Today’s Christmas, falling on a Saturday for the first time since 2010, will be a tale of contrasting fortunes for Kenyans.
While some will be spending big and in the company of loved ones, others are either too broke to join relatives or in circumstances where holding a celebration is inconceivable.
Evidence of big spending could be seen Friday December 24 in the fully booked flights to the Coast and few or no available vacancies in the most exclusive hotels across the country.
The Entunoto Camp in the Mara, for instance, where guests pay Sh158,000 a night, was fully booked by yesterday.
There was also heavy Christmas Eve movement. By noon Friday December 24, the Google Maps traffic tracker was reporting heavy traffic on highways leading out of major towns.
Little to celebrate
However, as some residents travel around and make merry, others are suffering and with little to celebrate.
Among these are the thousands who were rendered homeless when the government demolished houses at the Mukuru kwa Njenga settlement in Nairobi in October to pave way for road expansion.
A local mobiliser placed the number of affected households at 40,000.
The affected now live in tents or with friends. The Saturday Nation interviewed some of them yesterday and the emerging picture was that of desolation and abject need.
Joy Mwende, 16, came back home from school last month to find rubble in place of the place she called home. Neighbours had to direct her to her parents’ new location, only to find her parents gone, and younger siblings outside a building in tears.
“We rarely get food, and most of the time, my younger siblings have to eat their meals at my aunt’s place. My friends pity me when I take them around this area to show them what happened, and there’s one who even suggested that I move in with them, even though I refused,” says Mwende.
“This Christmas, I am sure we will be indoors, and whichever friend decides to visit has to be comfortable with that. None of us has Christmas clothes, and we don’t even have toilets. We have to use those in the neighbouring plots. I pray these demolitions stop, because I have seen my mother suffer more because of it,” she adds.
Fardosa Ali, a 14-year-old Form One student, also had trouble finding her home from school. She had fallen sick and was released to go home to seek medical attention, only to find that her home was no more.
The motorcycle rider who had carried her lent her his phone, and when her father picked her up later, he took her to her new home – a new rental building where they were the only tenants. Just like Mwende, there are fears of an upcoming demolition.
It is lonely there, she says, and the single room house is too small for the family of seven.
Pauline Mwikali, a Form Two student at Embakasi Girls, recalls how in the aftermath of the demolitions, she had to borrow a pair of school uniform, wear “crocs” to school and ask for new books at school.
She and her siblings have to sleep in their grandmother’s house nearby to allow their parents some privacy. They go back to their house in the morning, yet they all slept under the same roof initially.
“Sometimes we miss meals. When we get something, we cook, eat some and save the rest for supper. On Christmas, we won’t celebrate anything. In the past years, we celebrated albeit with low funds, but this is going to be the most difficult. I am not even excited about it. The clothes I wear now belong to my friends, but my greatest need now is uniform and school fees,” she explains.
Virginiah Kambua, 17, explains how she has had to contend with loss of privacy yet there is nothing she can do because her entire family is being accommodated by her mother’s friend.
Their closest relatives live upcountry, her mother’s job at the market ended, and her father is a casual labourer. Even though they would get most necessities prior to losing their home, getting them in the aftermath became hard, and she and her siblings even lacked school fees.
“Living there as a girl is hard. You can’t stay with your friends in the house, and have to opt for a walk. During my periods, I have to visit my friends and change my pad at their place. We also feel like we are a burden to the host family. We realise that they probably had their own way of life and family traditions, but now we have interfered with that. It’s hard for them. They can’t tell us that, but we can feel it,” she says.
“I don’t know how Christmas is going to be. It is all about celebrations, yet there is nothing here to celebrate. There is no money, and all we have to do is stay in the house. At our house, our parents would give each of us some little money to spend with our friends, but now we don’t think that’s going to happen,” Virginiah adds.
Mr Shifta Wambua, a parent who is among those that lost their houses, reveals that some parents were forced to live with their children in tents, and have to bear the cold, wet ground when it rains.
Because most parents lost their businesses, they couldn’t get money, and so their children stopped going to school. Now, the same children have trouble getting three meals a day.
“This will be the most challenging Christmas ever. I had a business that I lost, and since I was always sure of getting some money, I always got my children new clothes and pairs of shoes, and buy them nice food to celebrate the day. This time round, I have a dented pocket and won’t be able to do it. It makes my heart ache with sadness, but I will talk to them and ask them to understand, and hope that I can make it up to them next Christmas,” he concludes.
As the Njenga residents grapple with the difficulties they face, other Kenyans across the country will be away from loved ones for one reason or the other.
Joan Okeye, a teacher, is one of them. She says that the Education ministry’s calendar gives her little wiggle room.
“I come from Siaya and I work and live in Nairobi. Schools closed just two days to Christmas day. We’ll be on recess for a few days and resume by January 3. This is just too short a period to travel upcountry and enjoy the warmth of my siblings whom I haven’t seen since last year,” she says.
Taquin Mugezi, an engineer, said the cost of travelling is a deterrent.
“I’ll be in Nairobi, several miles away from our home in Mfangano Island. We are breaking for the holidays on December 23 and from then, the cost of travelling upcountry, to and fro will be just too expensive. So I better wait and travel later next year,” said Taquin.
Journalism graduate Eunice Chacha also said she won’t make it to her home in the Mara Tarime Province of Tanzania because of the cost involved.
It will also be a less lustrous Christmas to the more than 500 Kenyans admitted at various hospitals due to Covid-19, more so the ones on intensive care units. It will also be a muted celebration for the 11,000 who are under home-based isolation and care after testing positive in the last few days as the Omicron variant spreads.
On the joyful side, the Maasai Mara reserve is teeming with local and foreign tourists who have packed lodges and tented camps, which have reported 100 per cent booking over Christmas and New Year festivities.
A spot-check by the Saturday Nation revealed that high-end lodges like Keekorok, Sarova Mara, Mara Simba, Governors, Serena Mara, Kichwa Tembo, Spirit of the Mara, Angama, Mahali Mzuri, Olare Mara Kempinsiki and Entunoto inside the wildlife sanctuary were fully booked up to January 3.
Entunoto camp co-founder Joseph Kararei explained that the luxury camp consists of two accommodation options: Entumoto Main and Entumoto Toto.
“The luxury tents are built of custom-designed, multi-layered canvas and are located a hundred metres apart from each other for guests to enjoy maximum privacy and tranquillity,” said Mr Kararei.
Oldarpoi Mara camp founder and chief executive Nelson Ole Reyia said despite an increase in the number of international tourist arrivals, domestic tourist numbers are still the highest in most lodges, and due to Covid-19 they have tailored special prices for domestic tourists at Sh10,000 a night.
“After the coronavirus pandemic grounded the sector, we went into renovating camps, and this is our first Christmas in which we expect visitors in large numbers,” said Mr Reyia.
Several lodges had prepared in advance with elaborate programmes, including enticing rates for holidaymakers as the season set in.
At Keekorok Lodge, which has been set out as a village with luxurious bedrooms that evoke the spirit and style of ancient dwellings, excess bookings spilled over to nearby hotels where accommodation costs upwards of Sh50,000 a night.
Keekorok General Manager James ole Pere said Kenyans from Nairobi represented about 45 per cent of the guests.
Reporting by Mercy Chelangat, Daniel Ogetta and George Sayagie