Powys of Laikipia and the Happy Valley that’s turning to valley of tears, death

Suiyan Ranch Director Gilfred Powys. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The Powys were part of the Happy Valley fraternity.
  • That was the classic Llewelyn, who had actually come to Kenya to cure his tuberculosis.

The death of Suiyan Ranch director Girfled Powys, — who was trampled to death by an elephant in his farm in Laikipia North this week — will perhaps not earn acres of space.

Yet, this settler’s family has been part of an interesting part of Kenya’s colonial history — and, of late, an important part of tourism and conservation.

The Powys were part of the Happy Valley fraternity, but you won’t get much about Powys’ family by visiting the Suiyan website.


You get to know that they live in a 43,495 acre ranch in Laikipia which was this year the scene of invasions by herdsmen who burned down a lodge — belonging to Mr Powys’ daughter, Anne — shot some elephants and looted the property.

With two tragedies in a year, the Powys, whose family emigrated from Dorset a century ago, have had a bad year in this Laikipia ranch.

“Suyian Soul” — as the family regards the expansive ranch — is a signature of conservation and preservation of the wild Laikipia which makes it attractive to local politicos eager to score some mileage with herdsmen driven south by unforgiving drought. It is also targeted by some grabbers who would want a slice of this pristine land teaming with tens of thousands of wildlife.

The struggle of the Powys family is the story of a white family caught between geography, community demands and historical injustices.

The Powys — now a generation of white Kenyans — are now used to fending off those who want their land. In 1970s, the family had to go to court to protect the compulsory acquisition of their Kisima Farm near Timau, Nanyuki.


By then, the Commissioner of Lands had shown interest in two parcels of land saying he wanted to settle members of the Meru community — though we now know that some Meru politicians led by Jackson Angaine wanted the land.

In a court ruling by Justice Hancox in the Kisima Limited case, as it is known, the High Court ruled that a compulsory acquisition gazette notice should specify the public body which would benefit from the acquisition and the purpose.

While part of the land in question was in fact required for resettlement of certain members of the Meru tribe, Justice Hancox ruled that a tribe is not a public body, thus ending the mischievous abuse of compulsory acquisition law to grab land by the ruling elite.

Will Powys (the late Girfled Powys’ father) had acquired thousands of acres of this Kisima Farm under the soldier settler scheme, which had been introduced by Britain to settle a generation that had been plucked out of schools and colleges to join the war and had found themselves with no career in peace-time Europe.


For soldiers who were used to military adventure, such settlement helped them to return to every-day lives but the other story was that they were brought as bullies who could hold on to the empire and to turn Kenya into what Australia later became — a white man’s country.

It was through this scheme that the Nandi and Kikuyus lost most of their fertile land and became the source of agitation led by Harry Thuku in 1920s.

In Australia, the Aboriginals lost their land to the settlers under this scheme and Britain sent an estimated 20,000 children to populate the country with “white stock” while also sending thousands of aboriginal children abroad.

In 2008, for the first time, the Australian government apologised in parliament to all Aborigines for laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss”.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd singled out the “Stolen Generations” of thousands of children forcibly removed from their families in a policy of assimilation which lasted from the 19th century to the late 1960.


Today, Powys’ Kisima Farm, where the family grows wheat, barley, and certified seed potatoes, is one of the remaining farms given under this scheme — and most of whose 99 year leases have been expiring triggering communal demands that such farms (including tea farms in Kericho) should revert back to the community.

Until recently, when the ranch invasions happened, the Powys had not been in the limelight, though the late Girfled was the chairman of Laikipia ranchers.

The arrival of the Powys into Kenya was perhaps incidental. Had Maasai murderer Galbraith Cole not been allowed to return to Kenya in 1914 as part of the war, there are chances that the Powys’ family would not have come to Kenya either. Cole was one of the wealthiest settlers in Kenya and was the son of the Earl of Enniskillen and brother-in-law to Lord Delamere, perhaps the best known of the white settlers. All these families had one determination – turn Kenya into a white man’s country.

Cole had been deported from Kenya in 1911 after he shot dead a Maasai herdsman for allegedly slaughtering his sheep.

In a case that would later mimic that of Tom Cholmondeley, the great-grandson of the 3rd Baron Delamere, who was twice accused of shooting dead two people in the expansive family farm in Naivasha in 2005, the charging of Cole with murder was widely watched as it was to become a case study of settler arrogance and racism.


The all-white jury found him “not guilty” reasoning that “the son of an earl was defending his property”.

The case also showed that the British government did not approve of some of the outright racist tendencies in Nairobi.

It emerged that the governor was sympathetic to Cole, but the Colonial Office, incensed by the verdict termed it a “very horrible case… Cole must be deported (for) endeavouring to excite enmity between the people of east Africa and the government.”

Cole was eventually deported to Australia but was allowed into Kenya, thanks to the outbreak of World War II. He brought with him a manager for his farm and this was Girfled Powys’ father, William – who is buried in Laikipia also.

Cole’s farm is what is today’s the grounds of Lake Elementaita Lodge near Kikopey, on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway. Somehow, the sprawling red brick building is one of the best-preserved early settler homes in Kenya and it still retains its aura of a long-gone colonial era: Some terraces overlooking Lake Elementaita, panelled walls, an internal courtyard, spacious living room and a library. Here, you get the taste and elegance of its past owner.


But only remnants of his farm — which was actually a donation from Lord Delamere — have remained after it was cut into small plots and the best known are the Kikopey meat eating kiosks along the Nakuru highway. (Next time, you stop by, have a look at the farm).

The arrival of William Powys into Cole’s farm also brought to Kenya his brother — the famous writer Llewelyn Powys, an essayist and novelist, who described Cole as a “vicious high bred horse or some F----- aristocratic snake.” He also thought that most of the settlers had “heads made of concrete” and that Galbraith Cole had “hawks brain.”

The Powys were widely known in UK as writers, more than ranchers. It was Llewelyn’s description of the 1917 drought that has always caught attention of other writers:

“Famine stalked through the land with pestilence galling his kibe. Week after week the country lay prostrate under the blank stare of a soulless sun…the air was tainted, the flaked dusty mould stank. Everywhere one came across the carcasses of animals dead from exhaustion …the sun rose and sank in a blinding heaven, and under its hideous presence all sensitive life trembled and shrank…”


That was the classic Llewelyn, who had actually come to Kenya to cure his tuberculosis after spending some time in a sanatorium.

But it is the family’s battle with the Samburu that has started to capture the interest of historians. Part of this is on the family’s bid to occupy Leroghi plateau, some 2 million acres of what was thought to be mere “bush and scrub” but which is the dry-season grazing land for both Samburu and Maasai.

The area had at first been occupied by the Maasai but after they were moved by the settlers following the Anglo-Maasai Agreement of 1911, the Samburus and white settlers — including the Powys — laid new claim to the land.

The agreement had forced the Maasai to move from Laikipia to southern Ngong where they were restricted into what was known as southern reserve.

The tussle with the Samburu’s took a twist in December after one of the Powys, Theodore L. Powys (son to British novelist T.F. Powys) arrived in Laikipia to manage Lady Eleanor’s farm.


But on the 19th of December, 1931, T. L. Powys disappeared while riding his pony to inspect a borehole and a search party only found remnants of Powys’s clothing and parts of his body. The horse had returned home alone.

It was initially thought that he had been killed by a lion but authorities thought that he was a victim of the struggle between settlers and the Samburu over the land.

So complicated was this investigation — there was an inquest and an inquiry — that it is today regarded as part of the struggle for Leroghi Plateau although some scholars say that it was part of a Samburu ritual where young men wanted to use Powys death “to appear brave in the eyes of young women”.

An attempt by the government to get to the bottom of the case was hampered by a witch doctor, Ole Odomo, who was deported to Kwale after the Supreme Court was satisfied that his influence was hampering the investigation.

Parliament was told that “Odomo offered the warriors protection against the retribution of the Government by issuing charms.”

Girfled Powys was buried in a private ceremony. But the challenges facing his Suiyian Farm remain.

Certainly, we have not heard the last of this pristine land but the happy valley is turning into a valley of tears.

[email protected] @johnkamau1