It breathed affluence in its heyday, hosting revellers from as far away as Mwanza and Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania, senior politicians and the who-was-who in President Daniel arap Moi’s administration.
The little-known trading centre, Stella, as it is fondly called, was a beehive of activity, generating about a half of revenue in the defunct Migori Municipal Council.
Located in South Kanyamkago Ward in Uriri Sub-County on the busy Kisii-Isebania highway, Stella boasts about being the rural home of Mama Ida Odinga, wife of ODM leader Raila Odinga.
In its old days, before the British American Tobacco (BAT) scaled down operations in the area, Stella had vast thriving tobacco plantations that made it liquid.
It was in Stella that benga maestros, such as Okach Biggy with his Heka band, Aluoch Jamaranda and the late Prince Jully of Jully Boys Band, performed live to the excitement of revellers who included senior people in government.
Situated about three kilometres from Uriri town, Stella was a drop-off zone adored by many escaping the hustle and bustle of Migori and Awendo towns.
Revellers preferred going to the centre for entertainment, food and drinks owing to the privacy it offered, away from the noise that was synonymous with Migori and Awendo.
Joseph Ooro recounted how the town declined to its current state after BAT, the main tobacco processor, shrank its operations.
“Senior politicians would wine and dine here in Stella as they got entertained by top-notch benga artistes,” recalled Ooro, who often accompanied a former MP to a local entertainment joint.
After a night of rendezvous and merrymaking, revellers would retire to Sony Sugar Guest House in neighbouring Awendo or other fancy hotels in Migori, Ooro recalls.
Michael Ojuok, a tobacco farmer for the past 20 years, told the Nation that the collapse of BAT dealt a major blow to farmers whose lives had been revolutionised by the tobacco processor.
“The crop took only three months to mature and we were assured of some good money during harvests. The stable economy boosted our livelihoods,” recounts Ojuok who has quit tobacco farming.
The booming tobacco business at the peak of BAT’s operations in the region, he says, also saw an influx of commercial sex workers, who were out to prey on tobacco farmers.
“Some came from as far away as Uganda and Tanzania to eke out a living in the area. This heightened fears of a possible rise in HIV infections as well as divorce cases as some men engaged in unprotected sexual escapades,” he says.
“Farmers would receive weekly payments for their produce, most of which would end up being spent in bars and lodgings. Some women claimed their husbands would go missing for weeks after selling their tobacco. Cases of husbands neglecting their families after selling their tobacco crops were also common,” he recounts.
Then BAT, the sole tobacco processor there, gradually scaled down its operations and Alliance One Tobacco Company took over, amid dwindling fortunes, before finally closing down.
Before scaling down its operations, BAT claimed that increased regulatory uncertainty in the local market was threatening its existence.
“Over the years, we have worked hard at BAT Kenya to ensure that we remain a strategic manufacturing hub for our international group. This has been a significant achievement considering that there are only two other such hubs in Africa,” the company said in a statement at the time.
“We cannot take this status for granted. We are competing with other factories and to maintain our importance within the group we need a strong domestic market, regulatory predictability and help from the government especially in dismantling trade barriers in the region.”
A decade later, Stella is a pale shadow of its former self, reeling from its lost glory.
“Some of the sex workers ended up being married in the area and still live here. They did not return to their homes after the companies collapsed,” says resident Jane Awino.
With devolution, the town is quickly coming back to life, determined to recover from its ruins.
Commercial and residential apartments are mushrooming, jumpstarting life in a town that has been dormant for years. Businesses are also thriving.
Migori Municipal Council chairman Joseph Nyambori notes that with improved infrastructure, especially the Kisii-Isebania highway that is under construction, the once dormant town will be the net business hub on the outskirts of Migori town.
“The current infrastructural development is clear evidence that there are high economic stakes to be realised in this area,” he says.