When the name Murang’a town is mentioned, its billionaires, perhaps the names of Kenneth Matiba and John Michuki, pre-2007 Mungiki violence and alcoholism immediately come to mind.
The billionaires, after they made their money, did not return home to develop their town.
And if devolution, now 10 years old, had worked, rural-urban migration from Murang’a County’s nine sub-counties – Ithanga/Kakuzi, Gatanga, Kandara, Maragua, Kigumo, Kiharu, Kahuro, Kangema and Mathioya – would be in an exodus to this town, the county’s seat of power.
But most of what the town offers are casual jobs, mostly in bars, food kiosks and at construction sites. The main white-collar employer is the county government, whose Public Service Board has been taken to court for allegedly demanding as much as Sh300,000 from job applicants.
Welcome to Murang’a town, which before independence was called Fort Hall, home to the much joked about smallest roundabout in the world.
The most profitable businesses in this town are those dealing in alcoholic drinks, lodgings, grocery stores, cereals, pharmacies, and hawking general merchandise.
According to the 2019 census, the town had about 110,000 people. It lies on the latitude -0.7167 (0° 43’ South) and the longitude 37.1500 (37° 8’ East).
The town is low, hilly, small but picturesque, with an altitude of 4,120 ft (1,255 metres) above sea level. As a result, the town is notorious for getting winter weather between May and August.
Despite its more than 60 years of existence, most of its town centre houses are dilapidated and do not adhere to modern structural standards, begging to be condemned. But thanks to modern money makers in all manner of deals, the town's skyline is sluggishly and randomly rising.
If someone was to start a debate about upgrading the town to a city, it would certainly trend as the joke of the season, with towns that have emerged in the smartphone era, such as Kangari, Kenol and Kiria-ini, eclipsing it in glory and opportunities.
Murang’a town’s front face is neat and kempt, but looks can be deceptive, as the backstreets look more like ghettos.
Local people mostly talk about Murang’a town as home to the only Level Five hospital in the county, the Mwangi Wa Iria Intensive Care Unit (ICU) that he built in 20 days and two busy mortuaries – one run by the Level Five hospital and the other by the county government.
The town also hosts a High Court, a jailhouse and a juvenile remand notorious for escapes of underage suspects, especially those charged with capital offenses.
The only businesses that operate 24 hours a day are some private hospitals, mortuaries, bars and lodgings.
Some of the bars sell packed flavoured chang'aa from the Thika and Sagana rivers. Every other available space in the town is being transformed into wines and spirits shops, patronised by college and high school students, civil servants, brokers and characters who have sold off family property.
Owing to the many government offices and institutions in the town, reputable banks and saccos have a presence here. The area’s rental incomes come mostly from civil servants and students. A single room in the town averages Sh3,000 and a bedsitter about Sh7,000.
“The county, with all its reputation of being associated with billionaires, political firebrands and prominent government officers, does not have light industries to attract rural-urban migration,” says Murang’a Young Professionals and Investors chairman James Karani.
He says that by 2000, the town was rated as fast-growing, attracting traders and farmers from neighbouring villages. It was the period when modern lodges and nightclubs were emerging.
But how it went off track, with no nationally recognised supermarket that could trade at the Nairobi Securities Exchange even as area billionaires are said to control more than 30 percent of the national economy, is a puzzle.
Nevertheless, there are fairly decent restaurants serving both traditional and exotic dishes and a big banana market in Mukuyu that feeds mostly urban centres in the country.
Mr Karani says “the billionaire narrative and freedom fighter exploits, as well as the cradle of the Mugikuyu associated with the town, are only a good recipe for historical gossip but no meaningful benefit for the area economy”.
The county headquarters has more bars than there are eateries, churches and schools combined and a chaotic matatu terminus bang in the middle of the town centre.
A cadre of sex workers operates discreetly, having built a network of clients and they conduct their business by phone.
New in town and you need such services, ask any night guard around bars and lodgings and within 20 minutes, you are sorted.
The town has unzoned hawking, and a secondhand shoes trader displays his goods alongside a chips and mutura vendor, and behind them shoe shiners. Wa Iria calls it "trade freedom".
On security, the town is under the grip of discreet organised gangs that bring together property, transport, alcohol, narcotics and security actors who together influence who gets rich and who falls and the political class comes and goes, leaving this ‘axis of evil’ intact.
Sometimes fatal rivalry among these crooks erupts, like the August 2014 shooting dead in cold blood of matatu sacco chairman Simon Gachathi. He had established his own sacco, axed fare by 60 percent and sought to monopolise public transport from Murang’a to Thika and Nairobi, and he paid the ultimate prize for it.
After weeks of rumours that a senior administrator working in cahoots with transport competitors and route gangs conspired to eliminate him, the pressure eased with time and today the death is just a historical footnote.
The only time these crooks were challenged was between 2002 and 2013, when Michuki and former Murang’a East district commissioner George Natembeya worked together to dismantle criminal networks in the town and its environs.
But immediately after they exited the stage – Michuki by death and Natembeya by transfer, and eventual resignation to run for Trans Nzoia governor – the networks regrouped and today firmly call the shots.
According to security profile reports, the town has young criminals who specialise in muggings in several spots of the town. They reside mostly in Mjini, Kandundu, Maragi and Majoyce and report to several cells in town where they set about attacking revelers as darkness sets in.
Some of the gang members sell bhang and if you are interested in a puff while in town, ask your way to Kayole, Grogan, Mjini, Mukuyu and Gitungano villages, as well as the Sagana-Nyeri-Kutus and Embu matatu terminals. Just as Akorino faithful identify each other by their turbans, hawkeyed peddlers will certainly identify you and signal you to a retailer.
Interestingly, muggings escalate when schools close for the holidays, leaving little doubt as to the composition of the area’s criminals.
“This is a very interesting town where survival is mostly for the fittest. You dare not go against the set order unless you contact the cartels to give you freedom to rebel,” Ephantus Waweru Gatune had told Nation.Africa before he died in April 2022 aged 110.
“This is a town where power is measured by the number of youths you can destroy with alcohol and political accomplishment is measured by tokenism.”
He wondered what best describes a scenario where “you can be murdered, raped, mugged, sold bhang, contravene laws on alcohol trade and form gangs in a town where all the security bosses who compose the County Security Committee seat if not a conspiracy”.
Mr Gatune was born in the nearby Gikandu village and went to fight in World War II in 1940 and came back home to Murang’a town to invest in a garage in 1946. He said the county government and business community must get serious about tackling the problems.
During Jamhuri Day celebrations on June 1, Commissioner Karuku Ngumo promised to beef up security in the town and the county at large but a month later, muggings, selling of contraband and reckless bar operations continue.
“Alone in Murang’a, it is impossible … Whatever you want to accomplish in this town, you must seek collaborative input from several actors,” he said.
“That informs the county’s motto of Kamúingí Koyaga Ndírí (Together We Can) … this is because in every opportunity you seek to explore, there are godfathers lurking in the shadows who want to partner for the profits in it.”
But maybe the journey to bid for city status is not lost. The town’s municipal board, with funding from the World Bank, has started upgrading its backstreets.
Urban Planning and Development executive Sarah Masaki reports that the facelift is part of a five-year development plan that will see several roads upgraded to bitumen level.
Millions will be spent to “create walkways in the town as well as revamp connecting roads”, she said. “We will also partner with the private sector to establish recreational parks among other public amenities.”
When he became governor in 2013, Wa Iria was vocal about how he would transform the town into world-class status.
He had announced a plan to float incentives that included a five-year tax waiver to attract partnerships to come up with low-cost housing units, introduce light industries and make the town a digital hub, among other proposals.
“We are looking at the twin issues of adding value to local agricultural produce for employment purposes as well as housing those moving from the rural areas to the towns,” he said in his first inauguration speech.
None of those things happened, but to his credit, the governor helped 35,000 women come together to form the Murang’a Women Cooperative Sacco. They became contractors and invested in a Sh80 million six-storey building with 112 rental rooms. But that building is now being auctioned after the sacco defaulted on repaying a loan.
By 2018, the town’s lands office was becoming a nightmare to investors as the scramble to seal property deals reached fever pitch and dealers sought to procure spaces for hostels for the growing population of Kenya Medical Training College and Murang’a University students.
That is when getting conned in land deals became common in the town, and every day some party loses in such transactions.