SUNDAY TIMES Thomas Cholmondeley, son of lord and Lady Delamere is facing a second murder trail after another violent death on his estate. Nick Maes, who spent time with him on his farm, unravels the disturbing background to a case that has captivated Kenya. The two facts we could be sure of were that Njoya was dead and Thomas Cholmondeley, sole heir to the 5th Lord Delamere and sizable estates in Kenya, had shot him. He was taken to the police headquarters in Nakuru – a town northwest of Nairobi – and detained on charges of fatally wounding the man on his property. It’s the second death in little more than a year, and raises the obvious question: is Tom Cholmondeley trigger-happy?
In April 2005, he was arrested and imprisoned for killing an undercover Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger on his family’s Soysambu ranch. He claimed self-defence:?the ranger, Samson ole Sisina, allegedly took a shot at him. Tom responded by firing five rounds from his Luger pistol, killing the man instantly. After a month in prison, the case against him was dropped owing to insufficient evidence. But now Tom is behind bars again.
Tom says that on the evening of this latest incident, he’d been out for a stroll with his friend, the rally driver Carl Tundo. As they were walking through the bush, they came across four men they claim were armed with bows and arrows and carrying a dead impala. The account of what happened next is confusing. Tom claims that the men set their dogs on him and that he responded by trying to shoot the hounds with his Lee Enfield rifle, hitting Njoya by accident.
The surviving men dispute the story, asserting that Tom sat them on the ground and was questioning them when they tried to escape, and that it was then that Njoya was shot. They also deny carrying weapons other than a panga (a machete – often carried by rural Africans to cut wood) that Njoya had with him. Tundo was cleared of any involvement.
The prosecution is pressing for a murder charge, but Tom vehemently denies murder. His lawyer, Fred Ojiambo, has gone on the defensive, and said after the preliminary hearing: “Lies are being orchestrated to make him look like the guy who shoots Africans for sport.” A trial date has been set for the end of September: if convicted of murder, Tom could face the death sentence.
In the meantime, he’s been transferred from Nakuru CID to Nairobi’s grim high-security prison. The conditions there are notorious:?it’s a tough environment – Aids and other diseases are rife. Those who can afford it have food delivered by friends and relatives. And we can be sure there won’t be any other white aristocrats in the cells. Tom’s time in custody looks set to be fraught. A white landowner, with a profile that couldn’t be any higher or more politicised than his, is bound to be at the receiving end of antagonistic and oppressive behaviour. It couldn’t be further removed from the lifestyle of the landed gentry to which he’s accustomed.
In March 2005, I was to be found sitting in Tom’s lofty living room, having evening drinks in front of a roaring wood fire. Although Naivasha is equatorial, it’s also at high altitude, and evenings get cold. A bohemian mix of English silver photo frames, ethnic fabrics, low, comfortable furniture and African objects adorned what was otherwise a vast, empty space. Tom lit up another cigarette and told me his version of the KWS story.
“The first I knew of it was when my farm manager called me on my mobile to say there was an armed raid at the butchery – I’d been asleep,” he said. “I’d been out shooting earlier and had returned to the house to rest.” He paused and we moved out to a huge covered veranda and watched warthog and gazelle graze near a stand of trees and bush before he resumed his story. “Someone told me about a wounded buffalo on the farm, so I’d gone out to deal with it.” The animal had been spotted by a worker on the Cholmondeleys’ vast cattle and dairy farm. “They’re dangerous things,” he said. “I had to do something about it.” Buffalo kill more humans than any other African animal. But it’s illegal to slaughter any wild creature in Kenya without notifying the appropriate authorities.
“So anyway, I’d gone after the creature and shot it. It made sense to butcher it rather than leave it to rot: I thought the meat could be shared out around the farm workers.” The act of killing a buffalo would have enormous repercussions. Tom shrugged: “I’m pretty certain that it was someone on the farm who tipped off the KWS.”
Why anyone would inform the authorities is open to speculation. We can safely assume it wasn’t because of altruism. The Cholmondeleys have a questionable reputation in this part of the world. There are many people who would like to see the back of them, and their huge land-holdings – about 56,000 acres in Naivasha – returned to the Masai or to the state. Some villagers have complained of mistreatment by farm workers. They’ve recounted stories of their crops being destroyed and their families injured by wild animals that strayed from the ranch. There have also been unsubstantiated claims that women caught collecting firewood were sometimes held at an old farmhouse for hours, only to be released late in the evening to make their way home through the bush, running the risk of being attacked by wild animals.
An undercover KWS unit acted quickly on the tip and raided the farm slaughterhouse, looking for the buffalo. Tom claims he didn’t know it was a KWS raid, but instead believed it was an opportunistic robbery. He picked up his pistol and went out to investigate.
Armed robberies are common in Kenya. A glut of AK-47s has spilled in from Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, replacing traditional arms with altogether more lethal weapons. “These days you don’t ask questions,” said Dodo Cunningham-Reed, a local landowner. “People come onto your land behaving as criminals – you don’t take chances.”
Burglaries can be deadly – several white residents have been murdered recently, and householders react accordingly. The Rift Valley farmers feel they are living under siege.
Tom continued: “I’d just come into view when I saw a man standing by an unmarked car. He took a shot at me and I shot back.” To demonstrate, he lifted up his arm as if taking aim and said: “Pop, pop, pop.” The words didn’t convey the gravity of what had happened; they were coolly detached, a bit like the man himself. “It was only when I got into the butchery and saw my staff lying flat on the floor that the KWS identified themselves.” These were strange memories of a day that would come back to haunt him. “Shall we go in for dinner now?”
The gilding came off Kenya’s elitist cage years ago. Its past reputation for sex, decadence and drugs is now part fable. Its Happy Valley reputation was established virtually single-handedly by Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, known as “D”, Tom’s great-grandfather. He arrived in 1903 and was closely followed by his friends Lords Hindlip, Howard de Walden, Cranworth, Egerton of Tatton and Cardross, establishing their playground in the Naivasha district around the Cholmondeley estates. Tom’s grandfather achieved his own notoriety in 1955 after he married Diana Broughton. Her former lover, the 22nd Earl of Errol, was murdered in Nairobi. The story was recounted in the book White Mischief, by James Fox, based on an investigative article he wrote for The Sunday Times Magazine in 1969. But even though the sun went down on this way of life a long time ago, scandal still dogs those remaining. Nothing and everything changes.
Driving up to Naivasha from Nairobi takes three hours. After leaving the slums in the capital’s suburbs, the road winds through breathtaking scenery and curls towards Lake Naivasha – a stretch of water pink with flamingos. The last hour is arduous and bumpy. The Land Rover rattled along a half-finished highway till we reached an unmarked turning that looped back under the road and brought me to the gates of Tom’s farm.
Tom and his girlfriend, Sally Dudmesh, a jewellery designer, invited me to stay with them for a week in March 2005. I’ve known Sally for several years. Her house in Karen – a Nairobi suburb – is beautiful. It was used as Karen Blixen’s home in the film Out of Africa. If she’s not travelling on business, then she’s happiest there.
The lingering white Kenyan elite is a small and well-connected group. Earlier on the coast, I’d met up with several “old” Kenyan families. Enormous kudos is attached to those who are fourth- or fifth-generation settlers. They talked languidly about friends in the interior and folk in Nairobi, seeming to know the social minutiae of the whole country. They told me about Sally’s new boyfriend and his notorious celebrity. They have an unquenchable need for gossip: it’s not unusual to hear five versions of the same incident – hence Robert Njoya’s rumoured professions.
Tom’s home at the end of a long dirt track is large but not overly luxurious. Several scattered outbuildings house staff members and workshops. Tom was standing near the back door to greet me. He’s extraordinary-looking, with golden skin that has a translucent quality. He’s almost transparent. His finely chiselled features, startlingly blue eyes caged behind gold specs, and unanimated face seem almost alien.
Immediately he took me for a walk around the grounds, telling me how happy he was that Sally had agreed to move in with him now that he’d separated from his previous wife, also called Sally. The crisp, confident chatter eventually touched on other concerns.
“This new legislation was financed by an American conservation group. They’re behind the ban. It’s illegal to shoot any game now. You see other countries where hunting is managed efficiently and a good income generated. But these animals,” he spread his arms wide, “they can’t add any value to the farm like this.”
He began to reveal frustrations not only with bureaucracy but with the running of the farm. The first splinters in what might be taken for a blessed life appeared. Thomas Cholmondeley is not what he seems to be.
The next morning we drove over to his parents’ home. Lord and Lady Delamere were sitting in the shade of a pergola. A black servant padded through an open door into the house, where an ancestral portrait glowered back at me from the gloom.
“Would you like a drink?” Delamere shunted me towards a table covered with bottles without waiting for an answer. “Have this; the water tastes of pigeon droppings, so add some angostura.” He started to concoct an unwanted juice cocktail to his own recipe. Tom butted in: “Dad, stop bullying him!”
“I’m not,” said Delamere emphatically. He was overbearing and oblivious, and fixed the drink as he saw fit. Tom is the financial director of the family estates and had business to do with his father. Sally and I went for a swim in the pool.
There’s a sense of faded grandeur about the place. Cracked concrete and flaking paint betray an otherwise idyllic spot. The sprawling house is set on a hill and overlooks a vast plain below.
I could make out zebra in the distance. There’s also a sense of unreality, a feeling that the last of the aristocrats are battling on, come what may. When someone commiserated with Lady Delamere about her son’s original trial, her reply was succinct: “Yes, it was beastly. I caught fleas.” On being told about armed raids on the farm, she said: “Yes, it’s such an inconvenience.”
There were two separate armed raids just before I arrived. On both occasions, men equipped with the ubiquitous AK-47s had burst into houses looking for money – and, ominously, Tom. That news didn’t seem to have any undue effect on him.
Tom returned quickly from his meeting with his father, and was keen to get moving. He seemed upset. We bumped along a dirt road and came across farm workers cutting down trees, which made him very agitated. Delamere is keen to keep the pasture open, although removing the trees creates other problems:?scrub grows quickly in their place and soil erosion is accelerated.
“What the hell’s going on? Why are they doing this? I’ve told the old man not to do it, but he never listens.” He picked up his mobile phone and stamped in a number. “Mum, put Dad on, will you?” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Tom ranted about the tree-felling; she was obviously trying to placate him, but he’d have none of it. He looked exasperated when he hung up. “It’s impossible to get anything done around here. No one bloody listens.”
Delamere has turned over the day-to-day running of the family business to a local manager. This rankles with Tom: he sees it as his right to be at the helm. He not only resents this man (an African) but believes that the manager might end up in control of the farm – how much of this is paranoia is unclear, but the prospect seems very real to him. He’s like a crown prince waiting to inherit a throne, but until he does, he has to carve out a role for himself as best he can. Despondency and impotence undermine him.
Social life on the farm is limited: it’s an isolated spot. We were occasionally joined by a neighbour for supper; otherwise it was just Sally, Tom and me. One evening the conversation turned to food.
“There’s such fantastic game on the estate – wouldn’t it be great to have air-dried warthog hams?” It was idle, foodie chatter. Tom asked me if I ate game – I do. “Why don’t we go out and get a Tommy tomorrow, then? It’s delicious.” A Tommy is a Thompson’s gazelle. Sally thought the idea was crazy – it was illegally shooting a wild animal that had set off the chain of events leading to the tragic death of the KWS ranger, but Tom persisted: “The liver is very good, a little like foie gras.”
I assumed it was a fleeting idea, but the next evening, Tom packed a rifle case in his pick-up and beckoned me into the vehicle. He was serious. We drove off behind the outbuildings and headed into rolling countryside. Parts of the terrain look peculiarly English, as if three generations of their lordships had somehow stamped a different nationality on the place.
A few scraggy cattle were visible in the distance. In a flash, Tom’s mood changed from impassive, composed hauteur to blind rage and he drove towards them. The offending animals were accompanied by a trespassing Masai tribesman. Tom hit the brakes and leapt out of the car, yelling: “Get these f***ing things off my land!”
He towered above the cowherd, seeming to inhabit another body. He looked bigger, brutal, stronger. He snatched a Masai cudgel from the trespasser and wielded it above his head. It was a moment of intense drama and fury. Tom turned back to me and threw the weapon into the pick-up. Yet, even though he was so angry, his expression gave no hint of the passions that were evidently churning inside him.
He sat back down in the driver’s seat and called a farm manager, instructing him to move the cattle and Masai from the land immediately. They’d been caught once before, recently – the cattle had been daubed with blue paint by Tom’s workers. It was enough to reignite his anger. He ran back into the field, grabbed a calf and threw it over a barbed-wire fence onto the public road.
He calmed down as quickly as he had flown into the rage. It was an unexpected and unnerving metamorphosis. We drove on and around the back of the farm towards bush and scrub. There were plenty of gazelle. After about 20 minutes, he found his target. Tom lay on the ground and pointed the weapon at a creature about 300 yards away. Like a sniper, he took his time to aim before neatly felling the animal.
He’s obviously a very good marksman. The rifle crack echoed across the fields. “C’mon, we’d better be quick,” he said.
There was something of a schoolboyish prank in this conspiracy – knowingly bad, yet simultaneously carefree. We quickly drove over to the gazelle, and Tom pulled out a knife and gutted the creature. The gazelle was dumped in the back of the pick-up and we drove back to the house. Tom gave the carcass to a couple of his men to skin and butcher, and gave a collusive shrug. Later that evening, cuts of the Thompson’s gazelle were brought over to the kitchen.
Accusations of Tom being trigger-happy are rife. But his friends spring to his defence. “Anyone who knows even a bit about Tom Cholmondeley knows that this guy, while unconventional and a bit exuberant on occasion, is not a rough padre like the old earl,” one said. “Tom does not even much like hunting.”
The Cholmondeleys are a self-sufficient bunch. Their lives revolve around the land they inhabit, and to some degree they are prisoners on it – without driving long distances it’s difficult to leave its borders. We packed up a barbecue, the Thompson’s gazelle meat, beers and wine, and headed off to Lake Elmenteita for a late supper.
Elmenteita is a small, shallow lake not far from the house. We sat watching the bird life through binoculars. The camp there is now a husk: decrepit buildings are overgrown – it closed down in 2003. It’s a reflection of the estate itself. Some bits have been sold off over the years, other tracts rented out in various money-making schemes. Tom talked incessantly about renting out farmhouses to friends, and started to speculate about building a restaurant or bar by the lake. “It should be up-market, the best food, good wine, champagne for rich tourists on safari.”
Many white Kenyans are keen to tap into tourism, opening safari companies and related businesses. It’s as if they’re fighting to regain a foothold and re-establish themselves in a world that’s changing, trying to hold onto something that – in reality – isn’t there any more.
Tom’s role has become that of ideas man: other than his directorship in the family company, he’s keen to prove himself in other areas. But his wings are clipped; the shadow of his father continually eclipses him. And he’s resentful that the government has banned what could have been a lucrative sideline. Buffalo are highly prized within the hunting community.
A trophy can be had for US$20,000 in South Africa, where it is very big business. But with hunting outlawed, it means that yet another of his entrepreneurial ideas has bitten the dust.
Thunder broke the silence. There was no lightning. A herd of buffalo galloped below us in the darkness. The Cholmondeleys have a long family history that’s intrinsically linked to buffalo. There’s a certain pride in their distinguished, aristocratic tussles with the beasts – and evidence of their past exploits is hung on the walls of both his and his parents’ house. Buffalo have loomed large in Tom’s life, and it is almost as though the creatures are paying him back. As well as the horrific incident involving the plain-clothes KWS ranger, Tom had another bloody encounter with the animals. He showed me a gruesome scar down his leg to prove his point. He’d been attacked by a buffalo bull in Tanzania a few years back after stumbling across the animal by accident. It charged him, gouged the whole of his leg and attempted to grind him into the ground – the buffalo’s favourite method of dispatch. Friends heard the commotion and returned to distract the creature, enabling Tom’s escape. Yet Tom recounted the story as if his wound were no more than a nasty cut – he’d nearly bled to death. It’s an illustration of his utter self-belief: he knows his place in Africa; it’s assured, as he is. Nothing will take that away.
But luck changes. The first shooting and acquittal caused widespread demonstrations and threats from Masai tribesmen to squat the Delamere estates. This second killing has reignited the simmering tensions. Maybe if Tom can’t have the farm, he’s subconsciously doing everything in his power to ensure that it’s gone for ever.
This is a result that many Kenyans would like to see. Land redistribution is rapidly becoming a hot issue, and the murder case against Tom will inevitably turn into a far wider political debate. Certain politicians are keener than ever to see justice done – a potent and emotive agenda.
After Tom’s trial last year, he and Sally went on a safari to escape the media, political rancour and local outrage. Tom had been freed after only a month in prison because of a technicality – and also because it couldn’t be proved that he had killed the KWS officer in anything but self-defence. There were riots in Nairobi on his release. Many locals cited the case as exemplifying the rotten face of colonialism and accused the courts of having two standards: one for white aristocrats and another for everyone else.
After travelling around the country for three months, they returned to Sally’s house. Tom took to wearing a wig as a disguise. We all tried it on one afternoon, fooling around with an eccentric memento that bore testament to a time that was altogether more sinister. There were other jokes. The “a” had been substituted in Happy: it was now Hippy Valley. The banter was a distraction from Tom’s struggles: an overbearing father, a government that might have designs on the farm, a lack of purpose in life, a divorce, and the scandal of a previous murder charge.
Plans were hatched for a party to celebrate the family’s centenary in the area and Tom’s birthday. He’d be inviting much of Kenyan society. A trip to the UK was also plotted, with outings to Glyndebourne and other key summer events. It’s unlikely he’ll be leaving Kenya now.
Nakuru is a typical African town. Unprepossessing, poor streets are inhabited by locals trying to make a living hawking fruit and second-hand clothes. It’s the nearest large town to Naivasha – a world away from pergolas and drinks parties. On hearing the news that Tom had shot another man, I called Sally. She was with Tom and his lawyer in the Nakuru police station.
“It’s awful, just awful. It’s been a terrible accident. Tom was shooting at stray dogs. He shot the poacher by accident. He was hiding behind a bush. He couldn’t see him.” Her voice sounded hollow: “Pray for us, please, pray for us.”
A terrible accident – again? This latest death has reopened very raw wounds. Angry villagers blocked the highway and demanded that police act fairly. Human-rights activists called for justice and for the witnesses, in hiding after the incident, to be protected. Others accused the Delamere family of harassment and demanded that the government intervene. This is an issue that Kenyan politicians will not be able to ignore.
In whatever light this latest killing is seen, it has become as much a political scandal as a personal tragedy. Local radio stations have devoted hours to public phone-ins. The consensus is that Tom will get off scot-free again, and is only waiting to go home – like he did last time. Perhaps other heads will roll again. On Tom’s release in May 2005, Philip Murgor, a government lawyer acting for the attorney-general, was fired for withdrawing the murder charge. The current situation looks set to worsen.
A black friend of mine in Nairobi said: “Kenya’s past is coming back to haunt it from the most unlikely corners, and this case won’t easily go away. There’s too much riding on it.”
Two apparently innocent men, Robert Njoya and Samson ole Sisina, have lost their lives at the hands of a white aristocrat. But were they killed by a man who thinks of himself as above the law? To a degree, Tom represents the last vestiges of a beleaguered, landowning elite. He’s a complex character who leads a privileged life that some might find repellent. But that doesn’t make him a cold-blooded murderer. It’s for the courts to decide on the truth and unravel the story.
The heart of the grievance goes much deeper than one errant aristocrat. It digs into the issues of landownership and distribution and the incestuous relationship that has existed between Kenya and Britain for many years. Tragedy has become a way of life for the blessed and cursed in Happy Valley. The armed raids have shattered what was already a fragile existence. We could be looking at the last chapter of a dead empire.
In three months’ time, Tom will be handcuffed and taken from the fetid, overcrowded high-security prison to make his appearance in court, where he’ll stand charged with murder. All of Kenya will focus on a case that stands to radically change not just Cholmondeley’s life, but the way of life of many others.