There is farm in Tigoni with a rich history. Only that, Fiona Vernon doesn’t really know why her grandfather, Arnold Butler McDonell came to Kenya from his native England. It is one of the hidden colonial gems in Kenya.
The late McDonell commonly referred to as AB among his friends, travelled to Kenya in 1904 and in 1910 bought 350 acres of land in Tigoni, a small town in Kiambu from the then British government.
Mr McDonell would later become one of the first commercial tea farmers in Kenya. This was after he experimented on tea farming with a Camellia seedling that he received as a gift from a friend from India.
The tea at Kiambethu farm has since then been an attraction to thousands of visitors among them Former US President Jimmy Carter and his family.
In the 1960s, Fiona’s mother, Evelyn Mitchel started tea tours in the farm where she served typical English tea complete with scones and cream and cucumber sandwiches. These tours give an insight into what life is like on a settler farm. Fiona was later to take over the running of the farm upon Evelyn’s death.
Kiambethu has still retained its standing as a tea farm of repute even though the family land now measures 35 acres having sold the rest through the years.
In addition to the tea tours, Fiona conducts nature walks in the adjacent 12-acre indigenous forest and offers guests lunch made from ingredients found in the farm. Apart from the two acres still under tea to date, she now keeps a few cattle and makes dairy products for use at the farm.
A visit to the farm makes for a memorable half-day excursion including a superb lunchtime buffet and an insight into the growing and making of tea.
It is a pleasure to sit for lunch in the lush, well-manicured garden as you listen and watch the abundant birdlife and cheeky frolicking monkeys.
Tigoni, then a white highland zone in Kenya has, in many ways, retained its former status, 50 years after the colonial masters left the country.
The place is still dotted with lush green perfectly-manicured gardens, vast tea plantations, rivers and forests. Places of worship like the All Saints Church, a Victorian-styled building remain intact.
The All Saints Church in Tigoni was designed by AB in 1938. He worked on the interior designs. The church has a rich history. Three generations of AB’s family have been married in the church including Fiona’s son.
On its compound are the grave of several white missionaries. Archaeologist and Anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey is also buried here. His epitaph is visible. He was laid to rest next to his missionary parents.
AB is also credited with founding Limuru Girls’ School, which is right next to Kiambethu farm. His four daughters all schooled there. Everything in Tigoni speaks of an untold history of white settlers’ lives and their experience among locals. Fiona, for instance, recalls stories she heard from her mother, when she was growing up among local kids.
“They would run to Nairobi and arrive there in time for the last dance,” she says. “That is how they had their fun.” Evelyn would at the end of the dance at the disco, offer her peers a lift in their lorry, back to Kiambethu. She even leant to speak in the local dialect.
The photo album at Kiambethu, reminds Fiona of the women tea pickers adorned in massive earrings. The memories are ‘still fresh in her mind because the tea pickers then, were women.’
But Fiona regrets not having asked her mother about many other things, most of which are stored in pictures in the large family photo album.
Although the generations of white Kenyans in Tigoni are Kenyans, there are also indigenous Kenyans that carry the rich history of the place.
Among them are those Kenyans who bought land from settlers and yet others, who are ageing members of the once exclusive Kentmere Club in Tigoni – then a members only club.
The club, which is still running, is old but with well-maintained grounds and lots of mature trees. It was established in the 1920s. The current owners acquired it in 1986. Admission was limited to members only until 2012, when the club opened its doors to the public
Land owners in Tigoni are not ready to let go of their large farms, instead, they want to make money by preserving the aesthetic feel and history of the 7,200 feet location. Therefore, a farm-hotel experience is what many have decided on.