Adrian Blomfield explores an under-appreciated spot just outside Nairobi, where you’ll find one of the region’s oldest churches, a gourmet restaurant and a quaking bog.
The church has a rather forbidding air about it. Maybe it is the mournfulness of its stone exterior, darkened by age, or the solemnity of the belfry with its dramatic tapering flèche that broods over the building like a brimless witch’s hat.
Yet there is still something austerely magnificent about the Church of the Torch, the heart of the PCEA Kikuyu Mission Area that marks the start of this month’s walk. When we visit, we find every door bolted firmly shut, which seems strange for a place of worship. Perhaps a residual hangover of the Scottish siege mentality persists, as though the church elders fear that Clan MacTavish might loom over the hills at any moment, sgian-dubhs held aloft and kilts raised to terrorise the Kikuyu blue-stockings cowering within.
For nowhere in Kenya bears the imprint of Scotland as much as here in Thogoto. Even the name is a bastardisation of the word (try saying Scotland in a rural Kikuyu accent and you might get a sense of its evolution).
Eventually, however, we track down a charming elder who unlocks the church, built in 1928, and leads us on an excellent hourlong tour of the building and its environs. The interior with its imposing timber beams is simple, as befits a Presbyterian kirk, but also houses some of the most exquisite stainedglass windows in Kenya, many depicting an Africanised version of Christ’s mission.
Initially, the church had no window panes or doors, the Scots finding the climate more clement than home despite the altitude. At independence, the shivering Kikuyu faithful put that right with Jomo Kenyatta donating the west door.
Kenyatta’s youth is inextricably bound to the mission area. Arriving here as a nineyear-old boy, he was clothed and mentored by Minnie Watson, who reached Kikuyu with her husband Thomas in 1898. He died a year later, but for the next four decades Minnie from Dundee shepherded the growing community through pestilence and famine.
Our next stop is the Elders’ Graveyard, where the Watsons lie buried beneath the cemetery’s largest Celtic Cross, on which kites often perch. Two other graves are worth searching for. The first is of Musa Gitau, ordained in 1926 and one of the most important African clerics of the colonial era. The second is the resting place of David Steel, moderator of the Church of Scotland. His son, also David, the last leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, attended the Prince of Wales, now Nairobi School.
Walk past the former dormitory where the young Kenyatta slept and the Musa Gitau School, where he began his education in the charming schoolhouse, built in 1910.
Next door is the Watson Memorial Chapel, built in 1909 as the precursor of the Church of the Torch. Constructed with galvanised corrugated iron sheets, it was entirely prefabricated in Scotland, then shipped to Kenya and transported inland by ox cart. The interior, with more marvellous stained glass, is arguably one of the most atmospheric places in all of Kenya. It is also here that Kenyatta was baptised as Johnstone Kamau.
It is worth wandering through the rest of the verdant and tree-lined 3,000-acre PCEA (Presbyterian Church of East Africa) mission area. The Kikuyu Mission Hospital, founded by Dr John Arthur in 1908, is one of the oldest in the country and is famous for its eye unit. There are nine schools in the mission area, which is where African education in Kenya really began. The most famous are the Alliance High School, established in 1926, and Alliance Girls’, Kenya’s first secondary school for African girls. Alliance is Kenya’s most storied school, providing 10 members of Kenya’s first post-independence cabinet. With houses named after Livingstone, Wilberforce, Grieve, Campbell and others, the school has melded its colonial heritage with top-class Kenyan education. Note the girls’ school crest, with a torch superimposed on the St. Andrew’s Cross, Scotland’s national flag. Both schools can be visited on spec, but it is worth ringing ahead (020-2015026).
Having explored the area, head for Kikuyu Town by boda and have lunch at Crave Kitchen, an unexpected delight. Rustic and simple, Crave’s red double doors open onto a barn-like interior with exposed rafters. It is filled with pot plants and blackboards while the walls display an ever-changing exhibition of local art. Crave is the brainchild of the dreadlocked Tom Kamuti, a graduate of Leith’s in London, the cookery school founded by Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith. Kamuti, once an interior designer in Fulham, later worked as commis chef to Alex Floyd at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Notting Hill. The menu changes every day. Our pork marinated in soy, garlic and ginger served with sautéed vegetables, mash and crisped carrot was delicious — and a steal at Ksh 360.
Suitably fortified, take the short walk towards the Ondiri Swamp (ask at Crave for directions), our final destination, to enjoy the bizarre sensation of walking on water. Forming the headwaters of the Nairobi River, it is Kenya’s only “quaking bog.” To understand what this means, walk across the logs precariously thrown across the swamp and then step off when you find a dry spot. Your are now standing on a floating mat of peat moss. The ground shifts and undulates beneath your feet, as though stepping across a trampoline. Although it feels like it will give way at any moment, the moss is half a metre thick and cattle often graze on it.
Cross the logs and you can hike the footpaths that connect settlements around the swamp. Alternatively, hire a bicycle from David Kinjah, who mentored multiple Tour de France winner Chris Froome. Kinjah’s Safari Simbaz cycling centre (0722 620623) is located in Kikuyu town and can organise tours of Kikuyu, one of the most surprising and under-appreciated spots in the Nairobi region.
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