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.