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your window into East Africa’s past.

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Old Africa books

Old Africa books are well-told stories in the same tradition as the shorter pieces

our readers have come to enjoy from the pages of Old Africa magazine.

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Old Africa magazine seeks to tell the story of East Africa’s past through well-written stories and vintage photographs. Founded in October 2005, the first issue featured a story about the Royal Navy’s ill-fated attempt to launch a naval presence on Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana) and an account of the Kedong Massacre. Since then the magazine has published stories and photos from Kenya’s diverse ethnic groups – African, Asian and European – to preserve East Africa’s history. 

Who Started Kenya’s Gold Rush in Kakamega in the 1930s?

Who began the Kakamega Gold Rush in the 1930s? A tall, bony American set forth from Eldoret with his wife in an ancient Ford in 1930, with two other Europeans and five Africans, on a prospecting expedition to northern Tanganyika, after the price of maize had fallen and their farms faced ruin. They found nothing, but on the way back they stopped at Kakamega near the Yala river. They thought they might as well pan the river, and to their surprise,they found gold flecks. Quickly borrowing some money, they bought provisions and petrol and started to stake out claims. Thus began the Kakamega gold rush. Who was this American? We find him, Louis Andrew Johnson, in the 1910 US Census living with his parents and working as a labourer on a fruit farm. Born in Iowa on 23 July 1877, he was now over six feet tall with a shambling walk and ill-fitting dentures that gave him a clamped-jaw appearance and a jutting chin. He had been a storekeeper in the Klondyke in Alaska where he learned to use prospecting pans and earned money by carrying buckets of water to the local brothels (apparently he had to leave hurriedly after a gambling episode).  The fruit farm was not to his liking, so he set out for Kenya and settled on the top of the bluff at Turbo. In those years he would play his violin in Eldoret and he and his wife were excellent hosts before the railway came, though in later years he turned dour. One acquaintance said he only ever heard him utter two words in the...

More about Frank Hall

More about Frank Hall Last month I talked about Frank Hall, for whom Fort Hall was named. He arrived at Fort Smith, about eight miles from present-day Nairobi, in 1893, and one of his jobs was to supply the caravans of people who marched from the coast to Uganda. These were a regular occurrence and could be composed of large numbers. In January 1895 there were caravans of 1050 men camped at Fort Smith, among them eight Europeans. It was a constant strain to secure supplies. Much was purchased from local people – the Kikuyu were keen to barter their crops, but Hall also planted gardens of European produce; in 1894 he had tomatoes, lettuces, French beans, peas, marrows and onions. Things should have become easier once the British Government took over the East African enterprise from the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1895. Surveyors began to arrive to plot the route of the proposed Mombasa-Lake Victoria railway. Frank Hall reported in August 1896: “Kikuyu is very different now…There are some Europeans about 100 yards from the Fort, building stores for two Mombasa firms, and one man planting coffee about 3 miles from here.’ But his optimism did not last long. The following month he reported that things were infinitely worse than they were under Company rule, because transport arrangements had completely broken down. He had to send a caravan of 100 men the 300 miles to Mombasa for supplies. His colleague Ainsworth was starving at Machakos, so had to draw his food from Fort Smith. The trouble was that every available man was being used on railway...

Why was Fort Hall given that Name?

Why was Fort Hall given that Name? Many of you will remember Murang’a as Fort Hall, and you may have wondered at the name. When the railway reached the end of the Kapiti plains in 1899, it was half way to its final destination – Lake Victoria. The directors decided to build a depot on the boggy flat ground they began to call Nairobi before tackling the uphill gradient to the lip of the Rift Valley and the precipitate descent down its wall. This meant that Fort Smith, a few miles uphill from Nairobi, and for many years the government station on the route to Uganda, was no longer needed as a staging post. It was decided to abandon it and establish a centre in Nairobi instead. John Ainsworth, the government representative in Machakos, managed to bag the coveted administrative post in Nairobi and this meant that Frank Hall, who had been at Fort Smith since 1892, was relegated to Machakos, much to his disgust. He felt (and he was probably right) that he understood the Kikuyu better than any other white man. He was certainly fluent in their language and in Swahili. Finally Hall managed to get back into the Kikuyu area when the government decided to establish a post at Mbirri and asked Hall to build it. Frank Hall Who was Frank Hall? Educated at Sherborne and Tonbridge, he abandoned his job in the Bank of England and went to teach in South African schools. Leaving teaching, he tried storekeeping and farming in South Africa, but he finally found his feet when he joined the Imperial British...