Murder in Happy Valley


To continue on the colonial thread began yesterday in the “Out of Africa” fashion post, today I look at a murder trial that has shaken Kenya to its core.

I referred to the European colonization of Africa in the last post as “brutal,” which is true in different ways. Not just in terms of physical violence, but also in terms of emotional and mental legacies.

“I can’t connect with them, they just seem insincere,” an American journalist friend complained to me about her Kenyan household staff when describing her attempts to befriend them. There was so much behind that statement, and we both knew it. Years of deep mistrust within master-servant relationships that never really went away even after Kenya won its independence.

Kenya is one of the most stunning, agreeable places I have ever resided, and many colonialists thought so, too. They stayed on long after their reign ended, producing long lines of white Kenyans, often owning large swathes of valuable land, who co-existed uneasily with native Kenyans.

Land disputes have been the primary source of tension, and the case of Thomas Cholmondeley is no exception.

An Eton graduate, Cholmondeley represented all the privilege white Kenya had to offer: wealth, luxury and, most importantly, colonial land that a good portion of black Kenyans believed was stolen. He was the 40-year old heir to the country’s most notable settler family, which itself owned 56,000 acres of land in Kenya’s lush Rift Valley (also called Happy Valley to illustrate the once-decadent lives of early colonialists). He was also, many argued, a killer. Twice over.

First, he was arrested for shooting wildlife ranger Samson ole Sisina, whom he accused of poaching, on his estate. Charges were dropped. The next year, 2006, he was arrested again for the alleged murder of a stonemason he accused of trespassing.

Yesterday, Cholmondeley was eventually just given an eight-month sentence for a manslaughter conviction, due to evidence and testimony irregularities that reflect a flawed court system. Kenyans are angry, even if the killing may have been accidental, but one could say that long-simmering land tensions are finally being brought to light.

But time and time again, not just in this case of a quick-to-shoot landowner, I can’t help but get the feeling that African life is considered very cheap, both by the rich living in Africa and by neglectful African leaders.

Photo via the AP

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