Taita Taveta World War I Battle fields are now tourist attraction sites

Maktau commonwealth cemetery where Indian forces allied to the British were buried after they were killed by Germans.
Maktau commonwealth cemetery where Indian forces allied to the British were buried after they were killed by Germans.

A century ago, a fierce global war centred in Europe was witnessed. At the end of the four-year madness, more than nine million combatants and seven million civilians were killed.

This year, the world is commemorating a centenary since the Word War 1 erupted after the British declared a war against Germany in August 4, 1914.

The real cause of the war is said to be the insurgence of imperialism in Europe during the 1890s.

However, the immediate trigger of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary.

He was killed by Yugoslavia nationalist Gabrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and this set off a diplomatic crisis after Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia.

The ultimatum invoked the uprise of international alliances formed in the previous decades and within weeks, the major world economic powers, allies of the United Kingdom rose against the Germans and sooner than expected the conflict spread around the world.

Africans, by that time under the colonial governments, were not aware of the crisis in Europe and unknowingly they were dragged into the battle fields fighting alongside their colonisers.

In East Africa, the war was declared between the British East Africa (Kenya) and the German East Africa (Tanzania) on August 15, eleven days after the outbreak in Europe.

Taita Taveta became the battle field because the region lies on the border between Kenya (British territory) and Tanzania (Germany territory).

James Willson, a historian and the only certified battle field tour guide in Kenya, says Taita Taveta has about 35 sites where the four-year battle took place in East Africa.

Unknown to many people, Kenya’s Taita and Taveta hills were used as hideouts, battle fields, army camps and forts during the first world war.

Some of these areas include Maktau, Salaita Hill, Mashoti ,Taveta town, Voi town among others.

Willson, also the author of the Guerrillas of Tsavo, a book that captures the WWI, the construction of the railway in Kenya and Africans participation in the WWI, says the battle fields are tourists’ attraction sites now.

“In Europe these battle fields have been preserved and countries reap millions from the tourists who come to get a glimpse of the First World War,” he says.

The East African campaign on August 15, 1914 was instigated by the German soldiers from Tanzania who invaded the British Taveta border post, killing the guard, Murimi Mwiti, who was manning the post.

British District Commissioner at that time, Hugh La Fontaine, became the first person to shoot the German commander Fredrick Broecker, who was commanding an army of 200 schutztruppe askaris that killed Mwiti.

“Broeker became the first German casualty in the war and later in the day he was pronounced dead. He was buried at the Taveta commonwealth grave,” says Willson.

The British soldiers at Taveta post retreated to Voi after the German invasion into the territory.

They later set a base in Maktau with about 20,000 soldiers as they prepared to attack the Germans who had fortified the Salaita Hill.

The British army comprised Taitas, Abaluhyia from western Kenya other Kenyan natives, the Indians and South Africans who had come to fight alongside them.

The Taita residents could not pronounce English words like ‘Slaughter’, ‘March now’ and ‘no more shooting’, hence Maktau (March now), Salaita hill (Slaughter hill) and Mashoti (no more shooting) camps got their names.

“These areas got their names that way,” says Willson amid deep laughter as he takes a group of journalist around the battle fields.

He says despite the British having a very big army of about 300,000 askaris, they were defeated twice by the Germans (15,000 shutztruppe) at Salaita Hill.

It was not until November 25, 1918 that the Germans surrendered in Abercon Northern Rodhesia (Zambia) after they were pushed out of East Africa by the British and British allied forces.

Salaita hill has rich history where the artifacts of the WW1 including the Pegasus guns, which are now placed outside the Fort Jesus in Mombasa, were found.

Another common feature in the Taita battle fields is the famous Baobab tree, which was believed to be a hideout for a German female sniper during the war.

A German widow, who is said to have lost her husband in the war, is said to have hid in a hollow part of the tree and shot at British soldiers who passed-by.

The tree is said to be more than 450 years and the bullets which were fired to it by British forces left deep marks that are still evident on its bark to date.

Taita Taveta Tourism executive Stephen Masamo says, “This baobab holds the record of the most shot at tree in the world.”

He says the county has started a process of gazetting all the sites that were used during WW1 as tourists’ attraction sites.

The DC’s house in Taveta, where the first bullet was fired, is currently being used by prison wardens.

Masamo says they have written a letter to the National Museums of Kenya and the Prisons department to compel the wardens to vacate the house as it is a national monument.

On August 28, the county of Taita Taveta will host major celebrations on the slopes of Salaita Hill to commemorate a centenary since the WW1.

Kenya Tourism Board, Taita Taveta County and the Sarova Hotels have partnered in the preparations for this event which will see 21 flags of different nations that participated in the war being flagged up the salaita hill.

KTB Managing Director Ndegwa Muriithi says this centenary celebration will be a new dawn in Taita’s tourism industry.

He says for a long time, wildlife safaris was the only tourism product in Taita Taveta. However, the battle field tourism is now the newest product in Kenya’s tourism industry.

“We are upbeat that this new product will supplement the wildlife safaris and attract more foreign and local tourists to Taita Taveta,” he says.

A website, www.100.taitataveta.go.ke has already been launched to market the battle field tourism. The website was launched in Voi’s Dan Mwazo Hall by the county government of Taita Taveta on August 2.

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