Nanyuki protest

Commercial sex workers and Nanyuki residents protest the killing of Agnes Wanjiru on October 26, 2021. Wanjiru was reportedly killed a British soldier in 2012.

| James Murimi | Nation Media Group

Soldiers, girls and cash: Bittersweet mix that keeps Nanyuki fun but dangerous

What you need to know:

  • The British soldiers, their Kenyan colleagues and visitors complicates the socio-cultural balance.
  • The British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) employs more than 500 locals, according to British High Commissioner to Kenya Jane Marriot. 

That Nanyuki is the party capital of Kenya is disputed by few. Clubs here are aplenty, parties wild and locals and visitors gaga over nightlife.

Little wonder the sidesplitting folklore of the town’s “lost map” and subsequent moniker of “Mwisho wa Reli” fits like a glove.

This tag was earned in the 1930s, when the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway line arrived in the town. By this time, British immigrants had been here since 1907.

The line, the second in Kenya’s hinterland besides the Uganda one, was bound to change the socio-cultural and economic landscape of the settlement.

A hundred years after Nanyuki was gazetted as a town by Governor Edward Northey of Kenya colony in 1920, the transformation has not stopped. Generations have come and gone, governance changed and the population swelled to the current 105,000.

For locals an visitors, every time is party time. It’s the last Friday of the month and entertainment spots are full. There is hardly space for parking at Moran Lounge and Grill. 

After 18 months of the nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew, Nanyuki’s nightlife is back with a bang.

From bar brawls to prostitution, drink spiking and other crimes, life in Nanyuki ticks all the boxes of debauchery. With a high circulation of money, end month is a period of frenzied activity.

The British soldiers, their Kenyan colleagues and visitors complicates the socio-cultural balance.

In mid this year, a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldier died when his drink was laced with an unknown drug, the second incident in as many years. 

Military town

But how did Nanyuki become a military town? How do the British troops and the white settler community relate with locals? In what ways has their presence transformed life here?

Lying on the Equator and ensconced between Mt Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges, the expanse of Laikipia County is the dream site for military training.

During the Lancaster House talks in 1962, Jomo Kenyatta called for the closure and removal of British army barracks from Kenya, even as the UK lobbied to have them remain. 

In 1964, Britain enticed the Kenyan government with military training, equipment and accommodation support for the local army on condition that British troops be allowed to remain in Kenya.

After taking office, however, President Jomo Kenyatta signed a contract that allowed the British army to remain in the country for 15 years. 

Subsequent renewals of the deal have seen British troops to become a permanent fixture in the lives of Nanyuki residents.

The British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) employs more than 500 locals, according to British High Commissioner to Kenya Jane Marriot. 

Drivers, cooks and mechanics are some of the permanent staff, with a monthly take-home of Sh50,000 to Sh70,000, depending on the number of years one has worked. 

Cleaners, tailors and plumbers are on contract. Ronald Kanyi*, a builder, has worked here since 2003, so has his wife Lucy Njeri*, a clerk at the camp. “We have raised our family working here,” says Kanyi.

Drunken scuffle

Daniel Kilonzo has operated a curio shop near Nanyuki Nyati Barracks for 11 years. Kilonzo says he has comfortably fended for his family by selling carvings and sculptures to the British.

“Without this military base, I would be jobless. Many artisans were rendered jobless when the soldiers left the country when Covid-19 hit,” he says. 

Apart from creating jobs, Batuk has built schools, roads and boreholes for locals. 

“The love is felt both ways,’’ Ms Marriot told the Sunday Nation early this year.

However, there are times the relationship is hardly of love, with suspicion, manipulation and even violence prevailing. 

In a recent drunken scuffle at Cider Mall, a group of soldiers harassed a senior police officer when he and his juniors attempted to stop a brawl.

‘‘Most of the trainees are teens. The boys fight when drunk. Whenever ruckus occurs, soldiers from the camp are mobilised to stop it. They don’t have any regard for police officers,” Kilonzo says. 

So serious have been some of the fights that the camp restricts the joints the soldiers can go to, to limit altercations with civilians.

But even at high-end clubs like Hemisphere, Downtown and Falcon Heights where they are allowed to go , incidents are common. 

The director of one the oldest hotels in Nanyuki describes the soldiers as “disruptive”, adding that they make other customers uncomfortable whenever they are around.

Mutilated body

Eight soldiers leased three floors of an entire block of the hotel, where they stayed for months in 2018. So rowdy were the soldiers that the hotel management had to kick them out. 

“I had to choose between keeping this as a family hotel or turning it into a military camp,” the manager says. 

Young White women, usually accompanied by local girls, are a common feature at open air markets buying second-hand clothes, shoes or artefacts. The men walk around town, engaging in typical boyish mischief. 

Some befriend local women. Soon to follow are rollercoaster relationships that sometimes end in new life or tragedy.

The 2012 killing of Agnes Wanjiru, 21, reportedly by a British soldier, is an example of affairs that ended in disaster. 

Wanjiru’s mutilated body was found in a septic tank at Lions Court Hotel two months after she vanished.

In Likii, about three kilometres north of Nanyuki, tales abound of how soldiers trek to the deepest pockets of the village to seduce women. Thereafter, they crawl back to the camp, leaving their hostesses to deal with consequences of this behaviour.

Some of these men have not been too lucky to return from their excursions. A few weeks ago, a British soldier was murdered in this sprawling neighbourhood after reportedly seeing his lover at night. 

Yet nothing characterises this debauchery quite like children born out these relationships, fatherless mixed blood boys and girls, who are the society’s laughing stock.

White community

Milka Wanjugu, who grew up Nanyuki, says drama involving soldiers and local women is nothing new. Sex workers are often on the receiving end. Last Tuesday, they held a demo in town, demanding justice for Wanjiru and other victims of assault.

Ms Wanjugu says some women take advantage of the soldiers, taking their money without commitment thus leading to assault.

“When the Johnnies (a term used to describe the British soldiers) attempt to beat the women, locals come to their aid,” she says. 

A number of relationships have blossomed, with the soldiers taking local women with them to the UK. Such cases are rare, though.

Three out of five vehicles that drive in and out of Cider Mall, the largest in the town, are by Whites. 

The mall’s supermarket, flower shop, grocery and pharmacy are dominated by White customers. The two Java and KFC outlets have predominantly White patrons.

The white community of farmers and ranchers contributes about 30 per cent to the county economy, according to the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI).

‘‘The county government has 2,000 workers. Conservancies and lodges in employ more than 800 people. This makes them a critical contributor to our economy,” says Ndegwa Gitonga, chairman of the local KNCCI chapter.

Laikipia has the highest number of airstrips of any county in Kenya, at 42, data from the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) shows. Thirty eight are private.

Only Nyahururu airstrip (KAA), Dol Dol, Ol Ng’arua and Rumuruti (public) and Laikipia Airbase are owned by different entities.

Oppressing locals

Nanyuki airstrip, the oldest in the county, is being upgraded to international standards at a cost of Sh329 million.

Real estate in Nanyuki has experienced a boom, driven by the rising demand for houses. Nine years ago, a 50x100ft plot sold for Sh350,000. The price has shot up tenfold.

Classy apartments go daily to dominate the landscape. Owners of properties like Snow View, Peacock, Acacia and Dol Dol have been among the luckiest. Here, monthly rent ranges between Sh70,000 and Sh100,000 for a three-bedroom house.

Between 2017 and 2020, there was a 35 percent increase in the number of approvals for residential apartments and commercial buildings at 104 and 141 respectively. Some 482 residential houses were approved, against 122 for commercial buildings.

Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi appears not impressed with the economic gains, accusing the soldiers of oppressing locals.

‘‘There is a long list of abuses, including injuries from unexploded ordinance. You cannot cover up murder by saying you are contributing to the economic development of Nanyuki,” he said recently. 

Development has come with its fair share of ills. Between 2017 and 2020, Nanyuki accounted for 31 per cent of crimes in Laikipia, with 1,575 incidents reported, police say.

Break-ins, drug dealing, robbery and homicides are some of the crimes reported. 

Hawkers selling articles disguised as British wares are all over. They are strategically positioned on major streets with torches, watches, knives and sunglasses.

After the developments last week, soldiers presence on the streets has reduced. To locals, this is merely a lull before a new storm.