THE HISTORY OF THIKA TOWN

Thika in those days – the year was 1913 – was a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain
By the year 1800, Thika was just plains, bush and forest that were home to a small populace of Kikuyu, Masaai and Kamba people before pioneers and settlers relocated to the area, almost at the turn of the 20th century. That was long before the town, once known only as Chania Bridge, would attain its name.

History indicates that the Maasai and Kikuyu communities that lived here battled fiercely over the area where the pools of water from Rivers Chania and Thika provided ideal grounds for the grazers and farmers, respectively. The Maasai didn’t really fancy it for grazing, but they nonetheless did come to graze. During a great drought, the Maasai people ventured outside of their normal territories looking for water for their huge herds of cattle. This resulted into conflict with the Kikuyu who were arable farmers and lived higher up because they wanted to be in an area where rainfall was guaranteed and crops were assured. Two rivers, Rivers Thika and Chania, passed through Kikuyu land, providing sustenance for the agricultural Kikuyu. With both tribes desperate for survival, they fought a bloody battle that left few survivors. Very tribesmen that perished during that conflict and were buried there, this potentially being the origin of the town’s name, “Guthika”, which means “to bury” in Kikuyu language. A mound near Blue Posts Hotel supposedly marks where the slain warriors were buried. Thika was also used a memorial burial site for soldiers who fought in World War II.

The other theory claims it was derived from the Maasai word "Sika" meaning "rubbing something off an edge". At the end of the 1800s, there was a lot of rinderpest which affected the cattle, and smallpox had affected the people. So, there was a lot of death of people and livestock and the population was largely decimated.

When the first wazungus started wandering around here, Thika was just an empty piece of land, free for all. It was an untouched expanse of land – a wilderness with scores of wildlife roaming the open plains freely. That was more than a 100-plus years before the Europeans and Asians first moved  to the area. It took one two-days to travel via ox-cart  from Nairobi to Thika, a lonely piece of earth on a map. Those who walked trekked a path through towering forests, cut out by others who had made the journey before, a trip that would start at first light. While the human population then was diminutive in the area, the wildlife was plentiful, and running into them was not uncommon. The concept of selling land, not to mention the use of paper currency, was unheard of by the locals. People would go into the forest, because it was not owned by anyone, clear up the piece of land they wanted and it was theirs.

For the settlers and pioneers, finding fertile land to farm in such a vast country as Kenya was not resolved by merely making their way into the territory. For one, the natives occupied parts of the country, wildlife was wide-ranging and rampant, and finding areas with adequate water resources was always challenging.

 December 1901 saw the completion of the railway line, commonly referred to as the Lunatic Express. However, what would become one of Britain’s major investments in the colony proved initially unprofitable, as local Africans were averse to utilising the mode of transport for trade. This was a great encircling continent where cities, friends, and civilized ways were not to be found, not for thousands and thousands of miles across plain and bush and forest.

 Determined to develop some business around the railway line and create commercial usage, Britain widely marketed the protectorate for its investment opportunities, land and good farming climate.

The Retail and Agricultural store Shah Vershi Devshi & Co. Ltd, which was started by three brothers and a cousin in Thika, 1919.
Th Indians were the earliest to settle in Thika, the earliest – Shah Meghji Ladha and Meghji Kanji – coming to the area in 1910. In the old clock tower still planted at the roundabout on Kwame Nkurumah Road, stood provisional and agricultural stores. They built shops and homes out of iron sheets. The whites came shortly after that to Thika and started coffee plantations.

Towards the end of the 19th century, outsiders began to settle in this outpost as a convenient resting spot between Nairobi and the upcountry highlands for British settlers. Majority of the settlers who came to the area were of British aristocracy, of British English Anglo-origin. By 1913  it was already a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain.

Elspeth Grant Feeds an Antelope Calf, 1912-1913, Thika, Kenya.

Both the Europeans and the Asians then settled in Thika, the former setting up farms and the latter shops. A monument in the shape of a pillar was erected by the British in the early 1900s in the central business district of Thika, commemorating the founding of Thika as a town. The town was given its status by the government gazette in 1924. Thereafter it was elevated to a municipality when Kenya gained independence in 1963, and the first mayor was chosen in 1968. In those days, in Thika town, there were not more than 10 cars.
In the early 1900s, the road from Nairobi to Thika was a rugged dirt highway.

Sat Punja was among the first Indians to settle in Thika. An Ismaili by the name of Jamal Hirji Ojami then opened the first store in 1914. Kanji Mepa & Co. also started a store in Saba Saba, and soon after, in 1919, three brothers and a cousin – Shree Vershi Mepa, Mulji Mepa, Devshi Mepa and Devshi Hadha – started Shah Vershi Devshi & Co., which specialized in retail products and farming supplies. They became the major provider of provisions for farmers. Gradually, the settlement was being transformed from a sparsely populated bush area to a growing industrial town.

In 1924, the name Thika was made official and the place finally chronicled. Thika would expand to become a prominent metropolis, the setting of major industries, including Kenya Canners, which later became Del Monte. In those early years, everything was Asian owned, apart from Edmunds Butchery, which was the only European owned retail store in Thika. They called Thika the industrial town, the Birmingham of Kenya.

The natives of Africa had accepted what God, or mother nature, had given them without apparently wishing to improve upon it in any given way. Before Europeans appeared, food grown was limited to what the land provided and what crops, to that point, they were aware of. And even though nature was, for the most part, unaffected, the local communities grew what they could, which wasn’t much of a variety.

They used to plant mwere (millet), njahi (black beans), njũgũ (red/white beans), thuu (small green peas) and thoroko (small peas). A range of fruits and vegetables were introduced, and as intriguing as it was to the local inhabitants, it must have been quite challenging for the influx of white farmers, not forgetting that the crops were just as new to the uncultivated land, wild grazers and scorching environment as the planter was to the area. When they were not destroying the crop or stealing livestock from the homes, wild animals made for much entertainment.  Ol Donyo Sabuk was the wilderness full of wildlife in those days. Where the African had used spears, bows and arrows to hunt, the settler used a long weapon – a gun – that made a loud noise when fired. There were no matchboxes so they lit fires by rubbing sticks together.

Streams of water gently flow under the Chania Bridge, an old, narrow, structure – with iron bars on either side. The pool of water ran quietly before suddenly gushing into a beautiful cascade, the forceful spurt a tranquil, pleasant sound. The Blue Post Hotel was founded in 1908 by Edward Sergent, who himself acquired the place from its initial owner, Captain Ward. It consisted of a low-roofed, thatched grass hut whose veranda posts were painted blue and gave the place its name.
Pre-colonial Blue Post Hotel, a modern looking establishment today.


Thika by now was picking up as more settlers moved to the area. A town was steadily forming around Asians, Whites and Africans, and while they all had their distinctive qualities – Asians were business minded, Whites were farmers and Africans were herders – it seemed that they were all striving to better themselves – Asians looking to grow their businesses, Whites farming extensively and Africans observing and absorbing what they could from these new people in their land.
Most of the Oshwals were in small retail businesses including garment manufacturing, but others were more enterprising and ventured into industry.
The first car in the country was introduced in 1914, shortly after the railway line from Nairobi to Thika was established in 1913. Transport woes thus became somewhat resolved. In 1922, the Thika Sports Club was erected, and two years later, electricity was introduced, as was the Thika Water Works. But one thing that remained asunder were relations amongst the three communities. They had a working culture where they all integrated but  their social life was quite segregated.

While social integration issues would not be resolved until the 60s, work relations continued to mature. Pineapples were planted on the Harries farm, and with a combination of weather, soil and time, they thrived. By the time the Second World War ended and the labours of coffee planting started to materialise, Bobs Harries had probably more than 50 acres of pineapples for the local market.

In 1948, the emergence of companies such as The Kenya Tanning Extract Co. Ltd and City Brewery Ltd among others, put the metropolis on the map. Theo West, a man who ran a big canning operation in England, decided to expand into pineapple production. He went into partnership with Herbert's family and in 1949 started Kenya Canners Ltd, which was bought out by Del Monte in about 1965. International markets started making their way into Thika, increasing industrialisation gave birth to the city, the population growing from 4,500 people in 1948 to the current 139,853 people (according to the 1999 Cencus)  .


Today’s Mary Hill Girls High School in Thika is rated amongst the top schools in the country. It however started out as Thika White Sisters Mission.
The town has historical sites like the Mugumo Gardens (Section 9 Estate), which is named for the giant fig tree where the ancient legendary seer Mugo wa Kibiro prophesied. Believers claim that all of his prophesies have come to pass. According to legend, the fall of the tree would symbolise the fall of British rule in Kenya. The British government reinforced the tree to prevent it from falling but it split into two parts and fell in two stages in 1963. This land is said to have belonged to the first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

SOURCE: Destination Magazine  (http://www.eadestination.com/pop-culture/722-elspeth-s-huxley-s-thika)
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thika)

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