If the coffee had taken root in Nairobi’s lush Karen suburb 100 years ago, it might have looked very different from today, and maybe Karen Blixen’s life may well have been very different.
She could have lived on in Nairobi as a successful coffee farmer and never penned ‘Out of Africa’, which drew in large numbers of American and European tourists after Hollywood turned the novel into a movie in 1985.
As fate had it, Karen Blixen’s life turned out to be a tragi-romance. Sailing into Mombasa in January 1914, where she was married to Bror Blixen on the same day, the two arrived in Nairobi to start a new life. Bror Blixen had bought a huge coffee plantation in Karen (with Karen’s money) from the Swedo African Coffee Company in 1913.
The company built Swedo House around 1908, which was occupied by Blixen’s farm managers and her brother until she left in 1931, never to return. Her own house, Bogani (meaning house in the woods), was built in 1912 and was a kilometre away from Swedo House. It is today the Karen Blixen museum.
Covering almost 4, 000 acres to the iconic Ngong Hills, the farm teemed with wildlife. But the land was never good for coffee – part of the reason why it was sold to an unsuspecting newcomer.
Bror Blixen’s skills as a farmer failed, the marriage floundered and despite Karen’s efforts to save the farm, it went bankrupt.
But Swedo House survived, hosting dignitaries such as Teddy Roosevelt, the American president, on his big-game safaris.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Dr Bonnie Dunbar arrives in Kenya to work at the Institute for Primate Research (IPR). Driving past the decrepit building that’s called Swedo House aroused her curiosity.
“Swedo House was so gone that it was almost collapsing on its stilts,” recalls the scientist. The stilts were reinforced with ballast; the floors, walls and ceiling cleaned or replaced and the rest of the garden beautifully landscaped with replicas of cottages complete with the tin-green mabati for guests to stay. Standing in the century-old house that’s been renovated to look like how it was, even the coloured window panes have been preserved.
“The area was commercially zoned and if I hadn’t bought the house, it would have been razed. I bought it to save the old house,” says Dunbar.
Strolling around the garden on a cool morning, the wooden plank bridge over a brook adds old-world charm with the cottages and 100-year-old trees.
A pair of Hartlaub’s turaco with wings spread, add a vibrant scarlet. I’m in for another surprise – a house that I had seen many years ago on the Chiromo campus.
It was Ewart Grogan’s house who, for the love of a woman – Gertrude – walked from Cape Town to Cairo from 1900 to 1902 and penned a book out of it.
Grogan married Gertrude and the two made Kenya their home. In 1905, he built the lodge on a 70-acre parcel by the river which was sold to Sir Northrup Macmillan, an American millionaire, whose wife built Mcmillan’s library in his memory, a few years later.
Lady Macmillan left the house to her maid and friend, Louis Dekker, an African-American who bequeathed it to the East African Women’s League. Later, it was to be auctioned off, and at the auction, Jon Lee, an avid builder and art collector got to know about it and mentioned it to Dunbar.
Dunbar bought the lodge and commissioned Lee (Lee of the funeral house) to rebuild it on the grounds of Karen Blixen’s coffee garden. Within three months it was up for the opening night in 2007. It’s been renamed Grogan MacMillan Manor House.
The doors and glass are replicas. The original window panes are coloured and patterned with Grogan’s initials – ESG – for Ewart Grogan Scott – with the year inscribed on them. A pair of cats prowl on the roof – imitations of the ones from the original site.
Check-in at Karen Blixen Coffee Garden Restaurant and Cottages
www.karenblixencoffeegarden.com on Karen Road. There are tons to do – play golf at Karen Country Club, go horseback riding, visit Karen Blixen Museum and if you’re a nature lover, a walk-in Oloolua forest is a must. Or enjoy the garden and spa.
Gertrude’s Children’s Home was built by Grogan in memory of his wife. It is the only paediatric hospital in the east and central Africa
There is a village in Malawi, on the way to Blantyre where two rivers, Ruo and Shire meet. The village is known as ‘‘Chiromo” meaning “meeting of two rivers” in the local dialect.
This is where the love-smitten Ewart Grogan was attacked by hostile tribesmen during his famed Cape to Cairo walk, losing his entire luggage and escaping death by a whisker. On his way to Cairo, Grogan passed through Nairobi in 1899, describing the emerging town as a “Tin shack”.
Grogan returned to Nairobi in 1904 triumphant, having impressed his father-in-law sufficiently to secure the hand of Gertrude Watt in marriage, and quickly purchased 113 acres on a wooded site surrounded by two rivers, Kirichwa and Nairobi.
He commissioned London architect H.O. Creswell and a firm of local Indian contractors to build his home in Kenya which he aptly named “Chiromo” after the village in Malawi.
To the superstitious mind, this would appear to have been a stroke of genius as Grogan went on to become a very wealthy man, recovering the value of his lost luggage at Chiromo many times over. At the same time, he also built a small hunting lodge below the main palatial residence which was known as Grogan Lodge.
Chiromo House is situated off Riverside Drive within the Chiromo Campus of the University of Nairobi. The house is of a Victorian design with bushed stone external walls below a Mangalore tiled roof supported by massive timber trusses with high gable ends.
Internal walls are fabricated with mud and chicken mesh rendered and painted with an extended width to make up for their lack of structural strength. Floors are mainly finished in parquet with red floor tiles to the entrance verandah. The ceiling is vaulted and finished in moulded chipboard. Doors are made of thick hardwood panels hung on wrought iron hinges which are extended across the face to symbolise a sword, as used by the Knights Templar.
Double doors are used to secure the conference room. Windows are glazed in rectangular steel casements.
There is wide use of symbols on doors, windows and gables including the famous black and white felines on the roof and the occult “third eye”.
Anthropologist Kibe Kiragu confirms there are two tunnels under the building, one running west to the area near the Australian High Commission where there used to be horse stables and another running south to the Kirichwa River where there was a draw bridge. The area now used as a parking lot was an Olympic size swimming pool.
Grogan, ever the restless adventurer, hardly lived in the palace he built, being too busy exploring new possibilities up and down the country. Commissioner Sir James Hayes Sadler took full advantage and used the premises to entertain important guests including President Theodore Roosevelt.
It is also claimed that many key “cabinet” meetings were held here in the conference room offering creature comforts in a secure and serene environment. A connoisseur’s selection of wines and spirits was available after a hard day’s work. The site was like a castle surrounded by two rivers forming a moat which even had a draw bridge, making access difficult for unwelcome guests.
It appears that before Kenya became a full colony in 1920, the country was ruled indirectly by three powerful individuals namely Grogan, Delamere and McMillan.
Grogan bragged that he was the King’s representative for the area between Mombasa and Naivasha and Delamere for the area between Naivasha and Port Florence (Kisumu).
During his stay in South Africa, Grogan met and made the acquaintance of Sir Cecil Rhodes who schooled him on the policy of apartheid, practised in that country.
While Grogan believed the Africans needed to be groomed, he preferred a road of “separate development”.
He was well known for his cruel behaviour towards Africans believing it was the only way to civilize them. It is claimed that within the underground tunnels at Chiromo House were cells where Africans were incarcerated after being thoroughly flogged personally by Grogan for minor transgressions.
In 1910, the Grogan Lodge was sold to Sir William Northrup McMillan prior to which he had apparently rented it from Grogan. McMillan was a superstitious man and it is said he is the one who put up the two feline figures on the roof of the main house as they do not appear in photographs taken before he bought the lodge.
Lucie McMillan enjoyed living here and also looked after the main house. There was but one problem. The railway line ran very close to the lodge and there was even a watering point where the train stopped to take on water for the climb to Kirungii (Westlands) causing a lot of noise and disturbance.
Lucie complained and immediately the railway alignment was moved towards Kibra (Kibera) where it was believed the natives would welcome the novelty of an iron beast passing in between their shanties spewing smoke and shaking the makeshift beds that they slept on! This demonstrates the power held by these wealthy individuals.
Chiromo House continued to be used for many state functions and during the Mau Mau uprising it was used as a command centre before operations moved to Ol Donyo Sabuk when the war intensified. Lady McMillan continued living in the Chiromo Complex with her African- American housemaid, Louise Dekker, to whom she bequeathed the lodge when she died in 1957. Louise Dekker had come from Boston with Lucie McMillan at the age of 13.
The main house was donated to the government by Grogan in 1958, lying abandoned and neglected until 1964 when it was leased to the British Institute for East Africa for 19 years up to 1983.
Today, this site is a gazetted national monument and houses the Institute for African Studies of the University of Nairobi, Chiromo Campus.
Louise Dekker bequeathed Grogan Lodge to the East African Women’s League. But they were unable to maintain it and auctioneers were called in to sell the building.
John Lee (Lee Funeral Services), an avid restorer and art collector, got wind of it and alerted Dr Bonnie Dunbar, an American lady who had earlier purchased Frank Sutton’s classic Swedo House (Karen Blixen Coffee House).
The building was moved brick by brick to Karen and rebuilt in 2007 by John Lee, where it now forms part of the Karen Blixen Coffee House. The property was recently advertised for sale at a record price of Sh800 million
The arched black cat standing on the spine of the roof of this mansion has defied conventional wisdom. With his paws clawing the 156-year-old red tiles, the black feline is supposed to be submissive to its parrying partner.
Some observers are convinced the black creature is a cat, but others argue it is a dog, which is on its guard eyeing the white cat from a distance.
Between the black and the white cat, which anthropologists explain represents white supremacy and dominance over black, stands what masters of mysticism call the third eye, the occult symbol which is supposed to have offered protection to the house and its occupants.
To the anthropologists, the black cat is a god, Ju, that represents black and by extension Kenyans, while the white cat symbolises Ja, a god who is superior just like the white settlers who dominated the indigenous people. These experts of the supernatural powers believe the two are West African gods, after which one of the most expansive states was named after Juja, which is now a vibrant town.
The name Chiromo too is derived from a place in Malawi where the original owner of the house Ewart Grogan who is reputed to have trekked from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo was attacked. At Chiromo, the cantankerous settler was robbed of almost all his luggage and in his twisted humour decided to immortalise the incident by naming his house in Nairobi, Chiromo.
To put up the fabulous house, Grogan bought 113 acres of land. He decided to set his house at the junction of Kirichwa and Nairobi Rivers and enlisted the services of an architect, H O Creswell while Indian masons were recruited to construct. And what a house he built.
Some of the tiles removed from its roof when it was being rehabilitated tell a tale of their own. The brick-red roofing tiles indicate that an Indian, Bastel Mission of the Tile Works Company, Mangalarole of India, manufactured them in 1865.
There are more imprints from India as the artisans and masons who dressed the stones and constructed the monumental structure were also from India. The window seals retell the story of masons who loved carving with stones and left nothing to chance.
“The timber was imported from Canada, while the wooden floor tiles were imported from Europe. This is the timber that was used to make the wooden panels all over the house. The wooden door leading to the main house bears Grogan’s name and the year, 1905,” explains Kibe Kiragu, an anthropologist.
The most striking feature of the house is its windowpanes at the front verandah. The intricate occult designs are still intact, with the main door embellished with a coloured glass bearing Grogan’s initials: ESG.
Kibe explains that the existence of the glass is an indication that since the house was constructed in 1900, the glass has remained intact. The anthropologist does not appear surprised by this fact, despite the turmoil that has hit Nairobi and Chiromo for the last 112 or so years.
“Grogan was not an ordinary person. He belonged to a secret society that believed in mystic powers. Here are symbols and other indications that his house was a Templar Lodge, frequented by Free Masons. Their power is believed to have prevented the house from being vandalised,” Kibe adds.
The tales surrounding the house kept vandals at bay even during long interludes when it was abandoned. Some of the most conspicuous symbols of the mystic power include the white and the black cats, the circular occult eye, likened to the third eye of an ogre, and protruding stone structures that signal there are more powerful powers superior to the earthly beings.
Just at the entrance of the outer compound of the house overlooking the parking outside the Institute of Anthropology Gender and African Studies is a tiny metal bolt protruding from the cemented base.
The metal protrusion that looks like the head of a bolt is surrounded by a rectangular drawing and an arrow, which according to Kibe is aligned to the occult eye on the roof of the mansion, placed between the two cats.
However according to Judy Aldrick, who recently published a book, Northrup, The Life of William Northrup McMillan, the miniature statues at the roof of Chiromo house are not two cats but a black cat and a dog.
“The back of the cat is arched, the tail held aloft ready to resist the approach of the jolly dog that barks and wags his tail. Perhaps this is meant to symbolise the basic differences in nature of man and women, or perhaps it is a subtle comment on the characters of the house owners, Lucie and Northrup,” writes Aldrick.
She explains that pictures of the house taken when Grogan owned it does not have these animals and proposes that McMillan, who first rented it out in 1910 before he consequently bought it from Grogan in 1915, could have placed them.
Back to the house, there is evidence that the Lunatic Express as the Uganda Railway was called when it was constructed, passed just behind the house. This is evident from the now dry fountain that was used as a watering hole to cool the train as the noisy engine chugged on its way to Kikuyu and Western Kenya to Uganda.
“The railway was, however, relocated after Lucie, McMillan’s wife, complained that it was disturbing her peace. At the time, she was very influential as she was the chairperson of the East African Federation,” Kibe says.
The rail was relocated from the Norfolk–Chiromo route and rerouted to Kibera, a native location where Africans would not mind even if the train made noise during the day and at night. About 20 feet from the watering hole is another ancient piece of evidence linked to the 1900 era when the likes of Grogan McMillan and Lord Delamare were like a law unto themselves and could challenge courts.
Dr Thomas Mwangi, who has done extensive research on McMillan explains that the gigantic fig tree at the back of the house is more than a century old and was at one point used by the settlers to hang, flog and humiliate Africans.
“We call it the hanging tree. Grogan, who was notorious for mercilessly tormenting Africans would parade their servants at the tree and hang them from the branches. At times he would grab victims who had just been sentenced by a court and offer his version of justice,” Mwangi says.
A tour around the house that now serves as part of Nairobi University’s Chiromo Campus, accommodating the Institute of African studies gives credence to some of the unpopular uses. There is a concealed tunnel that leads out to a cubicle where a settler could easily sneak out of the house and head to the stables and gallop undetected to the nearby St Mary’s Msongari for reinforcement.
Alongside the tunnel, expertly concealed by the wooden tiles are cells where undesirable Africans were locked up if they crossed the Grogan’s the wrong way. There is a small panel that was used to deliver food to prisoners held there.
Besides being used as a centre for disciplining errant Africans, Aldrick hints that Chiromo was at one time used as Government House or State House in today’s parlance, especially by Sir James Hayes Saddler the commissioner for British East Africa.
It is believed that key decisions affecting the whole of Kenya, which was in the early years under Imperial British East African Company before being transformed into a protectorate, were made at Chiromo. Saddler preferred to use Chiromo instead of Government House for entertaining important guests as the guesthouse was more spacious. In one of the rooms, a wooden seat set by the window served as an armoury as it could be opened and hunting guns stored.
Even after the immensely rich McMillan died in 1931, his wife Lucie continued residing in Chiromo until 1957 after which it was abandoned and neglected.
Its fortunes changed in 1964 when it was rented out to British Institute in East Africa for 19 years until 1983 when again it was abandoned. This time, the residence that had at one point been used as State House by the colonialists was reduced into a garbage dumping site.
Interestingly, despite being abandoned and used as a dumping site it was never vandalised and to date retains some of the fittings that Grogan had supervised as Indian artisans fitted a century later.
Despite the rough patches the house has been through, it is snow sparkling, its mahogany beams shining from constant varnish. The walls that held cases of whisky are now empty and so are the kitchen closets that held aristocratic cutlery. The walls that once held cabinets to store carefully selected vintage wines and spirits are now empty although grey metallic shelves now hold countless pots, wooden trays and other African anthropological material