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Notes on the Geography of Kenya: Thika

Thika today is a town of about 90,000 people about 30 miles--long miles, with all the traffic--northeast of Nairobi. In 1912, Joseph Grant and his wife Lilian ("Nellie") bought 500 acres five miles north of Thika. They paid a then-steep four pounds to the acre. The site had no habitation, no cultivated land. There were 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

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 she might have seen. The openness is still there, but not the game.

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And even the openness of that picture is misleading, because if you turn 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 journey by cart 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 Thika Falls.

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The Blue Post hotel at the falls is old, and its Dutch gables are a reminder of the importance in pioneer days of "Dutchmen" or Afrikaners. 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 today are much like the English mansions in which early settlers like Nellie Grant had grown.

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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 the owner of the Kalamu Estate. He died in 1952 at age 64, leaving a widow who perhaps continued growing coffee but who in any case lived until 1979, long after she had presumably erected this monument. Both husband and wife are buried in Nairobi's Forest Road Cemetery.

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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.

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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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