Jasmine Atieno @sparkleMine
The first shot that signified the start of the World War I land campaigns in the Eastern African region was fired on the 15 of August, 1914, a shot which took the life of F Broecker, a German soldier, whose grave sits in the Taveta Commonwealth War Graves Commission, European WWI cemetery.
This happened at the border town of Taveta in Taita Taveta county. The shot was fired by the acting district commissioner, Hugh la Fontain from the old British East Africa police station, hitting a German soldier called Lt Boelle.
The year 2014 marked the centenary to the start of WWI in Taita Taveta county. It led to a great battle between German ruled Tanganyika against British protected colonies in British East Africa.
Battlefield tourism has taken root in Taita Taveta county as the battlefield areas remained alive and accessible, despite the fact that very little effort has been made by the government to secure them as part of the national attractions.
After taking a journey through the main battlefield sites, which are located between Voi and Taita Taveta, it is evident that a lot of activity took place here and the evidence has remained intact to ready for a historical reaping.
Sarova hotels have a headstart in battlefield tourism as two of their hotels, Sarova salt lick game lodge and Taita Hill Game Lodge, are situated in the county.
“We felt like we could create a product out of this. And our pilot function was when we celebrated 100 years after the end of WWI, and after that interest grew and we hope to get more stakeholders including the government and several state heads,” says Lodge manager, Sarova Salt Lick and Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge, Mr Willie Mwadilo, who is also a trained and certified battlefield guide.
Some of the visible sites within the area include Mashoti Fort, a name the locals drew from ‘no more shooting’. Here stood a fort built by the Royal North Lancashire, regiment in late 1915. As much as it is eroded, the trenches are still visible and accessible to tourists. The hotel has also put up a memorial grave in Mashoti area to honour all the African soldiers killed in WWI with no marked graves.
The second site is known as mile 27 on the Voi Maktau military line. The name Maktau was drawn from the line ‘mark time,’ as per the marching language of the soldiers. The locals who did not speak English only heard ‘Maktau’ thus giving the area its name. This area saw a great hand-to-hand battle between German saboteurs and a section of the 25th battalion, Royal North Lancashire regiment, which resulted in fatalities from both sides. The first airfield in East Africa was also located in Maktau.
The third site is the Sniper Baobab tree. You do not know much about the war in Taita Taveta if you have not heard the legendary story of the German widow who was holed up in this tree, killing with grenades British troops who tried to attack the Salaita hills. Hell hath no fury because she is said to have killed over two hundred thousand British soldiers, all unaware. Although there is not very much that was revealed by the Germans about this mysterious woman, as even her name remains hidden… all we know is that her suicide mission was successful in avenging her husband’s death.
Salaita hill is strategically located between the Pare Mountains in the south and Mount Kilimanjaro in the west. It was taken over by German forces and turned into a defensive position in 1914. The hill was attacked thrice by the British, who were beaten off with heavy losses each time. This gave it the name slaughter hill, which the locals later turned into Salaita hill as per the local Taita language.
Mahoo area is another battlefield site with close views of the Mahoo hills, the Mahoo Fort and The Observation Fort. It is at the Observation fort in 1985 that the first newspaper in East Africa ‘The Taveta Chronicles’ was also printed. Very few people actually know about the Taveta Chronicles, with the assumption that the Standard Newspaper was the first newspaper in Kenya. The copies were available at the National Museum of Kenya until a few years ago, but it is almost impossible to get a copy of it right now. The only surviving copy is available at the artifacts museum at the Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge.
“We engaged the National Museums of Kenya and about 11 out of 13 sites have been gazetted, including two from our sanctuary. But they are moving a little bit slow, as none have been marked, so a lot more has to be done. Battlefield tourism as a product is gaining popularity and with visitors coming in specifically to view the sites. Some of our artifacts in the museum have actually been donated by visitors who were impressed by the idea,” adds Mr Willie Mwadilo.