Kenana Farm

A Brief History

On completing duties in Post World War I Germany, decorated New Zealand born war hero –Major Herbert Pease joined the Sudan Defence Force as part of the Anglo Egyptian Army. After a four-year term, he was appointed commander of the Sudan Military School 1923-1924 then became Commandant of the Blue Nile Province police in 1925. During this period he was awarded the Egyptian Order of the Nile for repressing a mutiny. In 1930 he was appointed Assistant Military Secretary.

In 1937 Herbert’s wife Cynthia died leaving him in charge of their three boys Guy, Richard & Michael. In 1938 he met and married Sylvia Gurney, an attractive, animal loving English girl. By the time Herbert was eventually given leave to take his new bride on honeymoon, the Second World War was raging across Europe so they honeymooned in the highlands of Kenya.

They loved Kenya so much that they bought 500 acres of bush near Njoro next door to the Seth-Smith family and with help from four Italian prisoners of war, began to develop a farm. A homestead was built of cedar from the nearby forests that the Italians nicknamed the “Ark Royal” after the Royal Navy’s magnificent aircraft carrier, which today has been restored as part of Kembu’s Albizia Cottage. The POW’s then built a big cut stone barn that provided them with much warmer accommodation and shelter from the cold Njoro nights and proudly called their new home “Villa Venicia”. They also built a milking parlour, a mill house, stables, haysheds and other farm buildings. From the outset, a fencing format was followed using cedar posts, placed at 22 yard intervals (the length of a cricket pitch). Four or five droppers (spacers) were attached to the 5 strand fence (3 barbed; 2 plain). With this standard it became easy to pace out an acre of land (i.e. 1,760 sq. yards).

Back in Sudan the Peases started getting ready to move. Herbert Pease loved the beautiful Kenana cattle of Wad Medani. Zebus (Bos indicus) were hardy, tolerant to drought conditions, mostly silvery grey in colour and produce above average lactations with a high butterfat content. He believed they would cope well and be economically productive in the somewhat harsh conditions of the undeveloped potential farmland he had bought in Kenya.

Traditionally, the Zebu cattle that had been commonly used by Kenya settlers were of the Boran type. These cattle were also hardy and able to withstand tropical disease and the climatic strains of early farming in Kenya. Whilst the Boran were excellent beef producers, the Kenana Zebus were far better for milk production, and as Herbert was more interested in dairy this was the breed he chose.

In 1943 on Herbert’s retirement from active service in Sudan they were ready to move to their new home in Njoro. Timing the journey was critical as the only part of the year they could get through the notorious Sudd (a huge swamp the larger than Lake Michigan) was when the rains had fallen in Uganda and the River Nile was in full spate.

With a select herd of 20 cows, 2 bulls and about 30 fat tailed sheep, and their flock of geese and ducks the journey began with a hundred mile walk to the banks of the River Nile. Here the menagerie were loaded onto a barge and pulled upstream with a paddle steamer. Soon after the journey began one of the ducks flew overboard. The steamer was stopped whilst a rescue was attempted, but a passing crocodile was quicker off the mark and the unfortunate duck became the first and only casualty of the trek. The barge was pulled over every day for animals to graze and recover, and fresh fodder and bedding was collected.

Nearly a month later the animals were offloaded at Juba into lorries and transported 500 miles on terrible roads to the railhead at Soroti in Uganda. Sylvia was driving one of the lorries when it backfired and the straw lining at the bottom of her truck caught fire. With a quick and brave reaction, Sylvia managed to offload all the animals. The fire was put out without any major injuries to man, woman or beast. But it must have damaged the wooden floorboards as later on in the journey, one of the cows plunged her foot through the floorboards. Thankfully again Sylvia was quick to respond, jammed on the brakes and the poor cow’s foot was extricated. The trek continued and at Soroti they rested again before the next leg of the journey – an uneventful 500 mile train journey to Njoro in Kenya.

At the Njoro railway station the cattle were offloaded with the lead bull “Ziraa” proudly being ridden by his handler Mirobi Bachia the whole muster were walked a slow 4 miles to Kenana Farm. Mirobi Bachia remained at Kenana for many years.

Kenana Farm was run in a somewhat military manner by the head man Kinyanjui with a 60-strong labour force. The men were supported, as occasion demanded, by their womenfolk on a casual basis. Those who wished were allotted half-acre shambas on which they grew maize and vegetables. Those that took up a shamba agreed to a lower pay-scale than those without a shamba. Every employee was provided with rations including a pound a day of maize flour milled on the farm, salt, sugar, skimmed milk, and meat when available from slaughtered male calves. Each family erected their own thatch roof house made of wattle and daub. For reasons of disease control, the work force were not permitted to keep livestock, other than poultry.

The Kenana Zebus thrived in the Njoro climate. They were cross bred with fresian cows to up the milk yield yet retain resistance to African diseases and harsh climates. The fat-tailed sheep however were less successful, principally because they could not cope with the cold wet conditions. Many died of intestinal parasites, scours or pneumonia. They also suffered severely from foot-rot, and the flock ceased to exist within three years.

The Peases regularly planted trees around the farm — eucalyptus for fuel; pines (principally P. radiata and P. pinasta pine trees for building; and black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) for a supply of bark to The East Africa Tanning and Extract Co. Ltd (EATEC) which also produced excellent charcoal.

The principle cash crop grown was wheat. Varieties were changed frequently as new rust (Puccinia spp) resistant strains were bred and released by the Plant Breeding Station at Njoro. A good yield was about 2,000 lbs/acre per year.  Barley was sold to the breweries as and oats for fodder were also grown.  Maize grew exceptionally well and was principally the white variety, since this was preferred by the work force. Vetch and Lucerne (alfalfa) were also grown successfully for cattle fodder. Grasses, mainly Rhodes (Chloris gayana) and star (Cynodon dactylon) were the principle paddock grasses. However, silage from maize was a vital ingredient in cattle fodder, particularly during the dry season.

Initially, a farm wagon, pulled by oxen, formed the farm transportation fleet. As the farm grew, the introduction of other farm implements made for lighter work. There was a small high-sided cart, pulled by two oxen for transporting of milk churns from the farm to Njoro. Grass mowing was done by a two-oxen machine led by a small boy.  A little red Massey Harris tractor together with an extensive set of farm implements was purchased early in operations. Later, a Massey Harris open-top combine harvester was added and, later still, a small Ferguson tractor and a Caterpillar D2 track-tractor.

In 1957 Herbert suffered a stroke. He then taught Wanjiru, eldest daughter of their cook, Wanguru, to drive and with her help was able to keep abreast of farm activities. They scaled operations down, and most of the Kenana herd were sold to the O’Brien Wilson family from the north Kenya coast

Sylvia inherited Kenana Farm when Herbert died in 1960. After laying him to rest in Nakuru Cemetery, she decided she wanted to go home to England so put the farm on the market. Due to the mass exodus of Settlers from Kenya after the years of the Emergency (Kenya’s fight for Independence) there were a lot of farms on the market and it remained unsold until  1964 when my grandparents Jim and Barbie Nightingale bought Kenana Farm.  Jim and Barbie had earlier sold their own farm, Sasumua Estates on the Kinangop, as part of the Kikuyu tribal land settlement scheme) bought Kenana Farm as part of a trio of land parcels in the Njoro, Menengai and Keringet areas.

Jim was a fanatical beekeeper and loved the fact that Kenana Farm was right on one of the main bee migratory routes in Kenya. Every time the dry season kicked in, uncountable numbers of bee swarms would migrate south leaving the expansive acacia lowlands to take refuge in the Mau Forest. Here they produced wonderfully mild creamy honeys until the wait-a-bit and tortillis blossomed again with the rains to start the rich dark acacia honey run that our northern lands are so famous for. Jim had grown up on the Kinangop and was mentored by an old honey hunter called Gichumu who taught him how to track, hunt and understand how to survive in the forests. From this amazing old man he learned all he could about the fascinating lives and habits of East Africa’s bees. Blending this traditional knowledge with modern beekeeping skills, Jim pioneered migratory bee keeping in Kenya.

Barbie was the business and backbone of Kenana Farm and under her boundless energy and guidance the land prospered. Her love of animals knew no limits ~ she bred Hampshire Down and Romney Marsh sheep, Fresian cows, horses, rabbits and chickens. She also loved her gardening and with a host of gardeners she tamed the African climate to dominate horticultural society events.

Their sons Geoff, Bruce & Humph helped work the farms, with Geoff running the Menengai Farm, Humph in Keringet and Bruce on the farm in Njoro. Geoff loved his machinery and agriculture on the open plains of Menengai, Humph his sheep which did very well in the cold highlands above Molo, and Bruce worked well with his Mum sharing her passion for breeding the best into their horses and cattle.

Half a century on – Bruce Nightingale has built on his dairy cattle bloodlines to become the leading Fresian breeder in Kenya. His love of horses led him into the Kenya racing industry and he’s enjoyed the accolade of being the nation’s leading breeder of Thoroughbred Racehorses for most of the last 30 years.

Bruce like his mother was never going to retire early, so his farming son Oli went into business with Geoff’s son Luke, and together they have set up Sasumua Agriculture – renting large scale arable land around the province on which to grow cereal crops. Rotating a large variety of crops on a zero till policy allows them to improve on overall soil health and the land’s water retention properties. This also allows them to break natural pest lifecycles so significantly reducing the need for any chemical control. They now farm near Naivasha and Rumuruti and are rapidly growing to become one of the larger grain farmers in Kenya.  Taking on long term leases in areas of marginal farming land with low human population (and therefore less population pressure on each acre) has enabled them to invest in natural soil regeneration allowing them to sustainably address Kenya’s food security needs. Bruce’s other two sons Andrew and Patrick chose non-farming careers. Andrew is still based on the farm having set up Kembu Cottages and helps on the farm in the role of an estate manager. Pat emigrated to UK as a teacher and has a beautiful life, home and family in Hertfordshire.

So what is happening on Kenana Farm in the present? Nakuru is fast expanding – some experts estimate the farm will be surrounded by suburbia within the decade. Urbanization is a fact that is coming our way and the family are going to have to plan for a future that needs to consider all the basic elements in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – water, food security, housing.

With human population around the farm growing faster than available resources, the pressure on all land is ever increasing. Water is becoming scarce – the 4 inch pipeline installed to keep a few farms in water now supplies several towns and has to be rationed to a few days a week. Surrounding forests have been severely depleted so firewood is scarce. To counter this irregular supply, the family are working on water catchment and storage plans; indigenous tree planting programs are a big part of the next decade’s investments. Wildlife numbers on the farm are increasing each year as indigenous mammals and birds flee the environmental degradation in surrounding areas. Space for them is being developed so they don’t become pests and be relabeled vermin. Working on how to balance the beauty of the farm with commercial aspects of staying solvent in business is a big part of what it takes to keep our little bubble of paradise sustainable.


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