Nakuruitis – The Story behind the name

Did you know that there is a disease known as Nakuruitis?

Used to refer to a deficiency of iron supplements in cattle, Nakuruitis was discovered in 1925 by research workers from the Rowett Institute of Aberdeen, Scotland. The term which is derived from the name Nakuru can be traced back to Lord Delamere and his agricultural exploits within the East African Protectorate at the early turn of the 20th century.

The story of Delamere and his time in Kenya is one that plays out like something from a romantic thriller; enchanting and exhilarating. His first encounter with the region was in 1896 after he set out on a hunting trip through Somaliland and eventually entered the EA protectorate from the north. In 1897 he arrived at the lush highlands of central Kenya and was so breath taken, he decided to permanently move back to the country four years later.

A young man of 31, he had with him nothing but an over-zealous attitude, an unbound sense of ambition and as with all young men, an uncertain future ahead.

In May 1903, he applied for a land grant which was denied by the acting Governor Sir Charles Eliot on grounds that the land in question was too far from any population center. Relentlessly, he filed another formal request for 100,000 acres near the Naivasha area. This too was denied by the government over fears that it would stir up conflict with the Maasai people.

Unperturbed by the refusal, he tried yet again and was eventually granted a 99 year lease on 100,000 acres around the Nakuru and Njoro area that he named Equator Ranch.  For this he was required to pay a £200 annual rent and to spend £5,000 on the land over the first five years of occupancy.

Lord Delamere 1909

Lord Delamere ( far right ) reading an address of welcome to Sir Percy Girouard and staff, 1909

So how do you prevent your enchanting tale from taking a rather unfortunate twist?  Well, sadly, you don’t, you just sit and wait for the storm to abate no matter how long it takes.

And as in the case of Delamere, he was soon to realize that obtaining the necessary land was relatively easy compared to the problems of developing it.

In the coming years, Delamere would begin farming on what was entirely virgin land. Attempting by trial and error to establish exotic livestock and crop farming. He invested heavily in cattle and sheep farming, going to the extent of importing various breeds from all around the world and establishing cross breeding stations.

However, it wasn’t long before a strange phenomenon begun to manifest itself; Cattle grazing over part of his farm would seem malnourished and begin to waste away mysteriously, despite the fact that there was plenty of grass and grazing land.

After many years of unsuccessfully trying to get to the root of this problem, it was discovered that much of the land purchased was deficient in minerals, mostly iron. Land which for the most part lay in the Nakuru area, hence the term Nakuruitis.

Interestingly enough, the Maasai with whom Delamere had closely interacted had known of its existence and avoided the Nakuru, Njoro pastures on account of it. Delamere had been in possession of this land for some time before he discovered that part of his farm was called in Maasai ‘angata natai emmin which roughly translated to mean, the plain of the female rhinoceros without any milk ( it was said that the deficiency was so high, even rhinos feeding on the grass could not suckle their young )

Eventually, the disease was overcome by the feeding of mineral supplements directly to the cattle. Delamere’s early experiences within the region largely served to dramatize the hardships faced by the early settlers  in their efforts to establish the foundations of modern agriculture. Even for those who had the mettle it was no easy task, but the ultimate rewards were more than satisfactory.

Sheep shearing competition at the Nakuru Show in 1913. Photograph by the late J.W.Eames

In the years between the wars , intensive veterinary research was carried out , coupled with more sophisticated methods of management. This enabled Kenya to produce both cattle and sheep of the highest quality and to establish export markets for wool, meat and dairy produce.

As for the term Nakuruitis, it is seldom used these days, probably because Nakuru itself is not much of the bare open grazing land that it was back then but a flourishing town swept up in a wave of urbanization and progress.