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Gertrude hospital: Monument to undying love

Colonel Ewart Scott Grogan’s famous Cape-to-Cairo journey between 1895 and February 1900, was hailed as a feat of exploration and talked of in the same breath as exploits by famous pioneers such as Henry Morton Stanley.

And rightly so, for the journey, the first of its kind that cut a northerly route from the mountains of Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt was fraught with all dangers the world’s meanest jungles and deserts provide.

For Grogan, however, it was for a more personal goal, one that burned in his heart, fueling his resolve and pushing him to risk his life in attaining it.

It is this goal that would later bequeath Nairobi one of its most vital medical centres – The Getrude’s Children’s Hospital.

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The Irishman had fallen in love with Gertrude Watts, the young daughter of James Watts, a wealthy pioneer settler in New Zealand.

And when James Coleman, Gertrude’s stepfather, had demanded to know from him his prospects in life and whether he had chances of becoming a “veritable somebody” who would take good care of his stepdaughter, Grogan decided that conquering Africa would be his mark of excellence.

In the Lost Lion Of Empire: The Life Of Cape-Cairo Grogan Edward Paice, chronicles: “When he set eyes on Gertrude Watts, Grogan was smitten by her.

She was tall, with soft blue eyes and thick, lustrous brown hair but what attracted Grogan most was her booming laugh, which was infectious, her serenity and the exceptionally warm heart that she had inherited from her mother.”

Grogan’s feelings were reciprocated. “Gertrude had never met such a handsome and swashbuckling young man, nor had she ever been gazed upon by such an extra pair of eyes,” the writer says.

For Grogan, who had earlier set foot in Southern Africa, the inspiration had been spawned by Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a Cape to Cairo railway and telegraph – an imperial highway through Africa – and the fact that no man had ever surveyed the whole route.

He declared to a bemused Coleman that he would make a name for himself by undertaking the first south to north traverse of Africa.

He told him: “If I fail, nothing is lost. On the other hand, if I succeed – well, I shall hope to have proved worthy of your stepdaughter.”

With support from charities and the wealthy class interested in exploration, Grogan successfully undertook the perilous trek, arriving on the beaches of the Mediterranean in February 1900.

His exploits preceded him to England and when he returned home and went to Coleman’s residence at 74 Lancaster Gate, Gertrude was waiting.

So began a marriage that would see the couple later move to Kenya after an unsuccessful stint in South Africa. It was in Kenya that the Grogans thrived. Ewart became the wealthiest and best known settler.

So influential was Grogan in Kenya that at his 80th birthday celebrated in the Legislative Council, member Eliud Mathu affectionately likened him to “an elephant with a big hoof…everywhere he moves, he leaves an impression that is to the benefit of the country.”

In all of Ewart’s undertakings, Gertrude was a pillar of support.

During the Second World War, she worked tirelessly to help visiting forces.

At one time, she was made the President of the East Africa Women’s League, taking the reins from Lady Baden-Powell who was credited with starting the Girl Guides movement in Kenya.

Things would take an irreversibly sad twist for the Grogan family when on July 5, 1943, Gertrude who had suffered previous mild strokes had a final, fatal one.

Gertrude was buried in Nairobi’s Forest Road cemetery, in a funeral attended by hundreds of mourners – colonialists and native Kenyans alike.

Gertrude Children’s Hospital became the monument to her life and a token of Grogan’s undying love.