The mention of Gachuha village in Kipipiri Constituency, Nyandarua County, sparks mixed feelings, not only because of its agricultural potential but also for the glaring taboos observed by villagers.
Loosely translated, Gachuha means a swing, and the village is named after the notorious Gachuha swing bridge.
The bridge, over the River Tulasha, has for decades remained a pain to the community.
The bridge is blamed for the taboos in the village, and also for poverty levels despite the high agricultural potential and a hardworking community.
But the community’s agony may end by February next year, if a contractor building a modern bridge at the site sticks to the set timelines.
Nyandarua Governor Francis Kimemia says part of the Sh21 million contract is meant to buy land so that the design can fit well in the terrain.
“The bridge will improve social interactions. It will improve the local economy through increased movement of people, goods, and services,” he said.
“Residents face frequent food shortages as a result of this challenge. We are committed to having the agony ended by February next year.”
Elders have banned young men and women from marrying suitors in the village so as to curb marriages between the families in the village and incest.
The swing bridge has existed for 50 years, and it is one place that every politician contesting Kipipiri parliamentary seat or the county’s governorship visits, promising to build a better, permanent one.
A modern bridge here will not only benefit the entire Nyandarua County but also people in neighbouring Nakuru County.
In his campaigns, Governor Kimemia was not left behind. He visited and pledged a new bridge, which is prominently covered in his manifesto and the County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP-2)
Welcoming the county government's decision to finally build the bridge, residents say the swing bridge has claimed many lives, including schoolchildren, while many skip classes during heavy rains when the river floods.
Some have been left with lasting scars inflicted by rocks after slipping into the flooded River Tulasha, which separates Gathiriga and Tulasha villages in Kipipiri Constituency.
“The village was started by ten families that were allocated the expansive land in 1965. The population has grown to over 3,000 households. The landscape has resulted in isolation from the rest of the world," says village elder Samuel Kariuki.
Because of the rough terrain and lack of a good road network or a bridge, he says, there is little communication and interaction with the outside world, which he attributes to marriages between the families in the village.
To end what Mzee Kariuki calls a “curse”, elders have prohibited young people from getting suitors in the village. Any young man or woman who wishes to get married must find a partner elsewhere if the union is to be accepted by the community, with a blessing from elders.
“We still have a problem of incest cases. Right now we are contemplating what to do with a man who has put his niece in the family way. It’s a taboo, a curse that is fighting to remain here,” he says.
The village is located at one end of a deep valley with rough terrain, about 20km from the Engineer-Miharati road.
Wanjiku Murigi, a widow, recounted how many innocent lives, including those of children, have been lost at the swing bridge crossing.
She has also witnessed several women give birth on the river banks because villagers were unable to swing them across to Kinangop Mission Hospital, about 10km away.
In the most recent incident, a young girl died as she followed her mother to a farm across the river.
She slipped between the wires holding the bridge, fell into the river, and that was the last time she was seen alive.
“I’m also lucky to be alive,” Murigi says. “I slipped between the wires and fell into the river. I felt some dizziness and lost my grip. My neighbours raised the alarm.”
She recalls that she was heading to a fundraiser for her late husband’s hospital bill, whose body was detained at a hospital.
She says she could have raised a sizable amount of money from relatives and friends but many could not make it to the venue of the fundraiser due to the state of the Gachuha Bridge, which scares many people from attempting to cross over.
A diver from the village, John Nguthiru, says Murigi was rescued about a kilometre from the swing bridge, unconscious and with multiple injuries from hitting rocks in the river.
“She was unconscious and bleeding heavily,” the diver says.
Nguthiru reports at the bridge at 5am every morning to ensure that schoolchildren cross safely to the other side of the river.
A few weeks ago, the diver rescued three children after one slipped into the river and his friends fell in trying to rescue him.
Still, the community has to bear with carrying caskets and meandering across the steep valleys for funerals in Gachuha village.
It is a requirement that pregnant women must strictly monitor their calendar and go to the hospital a week before the expected delivery date.
“That was resolved to avoid disasters. It’s costly paying the bills but it’s better than waiting at home. We would rather contribute to pay the hospital bills than risk the mother’s life. It's no fun carrying them on a stretcher 20 kilometres to the highway,” Mzee Kariuki says.
No vehicle can access the village, he says, and seeing one is something many children only dream about. Many only see a vehicle when they join Form One away from home, unless there is a compelling reason to go to Tulasha market, about 10 kilometres away.
The area has fertile, productive farms with adequate rainfall. But farmers do not engage in meaningful farming and huge chunks of land lie idle.
We find Faith Mukuha, a mother of three, harvesting potatoes at a small portion of land on a five-acre abandoned farm.
“I was born and brought up here but decided to relocate to Ndunyu Njeru market, where I have leased an acre for farming. The thought of my children swinging across the river to and from the school scared me. It’s a risk I can’t take,” Mukuha says.