Kenya’s Last Cowboys

“Now, please, you must believe me when I tell you this,” Roger said, leaning in close off his rickety bar stool. His breath was choked with smoke and his shirt, unbuttoned halfway down his tan, graying chest, billowed in the evening breeze. “However,” he paused for a moment, his face getting somber as he took another sip of his beer, “promise me you won’t tell a soul.”

It had been a warm, lethargic evening filled with grumbling laments and adolescent style hijinks. Roger and his friend of 40 years, Andy Barbour, sat on their stools at Stilts Guesthouse on the southern coast of Kenya. Between beers, spontaneous games sprung up to puncture the monotony. A card game I had joined near the bar was interrupted when marbles began whizzing by our heads. Somebody had found a pair of slingshots. It wasn’t malicious, rather simply a contest to see who could hit some coconuts hanging about fifty feet away. Our safety wasn’t considered because, in general, the concept so rarely was.

Roger laughed as I flattened myself against the couch and scrambled behind the line of fire. “These things they do,” a woman at the bar told me, “while most people would hesitate, worried about reaction or hurting someone, these people don’t think twice about it. They do whatever they need to feel alive. It is profound boredom meeting extreme privilege.”

This as the world of the KC, also known as the Kenyan Cowboy. An insular group, descending from white English families that came in the early 1900s, is privy to both adoration and contempt within broader Kenyan society. When the first generation arrived, Kenya was primarily made up of tribes with expansive tracts of unsettled land. The English settlers, most of them wealthy social misfits, were seeking a level of freedom that turn-of-the-century London did not provide. One notorious group, the Happy Valley Set, settled around Lake Naivasha in the 1920s. As the years progressed and the West faced economic decline, the number of settlers swelled to around 20,000. Various scandals, including drug use, affairs, wife swapping, suicide and murder followed the settlers for years. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s during the Mau Mau uprising (which was followed by Kenya’s bid for independence in the 60s) that the Happy Valley lifestyle began to shift.

The focal point of the KC community began evolving into that of development and conservation. Many members saw themselves as intrinsically linked to the land and worked together to create a number of conservation parks, agencies and some of the very first safari companies. With this they also continued managing a number of farms and cattle ranching. It was here, in the middle of nowhere, that they raised their children and developed intricate networks among themselves. While boarding school was de rigeur, almost all of their children returned to Kenya to work on the family business, or expand their own entrepreneurial companies.

This “golden age” of living in Kenya is spoken of often with acute nostalgia for the way things were. It was time of incredible wealth and almost absolute freedom. If there was an adrenaline soaked activity available, it as attempted. Airplane clubs, skydiving, rally car races and expedition groups of all kinds were formed. East Africa became their playground and the opportunities to make money and mischief were sought after at every juncture.

“We worked extremely hard,” Roger insisted. “During the day we were nothing but business. We had a task and we went to it. But the nights, in fact, were quite long.” He smiled slowly, “This, of course, can all be cured with a bit of ganja. One night we tied chess pieces to balloons and filled them up with helium. The roof, you see, had this checkered pattern, so naturally we attached some strings and spent the evening laying on the floor, smoking ganja, and playing ceiling chess.”

Good natured stories such as these abound. A group of older KCs can sit around for hours, endlessly reliving the heyday of their lives in Kenya. Yet, at the same time, a much darker vein runs through the community. For every lighthearted story of harmless debauchery, considerably more malevolent anecdotes begin to crop up. A particular code of conduct infuses itself within the group. This code is not to be taken lightly, or thoughtlessly breached. For those that do so, there seems to be little mercy. One KC told me of a time when he found out his cook had stolen some Tanzanian shillings from him. “It was as useless as confetti to me,” he confessed, “but just the thought that he was stealing was inexcusable. I was angry, so angry. I knew I had to have some sort of revenge.”

It wasn’t long before a solution cropped up. “Have you ever heard of safari ants?” he asked me. Safari ants, which live primarily in East and Central Africa, come in droves, and like locusts, eat everything in their path. When they swarm, it is both dangerous and unyielding. “So this night, we had some Safari ants, and I knew they were headed right for the cook,” he told me. “I just sat in my truck with the radio on. I listened to music and I smoked and I watched because I knew in time they’d make their way to him.” He smiled and laughed as he played back the moment in his mind. “Wouldn’t you know they started marching up his leg. And I see him, and he starts to jerk and dance and I know he must be getting bitten all over. And I just sat there with my cigarette and laughed and laughed. But you know, he stole from me. You simply cannot do that.”

Certainly the idea of any sort of injustice, real or imagined can lead to hours of incredulous complaints. That they would be refused any sort of service or accommodation is unthinkable. Such attitudes have led to a pronounced reputation in Kenyan society of KC’s being rather insufferable. From expats to indigenous Kenyans, you often receive a similar reaction when asking about the KC community. “They’ve grown up with zero accountability,” one expat on the coast told me. “Thirty years ago, the divide between those with money and the locals was colossal. There were no consequences simply because of the amount of money that existed within the group. During the days of colonialism they were practically untouchable. Come to Kenya and feel like a king, was the idea, and so they all did. Of course that is all changing now that the power structure within the country is advancing. Although their children still seem to party as hard as their parents did.”

The third generation of KCs, now in their early to mid 20s, have a much different reputation than their parents. Although there are a number who have followed in their footsteps, working hard and engaging conservancy programs around Kenya, there is a certain, and fairly large subset which, is used to a level of accommodation and wealth. They are known for spending much of their time drinking, partying, and trying to bed tourists. “There’s a typical KC boy experience” one woman told me. She’d been dating a KC happily for quite some time, but it didn’t stop her from disparaging others within the group. “One girl I know, she dated a KC pretty seriously after spending some time in Kenya. They were exclusive and talked about living together. So after returning to the US she started making plans to come back to Kenya to visit him. He seemed to be on board with the whole idea. So come Christmas time, she said goodbye to her family, flew to Kenya to see him, only to have him tell her when she landed that he had taken up with another girl. He apparently couldn’t be bothered before her flight to say anything at all about it. That level of apathy is really quite typical”

However, while the 20 something men in the KC community are happy to shop around the tourist and expat section of society, the women of the group remain mostly insulated. The idea of a KC woman seriously dating outside the group is unlikely. The sheer thought of her dating a black Kenyan is unfathomable to most. “It just simply wouldn’t happen,” one woman, close to the coastal KC community told me. “They really resent most outsiders that try to get into the group. I’ve met a few of the women and just forget it, I’ve never met such an closed off set in my life.”

With a sense of competition infused into almost every aspect of life, it’s not difficult to see why KC women have such a difficult time with the tourists and expats brought around by the men. It narrows the pool, at least for the time being. Because while many will date and play outside of the circle, many will eventually marry within it.

For a number of the kids, life is little more than an endless party. Daily activities become a constant game of chicken and to show any fear at all is an inexcusable sign of weakness. Taking risks that are considered extreme by most Western standards are just par the course for them. “You have to almost die quite a few times” one expat told me. “Then you’ll finally start to understand the level of personal freedom that these people live with.”

However, as Kenya begins to emerge in the global market, the dream of the KC lifestyle has started its slow descent into extinction. New land laws mean that the huge tracts of lands that were once public are now considered privately owned by the Kenyan Government. In a sense, for the KC community to maintain their level of personal freedom, it would mean that most of Kenya would have to continue living within a certain level of poverty. With strides made in reigning in corruption and the growth in the middle class stronger than ever, the current KC lifestyle is no longer sustainable.

Interestingly enough, it might be their own reticence to engage the rest of the country that will be the final nail in their coffin. Asking African workers about who the KC’s are almost always yields the same response. “They don’t hire much outside of their own group,” a Kenyan named Paul told me. “I mean, they are fine, I guess. Just don’t make them angry. When they are angry they can be really vicious, very scary”.

This disconnect with indigenous Kenyans is also felt by the older generations in the KC circles. “My employee,” one KC lamented at a bar, “she had no cause to be angry. No reason to be upset, and she just walked off her job the other day. Not only that, but she took the entire staff with her. She poisoned them against me. I have no idea what her problem was. Perhaps she was unhappy with her life.” It seemed practically unfathomable to him that there might be better opportunities in both treatment and wage elsewhere.

“Their ultimate demise began when Kenyans took control of their own country,” one local told me. “The term KC has become much more negative now. Whereas once it was a term which denoted a genuine spirit of adventure and freedom, it now denotes a genuine spirit of being rich and being able to do whatever you want.” Just the past decade has brought substantial change for those living within the KC groups. At one point they were the only ones in the country with any real amount of money. But with aid and development programs pouring into Kenya, the price of everything has grown exponentially. From drug bribes to land bids, constraint has become the constant enemy in what was once an open, and fairly lawless, market.

Still, there are plenty of KC’s to be found if you know where to look. Safari companies, adventure groups, pilots, rally car races, and boating outfits are often owned by those with the distinctive KC accent. While their ability to remain above the law is certainly dwindling, Kenya is opening up with new opportunities for those who care to invest properly. With projected GDP growth set to outdo current global leaders by 2020, it is simply a matter of adapting to the new paradigm within the country. Yet when one is used to a certain level of privilege and mobility in society, such shifts can be extremely difficult. The future of the group, as it stands now, will have an uphill battle in terms of reigning in the reckless behaviors that make them so infamous throughout the country. The debate amongst those who adore and despise the KC community will soon come to a head. One side insists the KC’s have a genuine love for the land. The other counters that their love is primarily based on their position in society. As power and privilege is challenged, there is little doubt the answer will be forthcoming in the next decade. Until then, KCs will continue to congregate around bars, sharing beers and speaking of a time that has long since passed them by.

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Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

10 thoughts on “Kenya’s Last Cowboys”

  1. I went to boarding school in Kenya and one of my classmates was a white Kenyan who would have come from this background–and he makes much more sense as a person now! His aunt founded an animal orphanage located near the Nairobi game park, but he himself seemed uninterested in the world at large. He struck me as being the player/partier type, but I didn’t know him well and we basically ignored each other.

  2. This is amazing and I dont know which part to comment on first – the fact that this group exist, why they exist, or the many other levels of colonialism, privilege, sexism,racism-etc. that are a part of it. I still don’t think I fully understand the group, but its amazing that you wrote about it because frankly, its not something I would know about. I only hope that this is the first of many other similar pieces on your world wind trip.

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