On the Embu-Meru highway lies Makutano Town, a bustling centre of small traders known for being a popular stopover point where travellers can buy produce such as tomatoes, onions and other vegetables cheaply.
Looking at this busy commercial centre, however, one would never know that its residents are haunted by a crime so dark that they're afraid to let their children play freely.
For the past four years, children in the village of Kaminji have been disappearing without a trace. There are at least seven known cases of missing children, all between the ages of three and ten, who have vanished.
Some got lost on their way home from school, while others simply vanished while playing in their family compound. In one case, a child was last seen going to church on Sunday and was never seen again.
The disappearances have left a trail of broken hearts and baffled police. When the Nation visited Kaminji village in Makutano, distraught families were still trying to make sense of the situation.
Vanished 'metres away from home'
For instance, the daughter of James Kamau, 45, disappeared on her way home from school in November 2021. Blessann Wangechi was with a classmate who said she last saw Blessann just 20 metres from home. Knowing that his daughter disappeared just metres from home pains Mr Kamau.
"We have searched everywhere for our daughter: the neighbourhood, police stations, hospitals and children's homes," said the grief-stricken parent, adding that he has not known peace since that day.
"It is painful not to know what really happened to my daughter."
After the incident, Mr Kamau reported the matter to officers at Kiamaciri police station, who promised to help him find Blessann.
"I went to the police station and recorded a statement. The detectives visited my house, took details of my girl and left. Since then, they have not communicated with me," he said.
Mr Kamau believes his daughter was probably lured to an unknown destination by kidnappers.
"It is possible that well-organised criminals are abducting small children in our location," he said.
Walking to church
Another resident, Dorothy Karimi, 43, is still struggling with the sudden disappearance of her five-year-old son. Francis Kamande went missing on February 8, 2022. He was last seen walking to a nearby Catholic Church in the morning, never to return.
"My son asked me to give him an offering. I gave him Sh20 and he left for church. That was the last time he was seen," Ms Karimi said.
After he disappeared, she collapsed and was admitted to Embu Hospital for two months.
"I fainted when I learned that my son, the last born in a family of five, had gone missing," she said.
When Mrs Karimi was discharged from the hospital, she reported the matter to the Wang'uru police station and recorded a statement.
"The police promised to investigate the matter, but I have not heard from them since.
'She was gone in minutes'
Nancy Wanjiru, 31, says her daughter Celine Waruguru was there one minute and gone the next. She was washing dishes in her Makutano home on January 17, 2018, when her three-year-old daughter, walked outside.
"I was washing dishes. A few minutes later, I went outside to look for my daughter, but I couldn't find her. I asked neighbours if they had seen her, but they said no," she said. She reported the matter at Sagana police station.
'I miss him every day'
Another parent in the village, Ms Alice Wambui, has been looking for her son Lewis Mwangi, 10, since he disappeared on March 23, 2023. He was last seen while playing with his friends in Makutano town.
Ms Wambui said her son left the house at around 11am, promising to return at lunchtime.
"He was jovial. He walked out and told me that he will be back at 1pm. I have not seen him since," she recollected.
Ms Wambui embarked on a thorough search for him and when she failed to get her son, she reported the matter at Makutano police post.
"I miss my child every day. I just want him back," she told the Nation.
'I almost fainted'
For Susan Wanjiru, 30, the day her son Patrick Waweru, 5, disappeared is one she'll never forget.
The boy was playing with other children at around 5pm when he suddenly vanished.
"It was on a Friday. That day I returned home from work and gave my son a bath. I then released him to join other children outside," she said.
When he did not return home, Ms Wanjiru became suspicious and started looking for him.
"I was so shocked when I couldn't find him. I almost fainted."
After the unsuccessful search, she reported him missing at Makutano police station where the officers promised to investigate.
"What I don't know is whether my son was trafficked or just got lost. I'm appealing to the government to help me find my son," she said.
Two missing children from one family
Not far from Ms Wanjiru's home, another family is still coming to terms with the disappearance of two of their children.
Margaret Wambui, 65, had been taking care of her two grandchildren after the death of their mother.
The children, Eunice Muthoni, 7, and her sister Michelle Wanjira, 5, disappeared on August 18, 2021.
"I was away from home and when I came back I couldn't find them anywhere. I suspect they may have been lured and abducted by criminals. But I'm optimistic that one day my grandchildren will be found," she said.
What the police say
Makutano location chief, Mr Peterson Wanyeki, said authorities are aware that children have been disappearing from the area, adding that investigations are ongoing.
"My location is on the highway where children can easily be lured away by strangers. I am therefore advising parents to be careful and closely monitor the movements of their children," he said.
The administrator said he had advised those whose children had gone missing to report the matter to the DCI for further investigation.
Mwea West sub-county police boss, Mr Mbatian Kantai, said the cases were being handled by the DCI and asked parents to be patient.
"Once investigations are completed, I will inform you accordingly," he told the Nation.