Remnants Of Boer Colony Glad They Stayed In Kenya

Posted: April 01, 1987

ELDORET, Kenya — One summer day in 1908, an English settler named Cecil Hoey was sitting on a hill watching three lions at play. In the distance, he saw what appeared to be a column of white smoke.

Hoey grabbed his binoculars and looked again. It was a line of ox-drawn wagons covered with a dirty white cloth.

The Boers had come to Kenya.

A half-century later, thousands of Afrikaners from South Africa were farming wheat in the rich highlands of western Kenya. They had cleared the pine forests and founded the frontier town of Eldoret, also known as Little South Africa.

Today, only two Afrikaner families remain in Eldoret. The rest fled back to South Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, terrified of the Mau Mau rebellion and of what black independence might bring.

The flight of the Afrikaners from Eldoret was among the first of the white migrations from black Africa at the close of the colonial era. Like whites in 1970s Zimbabwe and the Afrikaners fleeing South Africa today, the Boers of Kenya could not bear the possibility of black rule.

But in Eldoret, one last descendant of the 1908 Boer trek has found prosperity in his little corner of black Africa. J. J. du Toit, whose father and grandfather made the trek together, has only pity for his fellow Afrikaners who ran when there was no reason to run.

"It's too bad about the softies. They all got a fright from the Mau Mau, and they cleared out of here fast," du Toit was saying the other day inside his farmhouse at the edge of his thriving wheat farm.

Du Toit is 52, a stringy, sunburned man with the rough hands and crow's-feet squint of a lifelong farmer. He is blunt and stubborn - so stubborn, he says, that "I made up my mind I wasn't going to run out of here like the rest of 'em."

As it turned out, there was no reason to flee Kenya. White farms around Eldoret, unlike those in certain other areas of Kenya, were not expropriated by the new black government after independence from Britain in 1963. Nor were whites massacred by vengeful Africans.

Eldoret's Afrikaners fled, du Toit said, because they had been drafted into the British colonial army to fight the rebellion and saw fellow white settlers butchered by Mau Mau guerrillas.

"They all said they wouldn't wait around to see their children's throats slashed," du Toit said.

But no whites were murdered in Eldoret, and only 32 whites died in all of Kenya at the hands of the Mau Mau - compared with about 2,000 black Africans.

In 1908, the British colonial governor of Kenya offered bargain prices on farmland in the fertile Kenya highlands to Afrikaners in the Transvaal region of South Africa. That summer, 47 families loaded their wagons and oxen on a boat bound for the port of Mombasa.

From Mombasa, the Boers took the new Uganda railway line to the mountain town of Nakuru. There, they set out by wagon train to the virgin Uasin Gishu plateau, where they eventually built Eldoret. It was one of the first towns in what came to be known as the White Highlands, for the white settlers who took over Kenya's finest farmland.

Fifty years later, as the descendants of the trekkers began to pull out, du Toit bought up their land at cheap prices. The 1,000-acre wheat farm begun by his paternal grandfather, has since grown to 4,000 acres of some of the deepest, richest topsoil in all of Africa.

Du Toit is now master of a farming concern that is as paternalistic as any farm of the colonial era. He has obedient black household servants and 58 black farm workers, who live on his spread with their families in crude wood shacks or thatched-roof huts.

He rules his farm firmly. "If they get cheeky with me," he said of his workers, "I give 'em a good hiding." Then, he said, he reports the disciplining to the local black police, who he said recognize the need for farm workers to be dealt with sternly.

At home, du Toit teaches his three children the Afrikaans language. The family reads an Afrikaans Bible and celebrates South African holidays. Yet no one in the family has ever been to South Africa.

"Don't really want to go," du Toit said. "Maybe I'll visit down there someday, but I won't live there. Uh-uh."

Occasionally, du Toit said, he speaks on the phone with his former neighbors now in South Africa. Most of them want to come back to Eldoret.

"They're bloody sorry they ever left," he said.

Because they left in a hurry, the Afrikaners sold their farms for a fraction of their worth. Once in South Africa, they did not have enough money to buy anything close to the size of the farms they had in Eldoret.

So it is left to men like J. J. - for Johannes Jochemus - du Toit to minister to what is left of a once thriving community of Afrikaners. All that remains is du Toit, and his neighboring farmer, Fanie Kruger.

"Just Fanie and me now, I guess," du Toit said. "And my boy Johann. He's 14. Loves farming. He'll take over the place, I hope."

Eldoret's Afrikaners have always been an anomaly in black Africa. Because Afrikaners in South Africa have enshrined racial discrimination into law, they are not permitted to enter most black-ruled nations. Yet in Kenya, they have been tolerated.

"No one ever bothers us," du Toit said. "If you're prepared to live here, take a Kenya passport, well, you are one of them. You're African."

Du Toit, a Kenyan citizen, does not flaunt the fact that he is an Afrikaner. He has two paintings depicting a seminal event in Afrikaner history - the landing of the first Dutch ships at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 - but he does not display them for fear of offending local blacks.

The old Afrikaner farms, too, have been broken up. Only 11 large wheat farms remain intact, du Toit said. He and Kruger have two of them, and the rest are run by wealthy Africans or Sikhs through white managers.

"They don't trust the blacks with money," he said.

Each year, the 1908 trek slips further into the past. Du Toit frets that his neighbor Kruger, who is only 28, has little awareness or interest in his heritage. That leaves only du Toit's three children to carry the links forward.

"We're happy here. It's our home, you know," du Toit said. "We thought about moving to Canada a while back just for the bloody hell of it, but we like Kenya too much."

Out in his furrowed wheat fields the other day, du Toit stood facing Sergoit Hill, the craggy rise of land where the old settler Cecil Hoey first spotted the trekkers' wagons.

Like his father and grandfather before him, du Toit said, he is going to die in Eldoret. His body will be buried in the old Afrikaner cemetery beside tombstones with names like Van Rensburg and du Plooy.

He smiled and said he was a grateful man - grateful for Kenya and for the nerve not to run.

"If a place is nice and peaceful," he said, "I say, 'Live it.' "

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