Home' Travel News : April 2014 Contents 34 travel news April 2014
April 2014 travel news 35
An acquaintance, Ethel Dicksee, came to Molo to help out, falling in love with Keringet,
then its owner. But life wasn’t a bed of roses: by the early 20s, the now-married Ethel
and Edward were financially broke. After selling Keringet to Italians, they moved with
37 heifers and 4 ponies to Mau Narok, newly opened up for settlement by the British
Government, partly to provide a buffer zone between the Kikuyu and Maasai. Here the
Powys Cobbs acquired 30,000 acres and settled in tents, once again reliant on oxen to
plough the land as they slowly built up capital – and the house. “One works because of
the fascination of it,” Powys Cobb once said, “Because each furrow turned, each calf
born, is a tiny step towards a distant goal.”
In The Pioneer Scrapbook, Yuillen Hewett heralds the optimism of early pioneers
like Powys Cobb, as he struggled to grow wheat on the damp moorlands of the Mau,
importing steam tractors and building barges to carry his harvests across Lake Naivasha
to the railway. Having dug a deep dyke around the farmland to keep out game, he was
financially ruined by flocks of crowned cranes eating his newly planted seeds. In 1930
his barley also failed. “Africa is a sink,” sighed Powys Cobb in a darker moment.
Elspeth Huxley recalls a long walk from Njoro with her mother, Nellie Grant, to pay
Powys Cobb a visit. Having taken longer than expected, they imagined they’d be asked
to stay. However Powys Cobb, a “smallish man with very pale eyes, no noticeable
eyebrows and a trim pointed beard like that of General Smuts” was not hospitable. The
cook and Ethel were away and all they got was a cup of tea.
In 1952, aged 79, Powys Cobb sold most of his farm to the European Agricultural
Settlement Board, keeping back 5,000 acres for Ethel.
There’s another perspective in Historical Injustice at Mau Narok: A Century of Maasai
Land Rights Denied, by Professors Meitamei Olol Dapash, Mary Poole and Kaitlin Nossi
(May 2010). According to this paper, Powys Cobb did not receive title to his Mau Narok
land (which rightfully belonged to the Maasai) until 1922, “though he later acknowledged
that he had been squatting there since 1907.” The colonial administration, it adds, made
no attempt to define any border between the Maasai Reserve and Cobb’s land. After
Powys Cobb sold, the land was broken into 29 farms to sell to Europeans, the specifics
of which are lost in missing files in the Ministry of Lands. The Maasai were again “locked
out of the land” after 1963, when the Kenyan government allowed the farms to be
consolidated into large holdings of 10,000 acres or more, which it then gave to personal
friends of Jomo Kenyatta, notably Nyachae and Koinange, with the Maasai community
becoming even more marginalised than it had been under British colonisation.
According to the paper, in 1964 Ethel Powys Cobb decided to transfer her 5,000 acres to
the Maasai community that had lived on the land and developed a plan with community
members, which included an Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Institute that would
train local people in modern agricultural practices. Ethel Cobb wrote to Bruce McKenzie,
then Minister of Agriculture, offering £10,000, and to remain financially involved with the
institute if it were built on her land. But the plan was dismissed.
Several years later a German called Class bought it, but was approached and asked to
sell his land in 1976. When he refused, he was immediately deported, with 24 hours to
leave. Koinange, then Minister for Internal Security, acquired his farm shortly thereafter,
although Class still claimed to retain title.
Farming hadn’t been successful for Powys Cobb, but at least his lifetime dream to sail
the world’s seas partially came true. Early on in life he dreamed of owning an ocean-
going vessel that would also serve as a school for disadvantaged boys. While living
on the Mau he built a sailing boat, launching it on Lake Naivasha. When he sold the
farm, Powys Cobb bought a yacht and took Ethel cruising for several years around the
Mediterranean before retiring to a houseboat in Holland, where he died in 1959.
Ethel returned to the Mau and designed and built her church, although her husband had
been an atheist. The same year she heard of the government plan to buy white farmers
out in order to settle Kikuyu families on 10-acre plots. She wrote: “ ... it breaks my heart...
what will become of our old employees, some of whom we’ve had for 30 years? I simply
don’t know how I could possibly leave my lovely little church to its fate. I feel I must try
to stop and look after it.” But two years later she left for the Isle of Man, where she died
Johnny Weller told me he grew up in the Powys Cobb’s Mau Narok home from 1967 to
1972. His father, Sam Weller, had presumably worked for Class.
Having last visited a decade ago, and hearing the road was worse than ever, I asked
Vicky Rose, who farmed in the area until about 2010, how Powys Cobb’s house had
fared. The church had survived under a new tin roof, she told me, but the house –
“like so many others up there” – had been less lucky. Its beautiful parquet flooring and
wooden banisters had been stripped out, leaving it little more than a ruin. The place that
had once featured in Homes & Gardens had fallen from glory.
I’m glad I didn’t try to go back.
Kembu Cottages is a delightful
and very popular collection of
cottages with camping facilities
on the main road between Nakuru
and Molo, near Njoro. They have
recently bought Beryl Markham's
childhood Njoro home whose
foundations had rotted away and
were in a state of collapse. It has
been carefully moved, panel by
panel, to Kembu. It is planned to
be available from July 2014. For
more information click HERE.
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