Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version the Talais' history and experiences under British colonialism, Bill Rutto discusses the plight of a Kenyan group still suffering under the weight of a colonial-era expulsion order. The ruling clan of the Kipsigi people, the Talai were the victims of a wholesale round-up once it became apparent to the British authorities that they could not be simply controlled, Rutto writes. Following their expulsion the group came to squat on the outskirts of Kericho town, where they remain over half a century later, the Kenyan and British governments oblivious to their cause. But with their compatriots the Mau Mau bringing legal action against the British government, will the Talai be able to pursue justice themselves, Rutto asks in this week's Pambazuka News.

In one of his ballads, American country singer Charlie Pride laments incredulously, 'How can anything so real become a dream…?' Indeed, how can that possibly be? Dreams, conventionally, come true and not the other way round! But if the world around you suddenly crumbled like a pack of cards, as seems to have happened to poor Pride, then the irony of his grousing becomes less perplexing. The Talai of Kenya will concur with Charlie Pride every time they reflect on what befell them on 22 October 1934, the fateful day when the British colonial authorities in Kenya deported them from their ancestral land.

Historians agree that the deportation of the Talai was unprecedented in Kenya of the 1930s. In complete disregard for human rights and in violation of its own laws, including even the incipient international law under the League of Nations Charter, the British cold-bloodedly expelled an entire community from their land simply because colonial officers were not creative enough to cope with a tenacious African leadership. The Talai, the ruling clan of the Kipsigi people, wielded both temporal and spiritual authority over the Kipsigis when the British colonial juggernaut reached Kericho district in 1903. At first, the British and the Talai leadership seemed to get on fine together, with the Talai potentate, Laibon Kipchomber arap Koilegen, even accepting a colonial appointment of paramount chief of the Kipsigis (or the Lumbwa as the British called the Kipsigis then). This arrangement fitted quite well with the British concept of indirect rule, where existing local leadership was often used to impose pax Britannica.

It was not until about 1911, however, that the Talai began to feel a little uncomfortable. They felt something was seriously amiss; the white strangers at their new Kericho station were increasingly becoming assertive and bothersome. In a single month, for example, several messages would reach the Laibon (the Talai were descended from the Maasai Oloiboni clan of diviners, hence the title), summoning him to appear before the district commissioner at Kericho for one thing or another. And it soon dawned on the Laibon that the white men at Kericho were up to no good. They seemed bent on weakening his leadership, for how else would anyone explain the peremptory attitude of a bunch of strangers in the manner they summoned the Kipsigi monarch at will? Laibon Koilegen (the elder brother of the legendary Nandi leader, Koitalel Samoei, who had led the Nandi in a bloody decade-long resistance to British rule until 1905 when he was killed) began to ignore the district commissioner’s summons.[1]

Of course, Laibon Koilegen, and for that matter the Talai and the Kipsigis, had no idea that the white men they were defying at Kericho station represented a colonising power on whose empire, it was said, the sun never set. This is why the Laibon, for starters, abandoned his 600-rupee per year appointment as paramount chief and began to lead the Kipsigis in circumventing every rule imposed by the white man at Kericho. But the British officers, aware of Laibon Koilegen’s Nandi connection, were not about to allow a repeat of the Nandi debacle and moved swiftly to stop Koilegen in his tracks. They arrested the offending monarch, along with his two influential brothers, Kiptonui arap Boisio and Kibuigut, and deported them in 1913 to distant lands in the Kikuyu country. By removing the Laibon, the officers reckoned that the Kipsigis' country would be a lot easier to control. But they were wrong.

The British did not understand the Kipsigis' social and political institutions sufficiently; they did not realise that the influence of the Talai clan and the role they played in Kipsigi society was not based on a single individual. The institution of the Laibon was hereditary and therefore a new Talai Laibon emerged upon the removal of Laibon Koilegen to carry on his work. This was soon evident enough to the offices as resistance, albeit from the underground, continued. But what frustrated the local British officers the most in all this was not so much the charisma or pragmatism of the Laibon leadership but rather the spiritual aspect of it, which an exasperated assistant district commissioner named G. Beresford Stooke described in a memo as the 'the intangible power' of the Talai. With such 'power' in their disposal, the Talai leadership did not need a physical presence anywhere to lead the people in defying the British. An edict from the underground was enough.

Matters came to a head by 1930 when lawlessness had reached unbearable levels, thanks to this remote-control phenomenon. European farms were targeted by Kipsigi warriors. Livestock and firearms were looted and physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges were sabotaged. In 1934, the attorney-general placed a bill before the Legislative Council to debate the creation of a specific law to expel the entire Talai clan from the Kipsigis' country if, as Stooke put it, 'the government wants to rule this part of the colony'. The enactment of a new law was necessary as the Natives Removal Ordinance already in existence was considered too inadequate to deal with the Talai question.

This brings us to 22 October 1934, the day the Talai lost everything. For several months, even before the actual enactment of the Laibons (Talai) Removal Ordinance into law in August 1934, Kericho District Commissioner Douglas Brumage had rounded up all the Talai and held them captive in a transit camp in the location of Kiptere. Save for a few possessions, namely livestock, the entire Talai clan of 700 souls were dispatched into exile in Gwassi, a disease-infested place on the shores of Lake Victoria, empty-handed.

The Sondu River Bridge was the staging point of the long trek into Gwassi by bewildered Talai men, women and children and is today a monument of great emotion for every Talai survivor. Says David Tuei, a son of Gwassi survivor Chemiron arap Ng’asura: 'My father, although he was quite young, has never forgotten the Sondu Bridge; I think for him and all the victims, crossing the bridge was like for the Jews getting onto trains to the concentration camps during the Nazi outrage.'

The Talai remained in Gwassi until 1962 when the departing British government saw no reason to continue banishing them and allowed them to return to their old district of Kericho. But it was a changed district: the Kipsigis had taken over the Talai land. No Kipsigis seemed to have expected the Talai return. And not only that, the British had reckoned the Talai would be assimilated by the dominant Luo community in the vicinity of Gwassi where they had been exiled to. But everyone was wrong, the resilient Talai returned intact having maintained their identity and the Kipsigis' cultural disposition.

The reluctant but nonchalant British authorities allowed the Talai to settle down on the outskirts of Kericho town pending possible resettlement. But close to half a century down the line, the Talai are still squatting on the sliver of land on the edge of town, completely forgotten. Post-colonial governments of Kenya have turned a blind eye to the plight of the Talai even as their population continues to rise and challenges multiply.

Says prominent Nairobi lawyer and scholar Kimutai Bosek: 'The Talai are an aggrieved party and it behoves the British and Kenya governments to provide the Talai with adequate resettlement and compensation for their losses and suffering arising from these injustices.' The lawyer also points out the fact that the British as a colonising power violated international law of the time when they deported the Talai. 'It was incumbent upon the British, the colonising power, to observe the provision of the Article 23 (b) of the League of Nations Charter, which proclaimed that every member country of the League would undertake to secure just treatment of the native inhabitants of territories under their control.' Of course, the lawyer does not agree that the British government needed deport the Talai in the first place, simply because its officers did not have the ingenuity to deal with the Talais' 'intangible power'.

Finally, the deportation of the Talai brings to mind the case of the Illois of the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Chagos. The British government, driven by its usual obsession to support the US, expelled the Illois people to Mauritius in 1971 to pave the way for the establishment of a naval base on Diego Garcia. But a spirited character called Oliver Bancoult sued the British in London for acts of violence against his community and won the case in 2000. Lord Justice Laws, the presiding judge, lived up to his name by finding the British guilty. He described the deportation of the Illois as an 'abject legal failure' and added that 'I cannot see how the wholesale removal of a people from the land where they belong can be said to conduce to the territory's peace, order and good government.'

Can the Talai, like their compatriots, the Mau Mau – who have already brought a case against the British – succeed in getting justice?


* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] The Nandi and the Kipsigis are closely related members of the Kalenjin-speaking peoples of East Africa.