the Ol Kalou hills in our Roho, learning about African life from the small farmers who had taken over Nyandarua.

*Note: I use Wikipedia, which has become a fairly good source, but I keep a critical eye on the sources each article cites. I advise my readers to do the same.

One response to “Rattling over African roads in my Roho

  1. Tom Lepski Ochola

    Good day Christopher.
    It was nice reading your article,took me back to my boyhood in the late sixties in rural Kenya! I grew with these Renault Rohos which were predominantly used by the Red Cross and the Keya Charity sweepstake to transverse the then many kilometres of dirt roads in our country. They were quite robust and would never get stuck in the sticky red mud in the rainy season,possibly because of the front wheel drive.
    Another feature about the cars and the subject of rather crude and extremely off color jokes was the position of the gear knob/gear shift system on the dashboard! The driver,shifting the gears would be engaged in what was considered a gross act!

    All the best and keep writting,we’ll keep reading.

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