Chapter 06 Rift Valley Academy 1951-55
We had gone to Africa ready for assignment in African education. Instead the mission decided, owing to shortages we were needed more on the staff of RVA (Rift Valley Academy) where I had attended (Chapter 1). But we felt right at home and no less a part of the missionary calling. Because of my personal RVA experience I could empathize with the students’ feelings. We were both relatively young, so the age differential was not a problem. In my day some of the staff had bordered on “elderly”. During this era, we were blessed with three more children, David, Carolyn and Marilyn. The RVA student body had always included a few students from other missions or settler children from Christian families. By the time we joined the staff there was a considerable increase in the non-AIM enrollment. This greatly widened the scope of who made up the RVA family or student body. The Mau Mau revolt (against colonial rule) was the most important single feature of our time at RVA. affecting daily life, teaching and philosophic outlook. RVA has always been a distinctive, world class institution. It is well written up in the book “School in the Clouds”. We have enjoyed many RVA Alumni gatherings in US.
- KLD House,
- Mau Mau.
We sailed on the SS Queen Mary from New York to Southampton thence by SS Dunnotar Castle from London via the Mediterranean and Red Sea to Mombasa. We were assigned by AIM to the staff of Rift Valley Academy This is a famous old school for children of missionaries. It was started in 1906 by Josephine Hope Westervelt after being asked by mission Director Charles Hurlburt if she would be willing to teach missionary children.Theodore Roosevelt had laid the cornerstone of the main building in 1909 while on a hunting trip to East Africa.
RVA had been temporarily closed for renovations. So my first job there was helping lay tongue and groove flooring for a new girls dorm in the second floor of the main building Kiambogo.
When RVA schooling resumed Betty taught French, English and Bible. I taught science and civics. We also helped organize sports, outings and celebratory events. I would sometimes take a handful of boys and go out into the Kedong Valley (part of the Great Rift Valley) which lay 1,000’ below Kijabe. I would shoot a kongoni (Hartebeest) for the school meat supply and the boys would pot shot at birds etc. The Kedong valley at this time had not yet been fully expropriated from the Maasai. In 2005 it was a setting for fatal clashes between indigenous Maasai herders and non-Maasai cultivators.
- KLD House
Our home was a square brick two story house built by the revered pioneer Lee H. Downing early in the century. During its occupancy by Lee’s son Kenneth it became known as the “KLD House”. The house had four bedrooms. It was about a quarter of a mile from RVA itself, sited on near the forest on the eastern edge of Kijabe Station. Seven boys occupied two bedrooms (in bunks of course). It was a time of great camaraderie between us as houseparents, a growing family, and the fourteen teenage boys! We did some updating to the house, such as installing a water heater (wood-fired drum) and a flush toilet draining to a septic tank.
At the start of the declared Mau Mau “emergency” (October 1952 see Note 7) some of the boys expressed frustration that they couldn’t be down at RVA protecting their girl friends during the night. Before long the authorities required that the boys be moved down to the more protected environs of the RVA complex i.e. Kiambogo. KLD House had been real family, so we missed them a lot.
Betty taught English, Bible, and French (along with raising one, then two, then three, then four kids). I taught science and civics and helped with maintenance, Nairobi shopping and sports etc. Assignments among the staff was rather a “grab-bag” of responsibilities. This mode succeeded only because we, the staff were bound together by a great spirit of camaraderie. I enjoyed teaching physical sciences even though we had virtually no equipment. But between the car and the kitchen we found means and materials for improvisation in the illustration of scientific principles. Kijabe station’s location, on the east wall of the Great Rift Valley was a perfect natural laboratory for geology and physics. Many years later a geothermal plant in the Gorge began to provide a significant portion of Kenya’s electric power.
Exposure to Kenya politics
I taught Social Science or Civics. In connection with that I took an RVA class to sit in on the Kenya Legislative Council (LEGCO) in Nairobi (in the ‘50s). Only one member of LEGCO then was black, that being Eliud Mathu who was “nominated” by the governor. At the session which we attended he held forth eloquently and passionately against the law which prohibited Kenya Africans from growing sisal as a cash crop. The students got a small taste of the evolution of democracy and the future demise of colonialism in the third world. I think that the parents of some of these RVA students might have had misgivings about their kids being exposed thusly to the world of Kenya politics. Sixty years later Kenya continues its steady struggle towards true democracy.
One field trip was to go to Nairobi to attend a parade honoring Queen Elizabeth II. She had unexpectedly become queen a few days earlier, while visiting Treetops, the game lodge. We only saw her from a Nairobi sidewalk in this motor parade in Nairobi, before her return to UK for her coronation in June ‘53
The Gorge. Lake Naivasha had in eons past drained southward through this gorge into the Kedong and thence into Lake Magadi. It contained numerous steam geysers which were in the 1980s tapped for geothermal power to the national grid. The towering walls contained a great variety of geologic forms, particularly some six-sided crystal-like pillars. And Lammergeier eagles patrolled the walls. In later years the road across the Rift was paved to accommodate tourists enroute to Maasai Mara National Reserve. We would on occasion have picnics in the gorge later known as “Hell’s Gate”.
Some years RVA older students were able to attend the “Royal Agricultural Show” in Nakuru and/or its later venue, Nairobi. This was a national event, comparable to “State Fairs” in US.
Another outing was to the Limuru “Red Earth Farm” of ex-RVA-ite Jim Hodson and his wife. There we had games, harvested plums and learned about pioneer highland farming.
Another outing was to “Mai Mahieu” the hot springs which burst from the bottom of the eastern Rift wall south of Kijabe. This is located below the escarpment road which Italian prisoners of war made during World War II. This remarkable piece of engineering made a great difference to traffic between Naivasha and Nairobi. Three decades later the Israelis improved that traffic even more by building a highway along the top of the escarpment all the way to beyond Kijabe Hill. There a natural slope allows a gradual descent to Naivasha in the floor of the Rift. A road branching off that highway drops steeply to Kijabe station. That road was tarmacked for President Moi’s visit to open an enlarged Kijabe Hospital.
In the ‘50s came Jim and Vivian Hollenbeck, Jim was an experienced US high school band director. Following Herb’s musical mode, Jim created a band that turned everyone on. His life and example were remarkably similar of that of the fictional Mr Holland in the ‘90s movie ”Mr Holland’s Opus”. Though both were from Michigan, I doubt that there was any connection.
- Colleagues & Other Friends
Colleagues on the staff of RVA included Paul and Elizabeth Lehrer, Cliff and Hilda Miller, Ina Reed, Minda Graff, Joyce Johnson, Gladys Bellinger, Clara Barrett, Ken (Principal) and Ivy Downing and later Herb and Mildred Downing. (returned from extended furlough).
See Chapter 1 (“Childhood in Kenya”) for detailed notes on the Herb Downings and the Paul Lehrers at RVA in the ‘30s.
The Propst Family
Close friends on Kijabe station were Jim (MD) and Lila Propst. My mother had taught Jim (then known as Herman) violin when he was an RVA student. Now we were raising families together. In my spare time I helped Jim create a station electrical power system.
Electric Power System
When we first arrived at Kijabe many household-owned little war surplus gasoline electric light plants were beginning to fail. So Jim Propst took a great leap forward. Before his medical training he had been a graduate in electrical engineering. So he decided to electrify Kijabe. He purchased two diesel-electricity plants (formerly used for searchlights) and lots of copper wire and 20’ cedar poles. He built a power plant from which radiated power lines to all the homes and facilities on the station. I was his “gofer” or assistant. Being the lighter of the two I undertook the mounting of the power lines on the poles. This involved climbing the pole with leg devices which had spikes which provided traction for climbing. It was quite a re-education for me as I put into practice the physics I had learned at Wheaton. I would be atop a 20’ pole attaching wires and suddenly there would come an “ahah!” moment as some physics formula or principle would come to life in what I was doing This system provided the station with convenient electricity for many years until the national power grid came within reach.
It obviated many hours of lantern lighting or fiddling with tiny war-surplus generators which were by then wearing out. (The power system was not the only way in which Jim ‘electrified’ Kijabe!)
Author and fellow-RVA-ite in the ‘30s. Phil did sheep ranching in Canada then came back as a range management consultant to Kenya Govt. He joined our RVA “Senior Safari” to Kimana swamp etc. in 1955. He has written numerous books on the environment. Perhaps his most widely-read book though is “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”. It was popularized by Billy Graham.
Ed and Edy DeYoung
DeYoungs were on the staff of the (African) Teacher Training College at Kijabe. They were young, congenial and well-tuned to their students.We became good friends in 1953-55. Ed later died, tragically of Landry’s paralysis. Then Edie died, tragically in a motor accident. Their daughter Judy DeYoung overlapped as fellow-student with our daughter Gini at RVA. Judy later married a fellow-RVA student Scott Gration.Scott Gration went on to a distinguished career becoming an Air Force Major General, Special Presidential Envoy to Sudan and US Ambassador to Kenya. Whilst our daughter Gin and husband John Armes were serving at Elmendorf Air Force base in Alaska Scott was the commanding officer. So Gini and Judy reconnected there.
We taught him at RVA ’50-55. He was unusually bright and disciplined. His German missionary father had been interned as an “enemy alien” during the war. This caused great hardship to the family. Mrs May was given shelter by the Quakers at Kaimosi. Gerald was born at Kaimosi Hospital where my sister Esther also had been born. Gerry went on to considerable success in academia in US. At the University of New Mexico he was Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and then President for four years. After we retired to US we enjoyed good fellowship with him and wife Mary Joyce in Albuquerque.
Roger Tory Peterson
We attended his bird lecture in Albany in the late ‘50s and had a brief chat about mutual friends the Hopcrafts who had started the Nakuru flamingo sanctuary.
- MAU MAU
In October ’52 the government declared a “State of Emergency” caused by the Mau Mau insurrection. This was a rather diffuse rebellion against colonial rule. It was fueled partly by the frustration of discharged black African soldiers who had tasted some modern freedoms outside of East Africa that they did not enjoy at home. They had (as KAR – Kings African Rifles) served in combat during WWII in Somalia, Egypt and Burma. The government blamed Jomo Kenyatta for leadership of the rebellion, but had difficulty framing a convincing case. He was kept under house arrest at Lodwar in the far north. While there his “jailor” was Leland Whitehouse whom we had known personally in the ‘30s when he was the government officer at Loitokitok. In later years (1988) Whitehouse told me of how he and Jomo had become good friends. Someone said of Jomo’s incarceration “He went in a trouble-maker and came out a statesman”. Later, in the 60s Kenyatta publicly promoted racial rapprochement. In 1963 he became Prime Minister and in 1964 President of the independent Republic of Kenya.
Mau Mau-related activities swirled around Kijabe station. The most notable was the night of “The Lari Massacre” when Mau Mau activists went on a killing spree through Lari community a few miles southeast of Kijabe. I was out on patrol with some Home Guards.. We could see numerous huts ablaze. The Mau Mau would latch a hut’s outside door hasp, then set the grass roof ablaze, incinerating the people entrapped inside.
Another tragic event related to a brazen Mau Mau raid on the Naivasha police station to the north, when much weaponry was stolen. This debacle had the security forces very much on edge. The next night some Kijabe home guards captured some Mau Mau suspects and brought them in a lorry to the Kijabe police station. When they drove up to the fortified gate of the Kijabe Police station the police there got the idea that they were being subject to another Mau Mau raid such as had occurred the night before at Naivasha Police Station. So they opened fire on the lorry, killing two loyalist home guards. This dealt a severe blow to what little team spirit existed between the security forces and the home guard. It presaged the Iraq war situation of 2003-05.
There is a very common story that the MauMau came to attack Kijabe station but were repelled by what they perceived as a military force in their way. I myself have no recollection of hearing the story (of this apparition) while living at Kijabe in the ‘50s.