A new shop in the Chang'aa estate in Maralal town, Samburu County. 

| Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

Maralal's Chang'aa estate rises from notoriety to prosperity

In the heart of Maralal town in Samburu County, the remnants of a bygone era stand as mute witnesses to a history marked by the introduction of Chang'aa, a potent home-brewed liquor that once defined the local landscape.

At the centre of this story is the weathered colonial-era building at the Chang'aa Estate, built in 1934.

An abandoned colonial-era building at Chang'aa estate in Maralal town. The construction of this 90-year-old building marked the beginning of the creation of the Chang'aa brewing village that bears its name: Chang'aa estate.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

Today, its rusty roof and missing doors tell a story of transformation as the estate undergoes rapid development and sheds the remnants of its notorious drinking past.

The 90-year-old building, now seemingly abandoned, was once a chang'aa den where locals gathered to indulge in the newly introduced alcohol. Chang'aa, similar to whiskey, was brought to Maralal by a Nandi businessman in pre-colonial times, according to local folklore.

Reuben Leletia, a 67-year-old elder from Chang'aa Estate, recalls the 'newness' of chang'aa in Maralal, replacing the traditional 'muratina' as the drink of choice.

 "Chang'aa was new in Maralal. Everyone wanted to try it to experience how it stimulated the senses," recalls Mr Leletia, who was a drinker at the time.

Gradually, the old house became synonymous with chang'aa brewing, earning the name 'Mahali ya chang'aa' (a chang'aa den).

In addition, the traditional distillation methods used to brew Chang'aa made it a unique and sought-after, albeit expensive, alcoholic.

Former Maralal Town Clerk Moses Lenairoshi said Chang'aa Estate was the first drinking den in the whole of Samburu County, attracting enthusiasts from far and wide.

And the village became a destination for those seeking to quench their thirst.

Bootleg liquor

But amidst the happy hours and booming economy brought about by the sale of bootleg liquor, the name Chang'aa estate brought with it stereotypes that affected other local businesses.

This put off serious investors and also affected land prices, which remained stagnant for a long time. "The name started a long time ago when the Chang'aa brew was first introduced. Unfortunately, the name is still popular in this (Maralal) town," laments Mr Lenairoshi.

He says that with the changing landscape and the current lack of active Chang'aa breweries, the stigma associated with the name remains and affects the perception of the area.

Mr Leletia attributes the end of Chang'aa brewing to the emergence of churches in the estate.

Four churches

At present, he says, there are about four churches in the Chang'aa estate alone and many more in the town of Maralal.

"I think the church should take credit. They have done a lot to convert people, both the brewers and the heavy drinkers," he says.

In the early 2000s, the dens began to close because of the church's influence and even police raids. The dens moved to Soko Mjinga and neighbouring villages, recently branded "notorious" by a police officer.

As the Chang'aa estate develops, Lenairoshi advocates a name change to shed the historical baggage.

He suggests that the estate should be renamed to reflect its new reality.

"Interestingly, Chang'aa is no longer available in the area and there are no dens.... so why should we stick to the name?" he asks. "People are slowly coming in to live and do business."

But there is a shift in perception.

Dozens of shopping centres

This is evident in the dozens of shopping centres and mini-supermarkets that have sprung up in Maralal town to cater to the growing number of workers.

The once-charged history of Chang'aa seems to be dissipating, giving way to a new narrative of economic growth and entrepreneurship.

 In an attempt to reshape the identity of Chang'aa Estate, Reuben Leletia proposes the name 'Baraka (blessings) Estate'.

Reserved by residents, the name symbolises a fresh start and positive fortunes for the evolving neighbourhood.

"Baraka Estate suits us. We have reserved it. When they start naming streets and estates, we will ask them to rename Chang'aa Estate to Baraka," affirms Mr Leletia.

Recent developments indicate positive progress in the estate, with landowners in Chang'aa Estate receiving allotment letters for the issuance of an additional 3,000 title deeds.

The initiative, launched by retired President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2021, aims to resolve long-standing land disputes and enable Samburu pastoralists to lease their land for increased economic investment in Maralal town, the county's headquarters.

 Locals say the titling process is expected to bring an end to land disputes that have hindered investment, planning and development in Maralal.

They also see it as an important step towards empowering local communities and promoting economic growth.

"In the evolving narrative of the Chang'aa Estate, the echoes of the historic Chang'aa past are fading and making way for a vibrant future," said David Sankale, a resident, in an interview.

As the community envisions a new beginning with the proposed name change, the estate is poised for further development and prosperity, unencumbered by the shadows of its once-notorious drinking reputation.