On 19th October 1905 – in a purported peace meeting that took a rather ugly turn – legendary Nandi medicineman and prophet, Koitalel Arap Samoei was murdered by the British, bringing to an end Kenya’s most formidable resistance against the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway.
For 15 years, the Nandi had waged a spirited war against the British who were trying to construct the now defunct Lunatic Line railway through the Nandi country.
Fast forward this week, barely a fortnight after President Uhuru Kenyatta rode in the inaugural Standard Gauge Railway train that replaces the Lunatic Express, a foundation stone was laid for the new Koitalel Samoei University at exactly the same spot where colonial soldier, intelligence officer and ornithologist, Col. Richard Meinertzhagen killed Nandi’s most celebrated Orkoiyot.
Arguably, whether by default or by design, the commissioning of a centre of excellence immortalizing Koitalel’s name, even before the dust settles on the SGR – whose predecessor the son of Samoei viciously fought – presents a classic case of history being rewritten.
So, how exactly has the new varsity and the SGR redone Koitalel’s story, 117 years later?
THE IRON SNAKE
To begin with, it was Koitalel who warned the Nandi about the Meter Gauge Railway, and led them to fight it, long before it crossed the Great Rift Valley at the turn of the 19th Century. In his own words, the son of Kimyole Arap Turukat warned his people about an iron snake that would terrorize them.
A century later, as the new varsity revives Koitalel’s legacy, the Nandi have welcomed with open arms, the new version of the iron snake, the SGR which is set to crisscross Kalenjinland not long from now. The construction of the Nairobi-Naivasha stretch of the SGR is already in progress.
Secondly, whereas the biggest opponent of the old line was a Kalenjin, one of the SGR’s biggest proponent is another Kalenjin; and one who coincidentally shares Koitalel’s second name, Samoei.
And Deputy President William Ruto – who is by any standards a perfect reincarnation of Koitalel – is more passionate about the SGR than he has ever been about any other project.
NANDI HOSTILITY IS NO MORE
Thirdly, just like the construction of the Lunatic Express was funded and supervised by foreigners – the British who Koitalel and his people could hear none of – it is the Chinese who availed funds and are overseeing the building of the SGR.
The Indian coolies of the 1900s have been replaced by the ching’ chong’ speaking fellows. But this time round, the Nandi have no hostility towards the new foreigners whatsoever.
MADE FOR THE RAILWAY
Finally, whether you are talking about the old line – christened the Lunatic Line by Charles Miller in 1971 – or the SGR now known as Madaraka Express, Koitalel’s name appears to be a permanent feature in Kenya’s railway story.
So was Koitalel Arap Samoei made for the railway or the vice versa? Only time can tell.