The acclaimed British film, White Mischief was made in 1987, preceded by a novel by the same name. The two were about a glamorous murder scandal of British aristocrats who lived a high-life in the Kenyan colony in the 1920s and 1930s. While the film and the novel have generated billions of shillings in their making and revenue, poverty rules where the real White Mischief happened; Nyandarua County.
Yet, this should not be the case because the mischiefs left behind a visible legacy in the glamorous homes which can generate millions of shillings in tourism revenue for the county.
Today, those homes are rotting away as the county continues to depend on the national government for 90% financing of its recurrent expenditure and development.
A ray of hope
There is however a ray of hope in the Happy Valley Heritage Trust which is seeking to raise attention to the conservation and utilisation of the White Mischief homes for tourism and heritage purposes.
Nyandarua County, an immigrant home of people from Murang’a, Nyeri and Kiambu and famed for its potatoes, cabbages and carrots are dotted with ageing colonial mansions, which have stood the test of time over the years.
The mansions are colossal and stately, built of the finest material that money could buy, and reflective of the power and wealth their owners wielded.
Each of the mansions tells its own tale and reflects the signature of its owner’s tastes and cultural background.
Some of the mansions have remained in pretty good shape and are inhabited, but some weren’t so lucky and gave in to the ravages of vandalism and neglect, which have conspired to strip the erstwhile stately structures of their grandeur.
The previous administration of Nyandarua County was quite enthusiastic about these relics of the colonial past and sought to hoist them to national and global limelight as the film and the novel, White Mischief, were done for. But that seems to have fizzled out with the current county government.
Peter Fundi, an ecologist is among the local elites who are corroborating with interest persons to rehabilitate the homes.
He works under the Happy Valley Heritage Trust, which was founded by Juliet Barnes, a Kenyan and the author of “The Ghosts of Happy Valley: Searching for the Lost World of Africa’s Infamous Aristocrats”
Gibbs House is located in Wanjohi Ward, Kipipiri Constituency. It stands at the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges, about three kilometres from Rironi trading centre on the Njabini-Ol Kalou road.
The house was once home of Alistair Gibb (a cousin of the current Lady Delamere) whose Father Alexander Gibb owned the construction company (Alexander Gibb & Partners).
This imposing mansion sits on three acres of land and features large rooms with wooden flooring, made of red cedar.
It has a steeply sloping shingles roof, with six chimneys popping out of the main building and an additional chimney on an extension of the building.
The wooden pillars on its backyard porches and the white plaster on the walls have maintained their integrity over the years.
Tufts of moss have grown on parts of the shingled roof, otherwise, the roof is excellent. A few cracks on parts of the wall betray its age but save for that, the walls are good as new.
Today, cattle and sheep from neighbouring families graze on the lush grassland surrounding the house, wending their way around the stinging nettles abounding the grassland.
The unending splash of water cascading down a scenic waterfall directly above in the Aberdare is one of the soothing dividends of a visit to this house.
One can also venture into the nearby wild for a walk up the Aberdare, and to Mau Mau caves, where one can sample the abundant birdlife and colobus monkeys.
Gibbs is owned by the County Government of Nyandarua, Fundi said. “It’s a very beautiful house for a museum”, Fundi added and represents the class and style that defined the White Mischief.
Christopher Ndegwa, a community member who lives next to the house, showed us sections of the house that have been vandalized over the years.
Other than a few jarred windows, the moss, a few leaks and some gaping holes in the wooden floor, Gibbs House is just a touch away from restoring its original splendour.
Next, we toured Clouds House, in Mawingo region of Githioro Ward, Kipipiri Constituency. The name Mawingo was in fact derived from the house, by translating clouds to Swahili.
In this house lived Lady Idina Sackvel, with three of her five husbands from 1930. Her friend and neighbour, Sir John Ramsden, built the house for her.
“Once the home of Idina’s wild and debauched parties, where you drank, took drugs, and seldom slept with your own partner, it’s now a more sober – even sombre – place” notes a brief by the Happy Valley Heritage Trust, adding that the house is privately owned by a family which has lived in a part of it since the 1960s.
The exact date of construction is disputed, with some saying the house was built in the 1930s. But Githaiga, from the Nuthu family that owns the house, says the house was standing by 1920s, citing the Bolter, a book by Frances Osborne.
The house is P-shaped, featuring a grassy court in the middle. There was a fountain in the compound, Githaiga said, and lots of indigenous trees.
The house had a hall that provided a stage for dances among the colonial community of the day, a bar and a library. It has a gently sloping shingle roof, with cedar doors and cement flooring in the verandahs. The family asked that we respect the privacy of their inner lives, so we didn’t venture into the rooms.
We then visited a colonial mansion that locals call Kinyahwe House, in Gathara Ward of Kinangop Constituency.
The house was owned by a colonial settler named Nightingale. The house was built of nicely-dressed stones, giving it a smooth look. Clay was used in place of cement, and the house is built with two layers of stones, according to Gichomo, a resident of the region.
Each of its 17 rooms features neatly stacked wooden flooring, made of red cedar. The flooring is elevated more than a metre above the ground. The roofing was made of a tough gauge of iron.
“You can even run on the roof without bending the sheets”, a caretaker’s son told us. Much of the roof has rusted on the outside, but retains its sheen on the inside.
Kinyahwe House stood on an expansive 87-acre farm, Gichomo said.
Another resident said the name Kinyahwe was the local tongue for Kings Way, the name given to the road that runs next to the house.
“There were three gates leading up to the house”, said the resident. “There were orchards, and even a swimming pool adjacent to the house. A stone wall circled the house, but it has since been vandalized”.
Staff who worked for the household have since passed on, mostly in their eighties and above.
There is a safe in the house, a blue box located in one of the rooms. We tried picking it up without success. According to the caretaker’s son, nobody knows the contents of the safe.
At some point, Kenyawhe House housed several government offices, including a court. In two of the rooms, there are huge mounds of documents from the days when the rooms served as court premises.
Another part of the building housed offices of the department of agriculture, next to the social services unit. There were also the offices of the DO.
A magistrate resided in one of the buildings in the compound.
The offices were moved to Engineer town back in the late 90s, Gichomo said. Today the house is unoccupied.
State House of the White Mischief
Deeper inside Kariaini Sub-Location of Njabini, we find a house that has been aptly named State House, due to its sheer size and the grandeur of its architecture.
According to Mzee Gakuo, who lives near the building, State House was built in 1948, just shortly after the Second World War.
“Major Seen, a colonial military officer, was the original owner,” Mzee Gakuo said.
The house would later change hands to a settler whom locals named Nguruka, and was finally owned by a Kenyan family. At one time the house was converted into a school.
The village on which the house stands is called Nguruka.
The house is U-shaped, and Mzee Gakuo explained that the house was built in the likeness of the section of Aberdare Range which the house directly faces.
A short distance away is a cleft on the Aberdare Range, clearing the way for another range farther away. This, Gakuo said, provided the inspiration for the shape of State House.
It features red brick roofing and has 36 rooms. One of the rooms was the garage, which has a door to a lengthy verandah.
The owner, Gakuo said, would drive into the garage and venture into the verandah and into any room along the verandah.
Its windows were wide, letting in lots of natural light.
The flooring was red cedar in most of the house, with concrete in the laundry room and kitchen.
In 2019 a section of the house caught fire, which damaged part of the roof.
Today, the house is an island in a farm, with crops of peas and maize growing all around, and thickets competing with grass on some parts. Currently, nobody occupies the house.
Kimathi House and others
Other houses include Kimathi House, owned and occupied by the family of the late freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi.
“It is a big house,” Fundi said. “It was inherited from a colonial settler. But one needs clearance from Mukami (the widow) to access the house. It’s guarded by the GSU”.
The other one is known as Kwa Ng’othi. It was converted to a medical facility, now known as North Kinangop Catholic Hospital.
“It’s an old house, very well maintained,” Fundi said. “It was built by the Dutch”.
Right before Kwa Ng’othi is Kluger House. In Shamata is another house, which was built by Lady Edna.
The trust is still on the lookout for more colonial structures, Fundi said and is writing a book on the subject. In total, the trust is working on 22 houses where most of the scandals by the White Mischiefs took place.
Editor’s note: This story has now been updated via this link to provide a response by the Nyandarua County Government.