Self-styled capital of Kikuyuland – a title the Kikuyu of Kiambu might dispute – NYERI is, more prosaically, the administrative headquarters of Central Province and one of the liveliest, most chaotic and friendly highland towns. An attractive trading centre despite its fantastically broken-up streets, Nyeri nestles in the green hills where the broad vale between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares drops towards Nairobi. Tumultuous markets, scores of dukas, even a few street entertainers, lend it an air of irrepressible commercialism.
Another former British military camp, Nyeri emerged as a market town for European coffee growers in the hills and for settlers on the ranching and wheat farms further north. Of more specialist interest, Nyeri was also the last home of Robert Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide scouting movement, whose cryptically named Paxtu cottage, now a small museum (Ksh250), stands in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel and whose grave and memorial are to be found on the north side of town.
The extraordinary density of cultivation in the tightly spaced shambas around Nyeri (crops include maize, cassava, sugar cane, millet, squash, citrus fruit, as well as tea, coffee and macadamia nuts) is partly a hangover from white settlerdom, when a rapidly growing population was deprived of huge tracts of land and forced to cultivate intensively. Partly, too, it's the result of land consolidation, the "rationalization" of fragmented land holdings into unitary shambas that took place in the 1950s, turning people who had held traditional rights into deed-holding property owners. And partly, it's the simple consequence of an excellent climate and soil, plus a birth rate reckoned (like Kisii's) to be one of the highest in the world.
There's no doubt that the changes which have taken place in Nyeri District have been some of the most profound and rapid anywhere in the country. Even the villages of Kikuyuland are nearly all innovations of the last fifty years, the irreversible effects of the Emergency. Until then, the Kikuyu had mostly lived in scattered homesteads among their crops and herds. British security forces, unable to contain open revolt in the countryside, began the systematic internment of the whole Kikuyu population into fenced and guarded villages, forcing the guerrillas into the high forests, and the villages of today have mostly grown from such places.
Nyeri was on the front line – as much as there was one – during the war for independence. On the main street, Kimathi Way, is a cenotaph, unusual in the frankness of its inscription: "To the Memory of the Members of the Kikuyu Tribe who Died in the Fight for Freedom 1951–1957".