The once-bustling Njokeria trading centre outside Egerton University resembles a ghost centre, thanks to the closure of the institution.
The heavy steel footbridge that connects the centre to the university would be a hive of activity on any other day as students use it to go shopping. Now, it has been reduced into a basking area for lizards and other reptiles. Stray dogs wander near the abandoned and dirty business premises.
Along one narrow dusty path at the heart of the centre that was once an entertainment hub, the dirty paint on the front walls of closed business premises are peeling off, exposing the unfinished poor masonry work.
The wire mesh that is loosely holding the broken windows of bars expose dusty tables and empty shelves with beer bottles while the floor is littered with crushed beer cans.
Some of the shops have been reduced to resting points for goats and sheep, a clear sign that the good times are over. Some have inscriptions for "do not enter" or "do not destroy" on the doors.
Except for one or two cyber shops and a few roadside fresh produce stalls that are opened, the once vibrant trading centre is deserted.
A sense of desperation from traders outside their premises waiting for customers is visible from the way they look at a few visitors walking through the centre.
A group of dejected boda boda operators shielding themselves from the scorching sun under a makeshift shade could be heard complaining.
“We really would like to see Egerton University up and running as it is one of the sources of our livelihood,” said one of the operators. “We would be doing good business at this time of the year as students resume from the long holidays, but we’re coming to the centre to bask every single day.”
"We could be doing good business at this time of the year when students resume from long holidays but we're coming here to bask in the sun every single day," he added.
Njokerio is one of the two trading centres around the 83-year-old Njoro campus where traders are counting losses after the institution was closed in November last year after lecturers downed their tools demanding better salaries.
Mr Peter Wambugu runs a retail shop just off the Njokerio footbridge. Every day for the past three months, he said, he sits quietly in front of his shop, looking almost out of place.
For the past three months, he sits on a raised chair in front of his shop, looking at the heavily polluted River Ndarugu as it swerves through the trees gently, seeping and dribbling underneath the fluttering butterflies.
Mr Wambugu said it has been difficult to eke a living since the university closed last year November.
“It has been tough. I go for days without making a sale and this is very frustrating for an entrepreneur like me who has so many obligations to meet, including repaying loans and meeting suppliers’ tight payment deadlines,” he said. “I want this institution to reopen as soon as possible or else I will follow my colleagues who have temporarily closed their shops.”
"I want this institution to reopen as soon as possible or else I will also close shop like my col-leagues. Before the university closure, I used to attend to 200 clients in a day. Today I hardly get 10 clients," he said.
“I think it will be better if the government intervenes and resolves the never-ending leadership wrangles at Egerton University,” he added.
The evidence of gloom and doom is there in the husks of closed-down shops, salons, eateries, drinking joints along the main stretch. It is also in the stories of those trying to survive the harsh trading moments at the trading centre.
Ms Ann Waithera, 28, said she used to work at one of the closed salons, and the last time she had a steady job and income was in October last year before the university was closed. She said she feels let down by the government. She said she feels let down by the Kenyan government.
"We will remain patient hoping the government will intervene but it is sad the government seems not bothered by the deteriorating poor management at the Njoro campus," said Ms Waithera.
"I don't have the power to organise traders at Njokerio trading centre to stage a protest march outside Egerton University. The government should intervene and resolve the salary stalemate between the management and the striking lecturers. We depend on this institution for survival," she lamented.
Two traders at the far end of the trading centre running a salon and a barbershop whisper to one another that it feels too risky to keep their equipment in the closed shop.
"After the indefinite closure of the university we don't know what might happen when our shop remains closed, we can't run the shop here anymore," one trader told Nation.Africa as they pre-pared to pack their belongings into a truck and move out.
"There is business here. It's like a suspended life. You're waiting for the institution to open while risking your working tools inside a closed shop which could be looted by idle youth who have no work to do," he added.
Ms Lusike Midenyo, a clothes seller says, "I sometimes wonder whether the Egerton University versus lecturers’ crisis will end. Hardly a year passes without the two clashing or the students going on strike. This stalemate has hurt my business. When students are around, I make up to Sh20,000 in a day. Today I make between Sh1,000 and Sh1,500 in a day."
She added: "The management of Egerton University should hear the cries of the suffering small traders at Njokerio trading centre. The management should seek a lasting solution and end these perennial strikes."
While some traders are closing down and moving out, others appear determined to stay. They say the once-bustling trading centre best known for its tasty nyama choma, has been home to their families for decades.
"I have all lived here comfortably and did good business for all this time, so I will stay here even if the university is shut down," said Peter Komu, 49, a hawker.
Mr Patrick Ngugi a butchery operator at the centre says he is now using his past savings to keep his business afloat.
"When students are around I sell about 100kg of meat but since the university was closed down three months ago, I sell slightly over 10kg in a day. That income is not enough to sustain this business. I'm forced to dig deep into my pockets to pay the rent," said Mr Ngugi.
Mr Dickson Orengo who owns a cybershop at the centre says the closure of the university has made his business an expensive venture to run.
"I'm incurring heavy losses, I pay rent yet no students are using my machines. I was just recovering from long closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my business as I depend on students. Some of my machines have to run because if they remain idle they develop mechanical problems," said Mr Orengo.
Ms Grace Mumbi who runs an eatery opposite the campus said she had been forced to cut down the number of workers from eight to four. Mr Peter Owira, a boda boda rider complained about lack of clients.
"When students are in campus I earn between Sh700 and Sh1,000," said Mr Owira.
Mr Paul Njoroge, the chairman of Matatu operators at the main stage outside the university said their clients have reduced drastically. "We have reduced the number of touts at the stage from 10 to five due to lack of students."
Mr Anthony Gikonyo, a landlord, said he has eight single rooms which he charges Sh4,000 per month, are now empty.
Mr Kennedy Ochieng', a poultry farmer who supplies chicken at the trading centre opposite the university, says he used to supply 150 chickens but is now supplying 50 chickens.
"I can't service my loan of Sh350,000, many of my clients have closed down their shops due to lack of students," said Mr Ochieng'.