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Notes on the Geography of Kenya: Thika

Thika today is a town of about 90,000 people perhaps 30 miles--with traffic, long miles--northeast of Nairobi. In 1912, however, Joseph Grant and his wife Lilian ("Nellie") bought 500 acres five miles north of town. They paid a steep four pounds to the acre. The site had no cultivation or habitation, only footpaths. Their daughter later wrote, "No one knew what this land would grow and what it wouldn't, how it should be treated, what pests and enemies it concealed. But virgin land, it was assumed, was sure to be full of untapped fertility. All you had to do was to tap it by means of a plough and other implements; nature, directed by European skills never before applied in this part of Africa, would do the rest. On top of all this, pioneers believed themselves to be the the torch-bearers of civilization, bringing light into dark places and infallibly doing good to the native population." (Elspeth Huxley, Nellie: Letters from Africa, 1980, p. 34.)

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Kenya: Thika  picture 1

You can still catch something of the excitement of that time. Huxley wrote of arriving by train from Mombasa: "With the dawn came enchantment. You looked out of the window to see great rolling plains, pale gold in the early light, each tree-shadow sharply defined, speckled as far as eye could see with the most wonderful collection of wild animals in the world" (p. 32). Here's the view at one spot along the road from Nairobi to Thika. The openness is still there, just not the game.

Kenya: Thika  picture 2

And even the openness of that picture is misleading, because if you rotate the camera 90 degrees you get this: Highway A2, destined for Ethiopia. Today, there's little open land between Thika and Nairobi, and the completion of a four-lane highway will help eliminate what little there is. In 1912, the 30-mile-journey to Nairobi took two and a half days in dry weather.

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Two years after arriving, the Grants had planted 60 acres of coffee, with land prepared for more. Huxley's mother boasted gently of having planted 5,000 seedlings in one week. By the end of the war, however, the family's Kitimuri Estate owed the Bank of India about 10,000 pounds--more than proceeds from the sale of coffee could ever repay. The family moved to Njoro, in the Rift Valley north of Nairobi, where they leased two of the 500-acre blocks that Lord Delamere had carved out of his holding. "Nellie" would stay there until Independence. Meanwhile, there's coffee growing in the old Thika neighborhood of the Grants.

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Now, as then, it's planted on nine-foot spacing.

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Now, as then, it's organized in estates.

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There's corn, too, as well as the spreading suburbs of Thika. Not visible here: the extensive pineapple plantations, including those of Del Monte, which produce 250,000 tons of fruit annually.

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The local tourist attraction is the Thika Falls.

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The hotel at the falls, the Blue Post, is an old one, and its Dutch gables are a reminder of the importance of "Dutchmen" or Afrikaners here in the old days, when they were the ones who trained the oxen that pulled the plows.

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Some of the houses sprouting close to the coffee are only a couple of notches shy of the mansions in which early settlers like Nellie Grant had grown up in England.

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As for Thika, the Old Town now adjoins a much newer one. Here, the Old Town's inevitable clocktower.

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It carries a plaque remembering an Englishman who seems otherwise forgotten.

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The park--Wangari Gardens, named for the Nobel laureate--is a popular place.

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Stretching away from the park is Kwame Nkrumah Avenue.

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On the left, Commercial Street crosses Nkrumah to form the main intersection of the old town.

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The date of the general store is 1933, a decade after the Grants had been forced to pull up stakes and find a cheaper place.

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At the intersection, the street sign is 90 degrees out of true; in the foreground, a local alternative to Viagra.

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The wider world arrives, including M-Pesa, Kenya's ubiquitous service providing cash transfers between cell-phone owners.

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