On Their Shoulders: A Eulogy to Mzee Joshua Kiprono Cheserem, 1908-2009.
Nicholas Biwott gives thanks to a 'Remarkable Generation'
Mzee Joshua Kiprono Cheserem
We are here today to mark the passing and to celebrate a long life well lived, of my father, Cheserem, who died last Friday at the age of 101.
He was a devoted and loving husband, father, grandfather and great grand-father; a devout Christian; and also a great pioneer – farmer, land owner, trader, entrepreneur, philanthropist – who believed in the importance of education, hard work and discipline.
He was a man who by example and through sound advice greatly influenced all those whom he met. For his children he was, throughout his life, a great inspirational, motivating and guiding force.
When my father was born in 1908 in the Keiyo District, the internal combustion engine was in its infancy; it was only five years after Man first achieved powered flight; Kenya was called a ‘protectorate’ – not yet even a ‘colony’ and far from being an independent country; few Africans went to school; fewer still went on to become successful in business and of independent means.
When he was born the King Emperor ruled in London, the Kaiser in Germany and the Tsar in Russia.
His long lifetime encompassed the rise and fall of Fascism and Communism, and two World Wars and the Mau Mau ‘Emergency’.
He witnessed the rise of the automobile age and those early aeroplanes made of wood, fabric and wire develop into the intercontinental jets. He saw Einstein’s Theory of Relativity become the reality. He was still only 61 when Man walked on the Moon for the first time.
He not only witnessed but played his part in the struggle to independence and then growth to maturity of his country of birth.
And in the last year of his life an African-American, the son of a Kenyan-African who studied at university, was elected President of the United States of America.
All of this was unimaginable in the year of his birth. All of this, and more, he witnessed.
As a boy my father went to live with his elder brother Seugerut. Young and active he worked in a succession of jobs, learning as he went.
First he worked for Johannes Mouton who also employed his elder brother until Independence, then for Rawson Shaw advocates (who was later to become his lawyer), and later for Van de Venter (known as “Chepkilewet”).
Finally he worked with John de Waal a local farmer in Kapsegem now in Uasin Gishu District, first as a gardener and later as a cook.
John de Wall taught him about both farming and market gardening and ultimately encouraged him to start his own market gardening business, a profession in which he was to excel and make a fortune.
Thus it was that in 1939, on the advice of de Wall, that he returned to Keiyo District, now equipped with a good knowledge of farming and started his own market gardening business, one of the first Africans in his area to do so, catering for European settlers, growing and selling carrots, leaks, peas, broad beans, turnips, lettuces, and rhubarb – crops from more temperate climates.
He was thus both an innovator and a man with a good eye for business, and not afraid of trying something new.
He soon gained respect from all those he supplied and traded with – (Nanny Woodley and Rex Kirk, the owners of the ‘Farmers Mart’) – and he traded with Europeans as an equal, perhaps because he could get the best prices and quality.
Gradually he developed his business and began supplying the prosperous Asian stores of the day – Juma Hajee, Hassan Ali and Gurdut Singh.
From there, just after the war, he branched out into supplying some of the leading local hotels, the Kaptagat Arms Hotel, the Lincoln Hotel in Eldoret, the Wagon Wheel Hotel, the Duncan’s Tea Room and the prestigious Soy Club. He became their sole supplier of vegetables and he prospered.
He also supplied horticultural produce and milk to a number of the larger local schools – St Patrick High School, Kessup Girls Secondary School and Singore Girls Secondary School – and to the G.K. Prison at Tambach.
It was through his friendship with the manager of the Kaptagat Arms Hotel, Colonnel Stitt, that my father was encouraged to buy his first car, a Buick. This he found to be expensive and inappropriate for his business so he sold it and bought a three-ton Ford V8 and thereafter launched into the transport business.
His contemporaries in the transport business included, among others, Kite Tiren and Joel Chebor. This was an active generation of go-ahead Kenyans who matched to some extent the local Europeans for business acumen.
The success of my father’s growing businesses spread wealth in his local community and the area flourished.
I began working with him in the 1950’s while I was still at school, learning from him and trading on my account, which he encouraged me to do.
It was at this time that together with other members of the Cooperative Society of Keiyo my father ventured into regional trading – to Uganda (and through Kampala to Port Portal), the eastern Congo and Rwanda – working with prominent local farmers such as William Chir Chir, Kibogy, Maset, Tireito Chemaiyo Sawe, Rubem Katam, Kiratu, Atanas Kande Kibor, and Kurumei among others.
My father’s initial capital had been based on being a big cattle owner and throughout these years he continued to develop substantial herds of cattle, sheep and goats. We grew up herding these flocks in keeping with Kalenjin tradition.
He developed also an active trade in hides and skins with three shops in local trading centres – two in Kaptarakwa Market and one in Iten Town.
His continued and growing success was based on an understanding and knowledge of quality control taught to him by William Spencer, the influential local District Agricultural Officer, a man who encouraged progressive people and with whom my father became good friends.
Together they spearheaded the ‘contour system’ of terracing and irrigation, and the planting of trees and Napier grass to stop soil erosion.
They also grew the natural herbicide Pyrethrum and introducing new breeds of cattle and sheep that produced higher yields – Grade cattle, Friesians and Ayreshires, and Marino sheep.
With another English friend, a farmer by the name of Mr Begg, he went to Molo and the Uplands to source apples, plums and peaches and together they developed orchards and a tea plantation on an experimental basis.
His influence on his children was not confined to teaching the importance of education for all, hard work, discipline, honesty and integrity, and good business sense.
A man of moderation in all things he participated in local politics. He had an incisive and inquiring mind with an ability to chart the right course of action and predict what would happen in future. Throughout my political life I always valued his unerringly sound advice.
He was a friend of Gitau Kamande at Kaptagat. During the Mau Mau ‘Emergency’ he was given permission by the colonial District Commissioner to retain Kikuyus to work for him in safety.
Successful though he was, our father never forgot his duty or his faith.
He was a founder member of several school committees and cooperative societies, a member of the Land Board and chairman of the Toot Water Project.
He helped Petro Leshaw and others to build Mokwo Primary School where I was to attend school, and later at Kitany. He was also the founder and for many years the chairman, of the Biwott School. He was, indeed, a pioneer of local education.
Together with our mother he instilled in us the importance of discipline and education – education for all , rich and poor, boys and girls, regardless of tribe or regional background.
I was sent to school at a young age. The teachers at the time were reluctant to admit me because of my tender age. I well remember my father carrying me on his back through swollen rivers to make sure I got to school! And he encouraged me to continue my education through to university.
A devout member of the African Inland Church – he never missed church and was a founder of Toot A.I.C. Church – he brought his children up in faith and contributed readily to the building of churches in the neighbourhood.
An independent man of independent mind, he led a life of discipline, duty and hard work. He did not smoke, or drink alcohol. All his life he ate a healthy traditional diet, disliked unnecessary consumption and took only natural remedies such as Sabaganga.
To the end of his days he was a healthy and vigorous man who worked in his garden, on his farm, tended his cattle and managed with great involvement in his transport business.
Throughout his life, and again to the end, he was surrounded by family, friends and the church faithful.
His was a generation in which marriage was for life, in which husband and wife became soul mates and I know that he looked forward to being reunited with his wife, our mother, Maria Soti, and to the old friends of his generation.
Perhaps it is fitting that for a man whose life was so involved with farming that we should now recall the words of the bible that ‘for all things there is a season… a season to sow and a season to reap...’
That time has come. I rejoice that the life of my father, Joshua Kiprono Cheserem, produced such a great and abundant harvest.