Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

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Editor's note:On May 7, 2009, Tom Cholmondeley was convicted of manslaughter in the 2006 shooting of Robert Njoya.

One afternoon last May, a bearded 36-year-old black man named Robert Njoya set out with friends to hunt for bush meat on a private ranch called Soysambu, in the heart of Kenya's Great Rift Valley. They brought along a pack of dogs for running animals into wire snares, and they carried an iron bar for clubbing their catch, and pangas, or machetes, for butchering the meat.

That same day, a 38-year-old white man named Tom Cholmondeley, whose family has owned and managed Soysambu for almost a century, was touring the 48,000-acre property with a friend. He carried a 30-06 rifle loaded with soft point bullets, as a precaution against buffalo.

Late that afternoon, in a dense stand of acacia trees and lelechwe bushes, the two parties crossed paths. Cholmondeley knelt and fired a series of shots. Two dogs died on the spot. One bullet also hit Njoya, who was carrying a partly butchered impala. The bullet entered the outside of Njoya's upper left buttock, burst through the pelvic girdle, lacerated the femoral artery leading to the left leg, cut the sacrum in half, shattered the pelvic girdle on the right side and lodged in the muscle between hip and waist. Soon after, at a hospital up the road, Njoya was dead, of massive bleeding.

It was the second time Cholmondeley had shot and killed a black man on the ranch in little more than a year. The first incident had passed without criminal charges, because Cholmondeley said he had mistaken the victim, a wildlife officer, for an armed robber in an area where robberies are epidemic. But this time much of Kenya erupted in outrage. Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) suddenly looked like a throwback to the arrogant behavior of early British colonists, notably including his own great-grandfather, Hugh Cholmondeley, the third Baron Delamere, unofficial leader of the British settlers who began arriving in Kenya in 1903. In the aftermath of the Njoya killing, politicians proposed stripping the family of Soysambu and distributing the land to poor farmers. Police took Cholmondeley away to prison in Nairobi, where he is currently on trial on a charge of murder, with a maximum penalty of death by hanging.

The Njoya killing was only the latest incident in a wave of violence around the lakes of Kenya's Great Rift Valley. In another notorious case, a few months earlier and a few miles down the road, a gunman armed with an AK-47 had slain Joan Root, the noted filmmaker and conservationist, in her bedroom overlooking Lake Naivasha. Police called it a robbery. Friends said it was a contract killing provoked by her highly public efforts to keep poachers from destroying the fish in Lake Naivasha.

The violence seemed to pitch whites against blacks. But race was largely incidental to the underlying issue—the struggle to protect wildlife, water and other resources, in the face of a rapidly expanding human population desperate to feed their families. Longtime residents of the lakes remembered when they could lie in bed and hear lions roar, and when herds of large animals still wandered freely there. But now it seemed as if people were fighting and dying their way down to the bottom of the food chain. Nor was the body count limited to human beings and the animals they eat. Throughout 2006, the vast flocks of flamingos for which the lakes are famous were also falling victim to a malady puzzled scientists dubbed "the pink death." Robert Njoya and Joan Root were thus merely the most prominent victims in what some valley residents were beginning to fear might be a broad ecological collapse.

At least in the imagination, few places on earth seem as vast and unchangeable as the Great Rift Valley. It's a broad seismic cleft running much of the length of Africa, from Ethiopia down to Mozambique. Astronauts in orbit have described it as one of the earth's most visible geologic features. Paleontologists have celebrated it as the birthplace of humanity, because of the discovery of Lucy and other early hominid fossils there. Writers also have dwelt lovingly on the Great Rift Valley, particularly on the area in Kenya from Lake Naivasha up through lakes Elmenteita and Nakuru. This picturesque landscape was pioneer territory for the hunters and settlers in Karen Blixen's Out of Africa And it became infamous in books such as White Mischief; as"Happy Valley" where aristocratic settlers, including Lord Delamere himself, indulged in a movable feast of drugs, drink and debauchery.

From Nairobi, it's now a two-hour trip out to the lakes, and my driver, a 48-year-old Kenyan named Jagata Sospeter, turned the journey into a chronicle of loss. At Mimahu, where the left side of the road suddenly opens up to reveal the broad, dusty bottom of the valley far below, he said, "In the 1970s, there were no houses here. It was all forest. I used to come here on foot." At Maingu, where young men played soccer on a marsh dried out by years of unreliable rainfall, he said, "We had rhinos here 20 years ago. There was very much water then." And crossing the Malewa River, he added, "It used to have hippos. But now the water is very low.

Kenya's human population has doubled since 1980, to 35 million, and much of it now sprawls out along the A104 highway, turning the open spaces of the Rift Valley into a patchwork of shambas, tin-roofed farmhouses surrounded by an acre or two of parched maize plants. In the booming agricultural centers of Naivasha and Nakuru, newcomers have thrown together dense slums of stone and scrap lumber. On the outskirts, pockets of red-tile roofs appear on the sort of prosperous houses you might find in a California exurb. Every stretch of bare soil sports a hand-painted real estate sign: "Plots for sale."

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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