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.
Just as the whites before them, subsequent Kenyan presidents have favored their own tribe, ensuring that resentment over land ownership has continued to build. It helped fuel the killing that followed a disputed election in late 2007.
Today the estates owned by descendents of white settlers look modest in comparison to the tracts of land bought, or commonly seized, by corrupt politicians since independence, but white Kenyans still live a privileged existence.
Many rely on the land for their continuing wealth, running dairy farms or coffee plantations or establishing conservancies to attract tourists. They have black servants, and some send their children to expensive private schools in England. Cholmondeley went to Eton, one of Britain’s poshest schools.
But ordinary Kenyans in that area live a far more meager existence.
For example, stonemason Robert Njoya, 37, used to hunt to supplement a diet that often consisted of little more than stodgy maize porridge. But with the land that surrounded him in the Rift Valley owned and fenced, hunting was poaching.
One afternoon in May 2006 Njoya and some friends took their bows and arrows, pangas (machetes) and dogs and set off for Soysambu, the Cholmondeley family estate on the edge of a soda lake where Great White Pelicans nest. They found a gazelle in a trap so Njoya cut off its head and gutted it then threw the carcass over his shoulders.
When Cholmondeley stumbled upon the gang of poachers he took the Winchester bolt-action rifle he carried to protect against deadly buffalo, dropped to one knee and fired. He killed two of the dogs and also hit Njoya, who later bled to death.
The high-ceilinged and wood-paneled number four courtroom of the Nairobi High Court was packed the morning of May 7 for the verdict. In the front row sat Cholmondeley’s parents, his father determinedly reading a trashy thriller and doing his best to ignore the ranks of
photographers and cameramen pointing their lenses at him. Next to the elder Cholmondeley sat Serah Njoya, the dead man’s wife.
During the trial Cholmondeley said he had felt threatened by the poachers and shot in self-defense. He also surprised the court by claiming that his friend — a leading Kenyan rally driver called Carl "Flash" Tundo — had been carrying a gun, too, and may have fired the
Dismissing this latter part of the defense as “an afterthought,” Judge Muga Apondi, in wig and robes, all but called Cholmondeley a liar. “[His] version of events was not correct or accurate,” he said. However, the judge concluded that Cholmondeley showed neither malice nor forethought in the shooting and downgraded the offense from murder to manslaughter.
When the verdict was read Cholmondeley, standing a full head taller than the guards who flanked him, simply lowered his head. His girlfriend, sitting nearby, cried. His lawyers say they will wait for the sentence before launching an appeal.
In the meantime Cholmondeley is back in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where he is the only white prisoner and sleeps crammed into a dank 7-foot by 9-foot cell. It is a far cry from the sprawling colonial house surrounded by forested hills and plains that he calls home.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct a spelling error.
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