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Gachie struggles to shed gangland tag as developers shy away

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An view of Gachie sub-location on March 6, 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

There is no sign that a town is ahead. Suddenly Gachie greets you, comes and goes like any other satellite town. Coming from Ruaka, the road that cuts through it has no signs. It is just tarmac snaking through a sleepy stretch that suddenly blossoms with people and buildings.

Here, the green of the sleepy village and the concrete jungle of the city meet. 

An view of Gachie sub-location on March 6, 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

The mushrooming mix of shacks, concrete and semi-permanent structures make up the lousy village of Gachie, sandwiched between the posh neighbourhoods of Muthaiga, Nyari, Runda and Kitisuru and the fast-growing Ruaka.

These estates, especially Ruaka, have grown so fast that they have become an investment hotspot, attracting developers to build beautiful homes that have attracted young professionals and expatriates. In Ruaka, an acre of land has skyrocketed to Sh98.3 million.

HassConsult, which compiles quarterly property prices, says the average cost of an acre in Ruaka is approaching Sh100 million, compared with Sh94.9 million in Kitisuru, Sh88.5 million in Runda and Sh65.3 million in Karen. 

A view of The Alma by Cytonn Real Estate from Gachie on March 6, 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

But Gachie remains the ugly duckling.

Part of the reason is that Gachie is ancestral land. According to custom, the older generation who still live in Gachie believe that ancestral land should never be sold. While they hold on to their land, believing that it is a curse to sell it, others in other towns subdivide and sell.

William Njoroge, the Assistant Chief of Gachie, who was born and raised in the area and now works there, says it is particularly difficult to sell ancestral land in the Agikuyu culture, and Gachie is no exception, a factor that makes the area largely unexplored compared to its neighbours.

"The delayed development in the area can be attributed to the late subdivision of the land because it is ancestral land," Mr Njoroge told Nation

A section of the Red Hill road in Gachie.

Another challenge is the lingering fear of insecurity, thanks to people like the late Simon Matheri Ikere. The man may be dead, but Gachie was his home and he was a gunman and one of Kenya's most wanted criminals. He was killed by police in Athi River in 2007. It was at the height of his notoriety that crime in Gachie soared, or so the story goes. His lifestyle was so alluring that schoolchildren were said to have dropped out of school to join the underworld.

Sh4,500 rent

In the aftermath of the disputed 2007 election results, the outlawed Mungiki sect went on a bizarre killing spree that engulfed the area and the neighbouring villages of Banana and Karuri.

The cries of mothers and children at night may have died down, but the aura of the gang's den still haunts Gachie. These memories have put a strain on development in the area. According to Daniel Wafula, now a bodaboda driver, who used to work as a private security guard in Nairobi's Westlands and lived in Gachie, rents have remained significantly low.

"When I was working as a security guard, I chose to live in Gachie and commute to work because the rent was only Sh3,500 for a bedsit. The fare to my place of work was Sh20 and I could walk sometimes," he says, explaining that he earned Sh15,000 as a salary, so living in low-cost Gachie made economic sense.

He has since changed jobs but not houses. Only prices have gone up and he now pays Sh4,500 for rent. If he had moved Ruaka just a short distance to where he now lives, he would be paying Sh7,000 for a similar bedsit.

 Few empty houses

In the past, Mr Njoroge says, security in the area was a concern for many.

"The moment people fear an area in terms of security," he explains, "they would not want to be in that area.

In the recent past, he says, security has been stepped up and crime has fallen remarkably. One police post has been upgraded to a police station and there are three other police posts in the area.

"Nowadays, people like to live here because it is close to the city," says Mr Njoroge, adding that "it is actually difficult to find vacant houses now". But modern houses are also few and far between compared to Ruaka, where the construction of rental units is booming.

Part of the reason for Ruaka's growth is the distance to and from the central business district. It is about 12 kilometres from the city. Similarly, Gachie, in Kihara ward, Kiambu, is only 14 kilometres from the capital - Nairobi - and would have attracted cosmopolitan professionals seeking modern homes with a village feel. 

Banana plantation in Gachie.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

But now Gachie is an urban village; a mix of urban and village life, with sprouting concrete houses and several semi-permanent structures, overflowing with a promisingly growing population.

Long before its agricultural parcels were populated with apartment blocks, Gachie's dense vegetation made it an ideal hideout for gangsters.

But the coffee bushes are slowly being replaced by buildings, and residents are optimistic. There are also several foreign embassy residences nearby.

"Located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Gachie offers more than meets the eye. To some, it was hectic. To the old, the village is cool and beautiful. To the community, it is a peaceful environment," a Google search for Gachie sums up the vivid description of the village.

 No official land records

History books show that Gachie was named after one of Kenya's white settlers. It is also believed to have been named after Gachie wa Kihara, the last of Mzee Kihara's 12 sons. A wealthy man, Mzee Kihara is said to have bought the land in the 19th century.

During the colonial era, Gachie was one of the epicentres of Mau Mau activity, a shadow it acquired in the 1950s - long before independence - that cemented its bad reputation to this day.

It was in the middle of the Gachie shopping centre that Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kung'u was gunned down by Mau Mau insurgents on 9 October 1952, prompting Governor Evelyn Baring to declare a state of emergency. 

Jacob Busera (left) and Robert Juma during an interview on March 6, 2024 in Gachie.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Gachie's reticence, says Sakina Hassanali, head of development consultancy at property firm HassConsult, is perhaps "because the demographics of the two areas [Ruaka and Gachie] are different and therefore the access to capital to develop these areas would be different".

While there is no database on land prices in Gachie, estate agents predict that as Gachie gentrifies over the next decade, "you can probably expect to see the areas go up in value," as Ms Hassanali explains.

Will Gachie soon become a high-end suburb and shake off the ghosts of its past?

What makes it ideal is that its amenities have not yet been stretched like those of other towns. Perhaps when its potential is fully realised - which is only a matter of time - it could become a full-fledged slum or an expensive suburb like its peers.

"There was a time when you couldn't even hang both your shoes out to dry at the same time for fear they would be stolen," Ann Njeri told the Nation a decade ago.

James Ithagu, our chauffeur, a man who grew up in the city and has lived in the capital for many years, says that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same, and that Gachie has not completely shed its gangster tag.

As was the case more than a decade ago, strangers are greeted with a dose of suspicion. Then as now, residents are afraid to speak to strangers.

But Margaret Wambui, 23, who was born and raised in Gachie, says she has seen the village transform into a rural town. She recalls with nostalgia how the area has improved from a dreaded suburb to one that is struggling to attract more residents.

Most of the people who live here say they "provide the labour for the rich neighbourhoods". For those who live in Gachie, the main occupation is commercial dog breeding, mostly bought by the rich residents of the affluent neighbourhoods that border her home.

 She says the Karura River, which flows stoically on the outskirts of town, is "the only reminder of her childhood". She says the fact that it has changed, albeit gradually, is enough of a sign that change is inevitable.