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EAST AFRICA WOMEN'S LEAGUE
Seven years after the founding of the EAWL in Nairobi the first up-country Branch was started in Thika in May 1925 at a meeting held at the Blue Posts Hotel Chaired by Mrs. Maud Hawtrey. It was quickly followed in 1926 by Ruiru and Makuyu/Mituburi Branches, but now these two which lasted until 1963 and 1973 respectively, have been re-absorbed into Thika and once again we cover a wide area from the banks of the Tana River to the outskirts of Nairobi at Ruaraka.
Much may have changed this 83 years, but like the Flame Trees, which are still abundant in the countryside, the ‘wild ladies’ of Thika remain active, enthusiastic supporters of the League. Branch records from the old days show that we still do the same things; for instance in 1929 there was a fete in the grounds of Government House to raise funds for the Children’s Society, and Ruiru Branch sent “Fruit, coffee, vegetables, pigeons and cakes” to the EAWL Market Stall at this fete, an interesting assortment of produce! They ran a branch of the EAWL library; they raised money for the local charities through entertainment; collected clothes for distribution to distressed areas; They sent “motions to Council” urging that the EAWL demand a greater Police protection for women as a result of recent assaults on Thika women now resident in Nairobi; and complained about the Balloting system!
Regular annual events were a Children’s Christmas Party and a Barbeque on Empire Day.During the war they did their bit even though so far away, and raised money for Comforts for Troops, supported the Red Cross War Charities Shop, sent money to London for “Bombed Babies”, sent sacks of warm clothing to London for people in the bombed areas, opened their homes to soldiers on leave and made “glory bags” for the troops. Thika branch also took over the care of the War Cemetery at Thika.
All three branches were involved in starting schools in their districts; in Makuyu the EAWL building where they had run a Women’s Guild was turned into a school in 1954. In Ruiru the Kindergarten School was started in 1958 with the funds raised by the district and the League; and in Thika also in 1958 they helped to establish a primary school which is now absorbed into their state system.
n 1926 the Salvation Army began its long association with Thika by opening a small nursery school, which was followed by a Church in 1928. Then in 1946 they opened their primary school for the blind, in 1962 their Farm Training centre, and in 1963 their famous Joytown, home for beggars, centre for crippled children and the rehabilitation workshop for crippled adults, was opened. In 1967 the secondary school for the blind children was started and in 1978 the secondary school for the Physically Handicapped. The Branch has for many years assisted the Salvation Army in raising funds for equipment and sponsoring students in all these centres. There are many handicapped children in Kenya and the little we do to help is but a drop in the ocean.
Like everywhere else in Kenya some remarkable women lived in the Thika area, amongst those especially connected with the three Branches were Mrs. Madeline Coverdale who was Chairman of Thika for 10 years; and was made a member of Honour in 1977.
She was the League’s Prison Visitor and for many years went weekly to Kamiti and Mathare Women’s Prison Wings where she supervised conditions and saw to it that distress and suffering were alleviated as much as possible. The Harries family of course have a very long association with Thika; Doris was on the Committee in 1938 until well into the 1980s.
Her parents, the Watermans, used to run the New Stanley Hotel in the days when a five-course lunch was Shs. 3/50 only! Doris remembered coming out to Thika on the train during the First War for swimming parties at the Blue Posts Hotel, she eventually met Bobs Harries and went to live at Karamani amongst the pineapples, macadamias, coffee, fruit and flowers for which they were to become famous. Daughter Moira, granddaughters Lynne, Tracy, and Carol all became members as well as daughter-in-law Pauline.
One of the earliest DVP’s in Makuyu was Mrs. Mabel Rutherfoord, mother of Malindi’s Joan Goodhart. Joan’s father, Ernest, with Mr. Swift started the first sisal plantations in Makuyu in 1906 on their Punda Milia (meaning zebra) Estate. Their only means of transport was one shared bicycle, which is so beautifully depicted in the Makuyu tapestry.
Of course our most famous connection is Elspeth Huxley whose childhood memories are so nostalgically recalled in The Flame Trees of Thika. ‘Nellie’, Elspeth’s mother was a member of the League when she lived in Njoro.
A truly outstanding Branch Chairman, or DVP as they were known, was Mrs. Dorcas Aubrey of Ruiru. She ran Ruiru 1930 to 1951, having arrived in the district in 1913. She started Red Cross classes and Cooking classes for members, and then in 1933 held twice weekly sewing classes for African women in her large, and presumably disused, turkey house, where 20 women attended regularly and were treated to tea and cakes, and a little talk on cleanliness and general welfare. It is now a very rare occurrence for a dirty mother or baby to arrive. The class has learned to knit and sew most useful little garments which the occasionally sell amongst themselves”. Mrs. Aubrey was awarded the Coronation Medals of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, and the M.B.E. It was said of her “That she had a way of making the young people think that life was not all play and sports, and that we had our responsibilities towards less fortunate people, and were needed to give our support in her efforts to help”.
These words are as apt today and perhaps provide a fitting end to this short account of some of the activities of Ruiru, Makuyu/Mitubiri and Thika Branches in the past.