The first wazungu (white) settlers arrived in the Central Highlands in the 19th century. At the height of white settlement, as many as 10,000 settlers lived here; many were granted 999-year leases over the land. It mattered little to the colonial authorities, of course, that Africans, especially the Kikuyu, were here before them: from as early as the 1880s, the authorities displaced the Kikuyu from their homes to make way for white agriculture and the Mombasa–Uganda railway.

It was perhaps no surprise that, having borne the brunt of colonialism’s abuses, the Kikuyu shouldered much of the burden of nationalism’s struggle and formed the core of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. That struggle was largely fought in highland valleys, and the abuses of the anti-insurgency campaign were largely felt by highland civilians. The movement, combined with the general dismantling of the British Empire, forced colonial authorities to reassess their position and eventually abandon Kenya.

It was a Kikuyu, Jomo Kenyatta, who assumed the presidency of the new country, and the Kikuyu who assumed control over the nation’s economy. They also reclaimed their rich fields in the Central Highlands, although many wazungu farmers remain, and their huge plots can be seen stretching all along the highways between Timau, Meru and Nanyuki.

Other Features

The Nine-Month Coup

During the colonial period, the appointed leaders of tribal Africa were headmen and, by and large, men they were (and, usually, remain). But there’s one exception from the history books.

These are the facts as we know them: Wangu wa Makeri was a Kikuyu, born in the second half of the 19th century. In 1901 she was appointed head'man' of Weithaga, thereby becoming the only female ruler in colonial Kenya. Wangu made a point of literally using men as furniture, discarding traditional Kikuyu stools for the backs of Kikuyu males. Perhaps unsurprisingly, stories suggest her rule was warmly approved of by Kikuyu women.

And so the wily (and, more pertinently, fertile) men of the Kikuyu tribe hatched one of the most unique coup plots in history (disclaimer: we are now leaving the realm of history and entering the space of tribal folklore). They all did their husbandly duty and impregnated their wives, including Wangu, more or less simultaneously. This ensured that in nine months, the chief and her supporters were either in labour, nursing or too heavily pregnant to prevent the re-ascendancy of male Kikuyu-dom.