A tale of two Christmases

Travellers queue to book Transline Bus to Kisii at Afya Centre, Nairobi yesterday. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The season of merry making has started, but while some Kenyans are on a spending spree to treat families, others have held back, citing hard times.

In some towns, commuters scrambled for vehicles with matatu operators hiking fares. Long queues were evident in various retail stores as shoppers did last minute shopping and luxury spots did booming business.

Mombasa, Diani and other coastal towns like Malindi and Watamu have recorded almost 100 per cent occupancy and holiday makers were still streaming in, heightening the carnival mood.

Yesterday, MS Nautica, a Norwegian owned cruise liner with close to 1,000 tourists aboard, docked at the Port Mombasa from Port Victoria in Seychelles on its Indian Ocean cruise voyage.

Azym Dossa, the Easy Coach Managing Director, yesterday said they had been forced to increase the number of their fleet on some routes.

“We have increased our fleet by 12 buses since the festive season began. We now have 40 buses ferrying passengers on daily basis to various parts of the country,” he said.

He said the same buses returned almost empty, since very few passengers were travelling to the opposite direction.

Fewer passengers

In places like Chuka town, however, some matatu operators complained that there were fewer passengers. In Trans Nzoia, residents said lack of market for their maize produce had forced them to spare the little savings to cater for school fees.

In Tharaka Nithi, there were long queues at bus parks. The reverse was true for bus stops in Meru town.

However, the town’s supermarkets had long queues with shoppers having to wait for hours.

Fewer people were travelling to Nairobi and other areas from Meru. Fare had to be reduced. The Prestige Shuttle that normally charges Sh600 to Nairobi reduced the fare to Sh400, as transporters fought for the few available travellers.

“Don’t say we have been forced to reduce our fares. We are charging Sh400 to Nairobi as a discount. Just say it is our Christmas present to our loyal customers,” said one driver.

Fare hiked

But the fare to Isiolo and other destinations out of Meru was hiked as was also the case in many other regions. Passengers travelling from Nairobi to Murang’a paid Sh500 up from the usual Sh200.

In Nyeri County, public service vehicles maintained the usual fares despite an increase in the number of travellers to rural areas.

Those travelling from Nyeri to Nyahururu, Nanyuki and Othaya were charged the usual Sh300, Sh200 and Sh70 respectively.

The situation was attributed to competition among different matatu saccos.  

In Nyeri town, most bar owners were seen restocking drinks in anticipation of an influx of customers during the festive season. 

Elsewhere in Nakuru, long traffic jams characterised the town as matatus, mostly from Nairobi, ferried hundreds of passengers to Nyanza region.

Hundreds of motorists were held up for hours along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, which had most of the traffic flowing towards Nakuru town.

The highway traffic gridlock worsened in Nakuru’s Geoffrey Kamau Way, which passes through the town, after the snarl-up from the Nakuru main bus stage spilled over to the highway.

A spot check with a majority of the matatu operators indicated that they maintained their transport charges for those travelling towards Nairobi while those travelling upcountry were charged nearly double the normal fare.

“From Nakuru to Nairobi the normal charges are Sh350, but have been reduced by Sh50. This is contrary to what we have paid from Nairobi to Nakuru, which ranged between Sh700 and Sh1,000 for different operators,” said Mary Wanjiru, a resident.

Supermarkets were parked as residents shopped for clothes and other items. With a majority of supermarkets located along Nakuru’s main street-Kenyatta avenue- this caused a buildup of traffic that took police hours to clear.

Some residents were, however, in early preparations for the back to school period, which starts next week.

The Standard caught up with Eliud Mwangi, a parent, in one of the banks paying school fees for his children.

“This is an early preparation for the reopening of schools. It is a season where many do mistakes of spending on festivities and forget about the education responsibilities ahead of them in a week’s time,” said Mr Mwangi. 

At Nairobi’s Eastleigh, it was a busy day for traders. Since last week, Said Hussein Ali had been standing outside his clothing store at Bangkok Shopping Mall, chanting welcoming phrases to the hundreds of shoppers who queued undeterred by the usual afternoon heat and commotion.

When The Standard visited his shop, six clients were struggling to choose clothes to buy for Christmas.

“Business has been good. We have received numerous customers since morning. All items from children’s to adults’ clothes are being bought,” Mr Ali told The Standard, a grin of satisfaction visible on his face.

But it was not all joy for all the traders at Eastleigh.

Peris Wambui, a hawker selling children’s shoes at Eastleigh’s 5th Street, complained of poor state of business, noting, “It does not even look like December. I have been a trader for many years but this year has been the strangest. I’ve sold to less than 30 customers since opening my stall at midday”.

In Eldoret town, there was high demand for food items in sub-urban areas in the North Rift region, including vegetables, fruits, milk and meat.

Shoppers of goat meat popular among locals, had to travel to adjacent shopping centres due to scarcity at Mosoriot on Sunday, where most butcheries only stocked beef.

Major supermarkets were jammed with shoppers.

Traffic snarl-ups were evident due to an increase of vehicles travelling to Eldoret and western regions of the country for Christmas festivities.

“I travelled from Nairobi to Eldoret on Sunday night with my family and for the first time, we used nine hours instead of the normal six. The speed limit was between 30 and 50kph along the way because of heavy traffic,” said Eric Kibet, a motorist.

But not everyone was in a rush to travel upcountry, with some complaining that there was no money yet a long list of expenses, including school fees, awaited them in January.

At Chuka town, there were very few people boarding vehicles to other destinations.

Franklin Karani, a conductor, told The Standard this year had proved different as the number of passengers was lesser than anticipated.

“Unlike in the past, when we used to fetch money during such seasons, this year we are even beseeching passengers to board vehicles. Fares have not changed since this is determined by the number of people travelling,” Mr Karani said.

James Mawira, who has visited his rural area from Nairobi, said he would have stayed in the city were it not for their annual get-together party.

“The cost of living at the moment is very high and this has made people to stay at their working places. Others have children to take to school in January and this cannot allow them to spend a lot,” he said.

Ken Kirimi said he would rather send money to his family to celebrate where they were than spend the same to travel to his rural home and back again in January.

In Trans Nzoia, residents complained about the lack of market for their maize produce.

Kenya National Federation of Farmers (Kneff) said delays in opening up National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) stores to enable farmers to supply their produce had hurt them.

“Many people here are tormented and are not in celebration mood because they lack purchasing power. This is the worst year for residents here,” said Kneff Secretary General Tom Nyagechaga.

He said they had been forced to spare the little savings to cater for fees for their children as schools reopen next month.

“Residents have nothing to celebrate because they don’t have money. Most of them rely on the sale of maize to buy Christmas items and gifts but since the Government stopped buying maize, everyone is broke,” said Mr Nyagechaga. 

High cost of living

In Kisumu, some residents complained of high cost of living, insecurity and thoughts of next year’s school fees, saying those had dampened the celebration mood.

These have also been coupled with natural calamities such as floods, stubborn water hyacinth weed and strong winds that have left a trail of destruction in the city.

“The high cost of living has made it difficult for us to spend on festivities. It will just be business as usual for me, I’ll stay indoors,” said Joseph Mwamtindi, a resident of Migosi estate and a father of five.

Traders whose businesses boomed in the festive season also lamented.

“We are not seeing people scramble to buy shoes and clothes like it has always been in past years,” said Josephin Akumu, a trader.

Previously, residents would throng Kibuye market to buy Christmas and New Year’s best. 

Charles Kyalo from Kibwezi in Makueni County is one of the Nairobi residents who wont be making the annual trip to the village to celebrate Christmas.

Mr Kyalo cited hard economic times for his decision to remain in the city. Fares from Nairobi to his home town have shot to Sh2,000 from Sh500, making travelling for him a costly affair.

“I saw that when I went home, my wife and I would stay for only two days. That would mean that I spend Sh8,000 on transport alone, so I decided to send something small to the people back at home from what we could have used for transport,” said Mr Kyalo.

And for Paul Muoka, who has been selling ice cream for the past three years at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, if there is no divine intervention, he does not see himself raising enough money to pay for his children’s school fees.

He says by this period in the past two years, he had always made a kill from ice cream sales due to the huge number of people visiting the park.

“By this time there are always people crowding here, some lying on that grass,” he said, pointing to an empty space at the park. “I hope it will change by tomorrow (today) so that I can get something to take my children to school next year.”

For many people, this year’s festivities come at a time there is little to celebrate, or if there is reason to celebrate, there is a constraint in finances.

Across city malls, which are usually characterised by winding queues of shoppers stretching up to the parking lots by this period, only a handfull of shoppers could be seen doing rounds in supermarkets to pick a few food items.

A number of shopping malls visited by The Standard team did not comment on the decline in the number of shoppers.

One shopper who did not want his name mentioned said he did not see anything wrong with this year’s Christmas. He said he was out shopping and having fun with his family.

The situation was not different in public places. By the time of the interview, businesses like bouncing castles and merry-go-rounds were still setting up in anticipation for today.

[Dickson Mwiti, Phares Mutembei, Farrel Ogolla, Boniface Gikandi, Kennedy Gachuhi, Silah Koskei and Harold Odhiambo]

The Standard
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