SOYSAMBU, Kenya — Of all the upper-crust British families who came to this country and never left, one is more famous than them all: the Delameres.
They had the most glamorous parties, the most fabled pedigree (going back to William the Conqueror, they said) and, not insignificantly, the most stunning land.
Soysambu Ranch is the jewel in their crown, 50,000 acres teeming with giraffe and zebra in the heart of Africa’s great Rift Valley. The scenery is straight off a postcard — the golden pastures, the sculptured hills, the sense of getting so much of the world in one big gulp.
But Thomas Cholmondeley, the cravat-wearing scion of the family, who until recently was on track to be the sixth Baron of Delamere, is no longer here. He is in Kamiti maximum security prison in Nairobi, the rare white face behind bars in this country, awaiting trial in a murder case that is dividing Kenya.
Because in little more than a year, he has shot and killed two black Kenyans on his ranch.
The first was an undercover wildlife ranger who was arresting some of Mr. Cholmondeley’s workers suspected of poaching. Claiming self-defense, Mr. Cholmondeley was cleared without trial.
The second was a poacher himself, with an antelope slung over his back. Mr. Cholmondeley says that the poacher’s dogs attacked and, again, that he fired in self-defense.
White farmers in Kenya, an increasingly beleaguered and endangered species, are deeply sympathetic. They say that crime is out of control and the police are useless, and that the bush, however beautiful, is awash with guns.
Certainly, there has been an explosion of violence in the Rift Valley, with gangs surging in from Nairobi and tensions peaking between the dirt-poor farm workers and the handful of white Kenyans still living on vast tracts of land. Joan Root, a famed conservationist, was gunned down in her bedroom in January. Other whites have been killed in holdups. One farmer said he now slept with an elephant gun by his side.
During colonial times this area, 50 miles northwest of Nairobi, was famed among whites for its hedonistic lifestyle and called Happy Valley. Now, it seems to be under siege.
But black Kenyans see Mr. Cholmondeley’s situation differently, and worry that the days of white privilege may not be over. His absolution in the first case deepened their cynicism about an already suspect judiciary and ignited large protests. Some people even threatened to invade white farms.
The case seems to be hitting many of Kenya’s sore spots — land, violence, corruption, the illegal game trade and, of course, race.
“It’s very sexy when a white man gets in trouble,” said Maina Kiai, chairman of Kenya’s human rights commission. “We still have this inferiority complex and get a thrill out of seeing a white man in a powerless position.”
And this is not just any white man.
The Hon. Thomas Patrick Gilbert Cholmondeley, 38, is a 6-foot-6, raised-in-the-bush anachronism, who has a scar running from his ankle to hip from when he was attacked by a buffalo several years ago and whose great-grandfather made it fashionable for British aristocrats to move to Africa.
That settler, Hugh Cholmondeley (pronounced CHUM-lee), the third Baron of Delamere, took chunks of the Rift Valley from local (and illiterate) Masai tribesmen in the early 1900’s, turning the area into a playground for whites. He rode horses through bars and shot chandeliers at fancy hotels and went on to become a leading dairy farmer and politician. Nairobi’s main street was named Delamere Avenue until independence in 1963.
Thomas was born five years later, grew up on Soysambu (the name means “place of red rock” in the Masai language) and eventually was shipped off to Eton. By then, a Masai named Samson ole Sisina was fixing trucks for Kenya’s tourism board, hoping to become a wildlife ranger. Robert Njoya, a poor Kikuyu tribesman, had dropped out of school to haul rock, and to poach game. The men lived near Naivasha, a once sleepy town going through serious growing pains.
Flower farms were sprouting up along Lake Naivasha, drawing thousands of low-paid temporary workers. Many lived in squatter camps, including one named Manera built on Delamere land. The people there call Mr. Cholmondeley “the honorable killer” and say he has terrorized them for years.
Mary Njeri, 51, said Mr. Cholmondeley caught her collecting firewood on his property two years ago and slapped her until she saw stars. Peter Kiragu, 12, said he was playing soccer on Delamere property four years ago when Mr. Cholmondeley snatched him by the back of his shirt, threw him into a truck and kept him locked up for hours.
Both episodes were reported to the police but charges were never pursued. “The Delameres used to be untouchable,” said Gideon Kibunjah, a Kenya police spokesman. “But that’s changed now.”
The Thomas Cholmondeley described by white friends is much different: charming, genuine, a good listener, a father involved with his two sons, the type of rancher to speak Swahili to his workers and look them in the eye.
The director of his family’s dairy and beef ranches, he is a proponent of wildlife and his efforts have increased the numbers of giraffes, zebras, pelicans and flamingoes in the area. One reason he was licensed to carry a gun was to protect that game.
“Tom loves that land,” said Dodo Cunningham-Reid, a friend who runs an exclusive bed-and-breakfast in Naivasha.
Fred Ojiambo, Mr. Cholmondeley’s lawyer, said his client had been unfairly demonized. He did not want to discuss details, but said: “It’s very difficult to only look at this case as the firing of a gun. This happened in a context.”
Last year, Kenya wildlife officials said, workers at Soysambu were suspected of poaching and dealing in illegal “bush meat” from poached animals. On April 19, 2005, Mr. Sisina, who had been promoted from mechanic to ranger, and two other rangers drove onto the ranch, undercover, and caught workers skinning a buffalo.
Just as Mr. Sisina and his colleagues began to make arrests, Mr. Cholmondeley arrived. He saw strangers in street clothes holding his staff at gunpoint and shot Mr. Sisina.
After Mr. Cholmondeley was arrested, he told the police, “I am most bitterly remorseful at the enormity of my mistake.” He said he thought Mr. Sisina was a robber.
The case cracked open a rift between police officials pushing for a murder trial and prosecutors who believed the claim of self-defense. And the Masai were watching.
The Masai are famed for their red ochre war paint and traditional pastoralist ways. Most are dirt poor, but Mr. Sisina was different. He had moved from a dung hut to a respectable government job.
When the charges were abruptly dropped a month later — a picture of Mr. Cholmondeley flashing thumbs-up ran on the front page of Kenya’s leading newspaper — the Masai detonated, protesting outside the attorney general’s office and threatening to storm Soysambu.
“The Delameres were the ones who stole our land in the first place,” said William ole Ntimama, a Masai member of Parliament. “And now look at us. We’ve become part of the wildlife.”
Angry Masai marched onto white farms two years ago and tried to reclaim ancestral land. But Kenya is no Zimbabwe, where the government instigated such seizures. Kenyan police officers in riot gear cleared out the Masai.
Mr. Sisina left behind eight children, and his widow, Seenoi, now relies on handouts to feed them. Mr. Cholmondeley returned to the family business, Delamere Estates Ltd., and to patrolling Soysambu with guns.
On May 10 this year, Mr. Njoya, the Kikuyu tribesman, went looking for food for his wife, Sarah, and their four children. He took two friends and six dogs and they found a dead antelope in a trap they had laid on Soysambu land.
That evening Mr. Cholmondeley, carrying a colonial-era rifle, was out scouting a location for a house.
What happened next is not clear. Mr. Cholmondeley said the hunters turned the dogs on him, and he shot two, accidentally hitting Mr. Njoya. Mr. Njoya’s friends said they never even saw Mr. Cholmondeley.
“We just heard shots coming out of the bush,” said Peter Gichuhi, who said he was standing next to Mr. Njoya.
Mr. Njoya bled to death within minutes.
“Oh no, not again!” was the headline this time, and the protests were extensive. Many black Kenyans boycotted Delamere products, calling the family’s yogurt, marketed with the distinctive golden crown, “blood yogurt.”
This time, prosecutors filed murder charges. The trial is set for Sept. 25. If convicted, Mr. Cholmondeley could be hanged.
The last time a white man was at the center of such a sensational case in Kenya was in 1980, when Frank Sundstrom, an American sailor, killed a prostitute in Mombasa. Mr. Sundstrom pleaded guilty to manslaughter, was fined $70 and let go.