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Kenya angered by killing

White aristocrat found guilty of manslaughter in case about land, race and inequality.

NAIROBI — All of Kenya has been speculating about the murder trial of the tall, white aristocrat who shot dead a poacher caught on his sprawling estate.

“He will be released,” said Peter Karinga, a taxi driver hanging around the High Court in downtown Nairobi to hear the verdict against aristocrat Thomas Cholmondeley. "Not because he’s not guilty and not because he’s white, but because he has money.”

In the end the judge proved the taxi man wrong. Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumlee") was convicted of manslaughter. The 40-year-old scion of Kenya’s most famous settler family will be sentenced May 12 for killing a poacher he caught on his family’s 56,000-acre Rift Valley estate in 2006. The sentence for manslaughter ranges from three years to life imprisonment.

Since Cholmondeley’s arrest three years ago, Kenya has been in thrall. The case is not just about a white man killing a black man: It is about wealth, inequality and land.

And Cholmondeley has a notorious history. In 2005 he shot dead another black man on his farm, a Masai game warden named Samson Oli Sisina. The attorney general threw that case out, leaving Cholomondeley free without charges. That result left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Kenyans who saw Cholmondeley’s release as proof that the rich and the privileged are above the law.

When Cholmondeley killed the second poacher in 2006, that was too much. Not even Cholomondeley's illustrious pedigree and expensive lawyers could prevent him from standing trial for murder.

The popular anger against Cholmondeley is not just about a white man who killed two blacks. It is also about continuing resentment over the vast tracts of Kenyan land held by the Cholmondeley family and other British descendants.

When the first white British settlers — among them Hugh Cholmondeley, Thomas’ great grandfather and the third Baron Delamere — arrived in the early 1900s they seized about 7 million acres of prime Kenyan land for themselves.

They established vast holdings and pushed the indigenous population from their land. The most popular areas were the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya, dubbed the White Highlands during colonial days. Other settlers, such as Lord Delamere, made their estates in the Rift Valley.

With independence in 1963 came a changing of the political guard, but not a change in the  systematic inequality, particularly when it came to land. Many white settlers sold and moved on, but it was only the Kenyan elites who benefited from this land redistribution.