Kiamaiko’s fall from vibrant goat market to hub of illegal guns
What you need to know:
- Today, the famous market is a pale shadow of its former self. Apart from scattered herds of goats and high-rise buildings that dot the area, there is little to remind city residents of the market that used to come alive with the festive spirit every December
On November 14, officers from the Special Crimes Prevention Unit (SPRU), acting on a tip-off, trailed a white saloon car on suspicion that its occupants were planning to rob a bank.
After a dramatic chase, the officers challenged its occupants to stop at Kiamaiko.
The officers ransacked the car and found an arsenal of weapons among them AK-47s, pistols, ammunition, police uniform and walkie-talkies. One of the four suspects arrested was a former administration police officer.
Earlier in April, police gunned down an armed teenager at Huruma grounds. He had been challenged to stop by the police and instead drew a pistol. The residents later claimed that the teenager had terrorised the residents of Kiamaiko and Huruma for several months and even linked him to several murders.
In the recent past, Kiamaiko has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In its annual Nairobi crime observatory report last year, the Security Research and Information Centre (SRIC) listed the area as a crime hot spot because of the proliferation of illegal weapons.
City residents sampled by the research said “acquisition of illegal arms has become very easy especially in areas such as Kiamaiko, Eastleigh and Nigeria in Mathare slums”.
This year in June, the non-profit organisation which carries out research on human security in Kenya and in the region urged residents to take extreme caution when visiting the place and to never walk unaccompanied especially at night.
The report, which was read by the Inspector-General of the National Police Service, Mr David Kimaiyo, said the common crimes in the area were drug peddling, theft of motor cycles, dumping of bodies, armed robbery, and trading in small arms and light weapons.
However, before it became Nairobi’s gun supermarket, Kiamaiko always came alive during the festive season especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. The festive season was considered incomplete by most city families without roasting goat meat and the only place where the festive-crazed population believed they would get good meat was at Kiamaiko.
People came in their droves in December up to the New Year.
Goats would be driven by herdsmen to waiting customers who would cart away their purchases in their car boots. Traders would haggle with the customers over prices while shifting their fingers through wads of cash.
Journalists were on standby, with cameras rolling and flashing to report to the rest of the country the brisk business. It truly captured the Christmas spirit.
Today journalists, like other residents, are wary of visiting Kiamaiko for fear of being robbed. Many people, though, still recall how vibrant the area used to be during Christmas.
Joseph Kinuthia, an insurance salesman who was in primary school then, says if there is one reason he remembers Christmas, is his trips to Kiamaiko.
“On Christmas Eve, my uncles and aunties would always come to our home in Buru Buru but before they came, my older brother and I hopped on my father’s pick-up to fetch the Christmas goat. It was almost a tradition,” he recalls.
“During those days, I would always ride in the back of the pick-up to guard the goat. It was real fun,” he says.
As an adult, he has never gone to Kiamaiko to buy a goat because he says it is too expensive. His six-year-old child does not even know where Kiamaiko is.
“I guess the Christmas magic does not exist anymore; Nairobi has overgrown the goat culture just like American kids stop believing in Santa Claus when they grow up,” he explains.
An audit by the Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources says that in the period between 1996 and 2000, when business was good, a total of 110,921 goats and 42,109 sheep were slaughtered in Kiamaiko with an average of 25,000 goats and 8,000 sheep slaughtered yearly.
This figure does not include the live animals sold in the area.
With tripe (matumbo), head and meat being sold separately, traders like 55-year-old Adams Wariku, one of the founders of the abattoir, says he used to sell up to 200 goats a day during the month of December. Mr Wariku is one of the people who have seen the rise and decline of the abattoir.
“All these high-rise buildings you see here have been constructed using goat money. In fact, the owner of this house has two other houses nearby,” he says, pointing to a block of apartments.
A few buildings rise above tin and mud shacks providing a complex residential arrangement where the poor live side by side with the wealthy.
Mr Wariku says there were no residential houses in the area when he first came to Kiamaiko.
“In those years, people would come and buy up to three goats at a time; today selling even one goat is not easy,” he says.
Last Christmas, he sold five to 10 animals per day and blames the loss of business on the high cost of living and insecurity.
Goat prices at the abattoir have risen from Sh700 to between Sh3,000 and Sh15,000 depending on the size.
“If you come with a good car and look like your wallet is loaded, you will pay higher than a person who has walked from Kariobangi to buy a kilo of meat for his family,” he says with a chuckle.
“The traders say they don’t have money and the customers say the same thing. Customers today prefer to buy meat in smaller portions.”
Mr Wariku, who started selling goats as a young man in 1991, has created all his wealth and raised his family from proceeds earned from selling goats.
Residents here and his colleagues refer to him as “mzee wa taifa” due to his age and mastery of the business.
He has constructed rental houses, a home and has three 25-seater matatus plying the Kariobangi route. One of his sons is a doctor.
At the turn of 1990, two significant things happened in Kenya and Somalia which, though unrelated, led to the rise of Kiamaiko as the only goat abattoir in Nairobi.
Somalia’s dictatorial president Mohamed Said Bare was ousted, resulting in a breakout of civil war as factions fought to control the country.
Consequently, hundreds of refugees escaping war and famine escaped into Kenya with some ending up in Nairobi.
They settled in two distinct areas: some went to Eastleigh (Little Mogadishu). The second group ended up in an area tucked between Kariobangi, Huruma and Mathare where members of the Kenyan Borana and Gabbra communities were the predominant residents. This made it easy for the refugees to blend in.
By then, there were vast tracts of land in Nairobi and the Somalis, who are predominantly pastoralists, grazed their animals freely. They started keeping goats and sheep.
“We started, as a group of three wazees in 1991, keeping and slaughtering goats during Ramadhan to preserve our traditions. The goats were slaughtered in the open and Muslims would come here for their meat,” says Wariku outside his Wonderful Slaughter House as one of his employees negotiates with a customer inside.
In 1985, five years before Wariku came to Nairobi, the Kenya Meat Commission, which was the only commercial abattoir in Kenya, collapsed because of mismanagement and debt. Four other abattoirs came up in Dandora, Dagoretti, Kayole and Njiru. These, however, dealt with cattle only and, with no competition, Kiamaiko grew exponentially.
“Around 1996, demand for goats was very high, prompting us to start the first formal slaughter house. We hired veterinary doctors and procured a licence from the government,” he recalls.
According to the Inter-African Bureau for Aanimal Resources, 28,923 goats and 5,859 sheep were sold on the first year alone.
Wariku says the goats were slaughtered according to strict Islamic customs which are followed to date.
“The animals are slaughtered from 2 pm to 10 pm and the person who slaughters them must be Muslim. Skinning is then done by persons of whichever faith,’ he says.
The person who slaughters is paid Sh50 while those who skin and wash the carcass also get Sh50.
With increased demand, the traders sourced goats from markets in Marsabit, Moyale, Kajiado, Garissa, Turkana and Ethiopia. This was the beginning of the end of Kiamaiko as we used to know it.
According to Gunpolicy.org, some of the source markets that the traders buy their animals from are also used as transit points for firearms from Bualle and Bardera towns in Somalia, the main gateways for illegal firearm dealers from countries as far as Eritrea, Yemen, Egypt and Russia.
In Turkana and Marsabit, it is considered a way of life to own an AK-47 because of cattle raids and high insecurity. According to the website, an AK-47 in Marsabit goes for as low as Sh572 and a pistol for Sh2,640, making it a source market for illegal firearms in Nairobi.
Gun runners easily conceal their consignments and, since police rarely inspect the lorries, the weapons find their way into Kiamaiko.
The gun business is so discreet that you can hardly point out who is doing it. In Huruma and Mathare, the youth line up the pathways.
Miraa business is also big here. After Eastleigh, Kiamaiko has metarmophosed into the second largest miraa market in the city and people from all corners of Nairobi come here to get their supplies.
Although residents acknowledge that the miraa business is a smokescreen for a booming underground gun trade, they can’t point out the suspects.
“You can’t say that guns are being sold here. This is because even if you know the illegal trade goes on here, you can’t see anyone doing it openly,” says Sekhi Konzo, a resident.
“The criminals know each other and do their business underground. So even if it is there you can’t exactly say that this or that person is doing it but there are obviously those who are linked to gun trade.”
“And because this is a slum with a huge population, it is difficult to know everyone. There are very many places where weapons can be sold,” he says.
To conceal the trade, the gun runners coin code names for the weapons. The names change from time to time. Therefore a deal may be going down right next to you and you won’t know. A pistol is referred to as a kijiko (spoon), an AK-47 is a mwiko (cooking stick), bullets are njugu (groundnuts) while a grenade is a waru (potato), the Sunday Nation established.
At Kiamaiko, an AK-47 costs Sh40,000, a pistol, depending on the make, costs upwards of Sh25,000, and bullets go for as low as Sh100. Grenades cost Sh10,000. However, you must be well connected to buy them.
The Huruma police post is barely 500 metres away from Kiamaiko, but the police seem unable to contain the gun trade.
Last December, business was paralysed after residents who had taken to the streets to protest against rising crime clashed with police.
Between December 25, 2012 and New Year’s eve, five people were killed and 20 others injured during run-ins with criminals.
Today, Kiamaiko is a pale shadow of its former self. Apart from the high-rise buildings that dot the area, there is nothing to remind city residents of the once vibrant goat market.
The abattoir is operating at half its capacity. Out of 15 slaughter houses, less than 10 are in operation. Youths have turned the front yards of the closed slaughter houses into areas of relaxation.
The markets have seen sales decline especially after supermarkets joined the fray and started selling whole slaughtered goats.
The traders now stand at the doors with folded arms constantly beckoning passers-by.
“Kuja niko na bei mzuri (come, my prices are good),” they shout when calling out for customers. Sometimes, the traders even engage in fist-fights over customers.
On the day of doing this story, Isaak Mahmoud, one of the butchers, said he had not sold a single kilo of meat the whole day.
And, in a desperate bid to reassure customers of their security, Mr Wariku says the Kiamaiko Traders Association has hired 20 security guards.
“Tell people to come over for Christmas, because we have improved security,” he told me.
It is understandable since he is just a trader who wants to make money. But if nothing is done to stop the gun trade, Kiamaiko will remain just that — a gun supermarket.