Few residents of Nyeri County walk into Majengo slums unless they live there or have business to conduct therein. There is an instant sense of apprehension, like you’re being watched from behind.
Majengo was in the limelight after the terror attack at the Dusit Hotel Complex in Nairobi last month.
That one of the homebred terrorists, Ali Salim Gichunge had visited Majengo only added fuel to the fires of suspension about the area which has existed since Nyeri was founded in Central Kenya in 1902.
But it was not the first time Majengo-which sits smack in the Nyeri CBD- was being linked to recruitment and radicalisation of youth into the Al-Shabaab terror group.
Locals told The Nairobian that before his death in 2012, controversial Mombasa Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo visited Majengo and held several forums with the youth.
That Ruringu Estate, like Majengo, houses the local Muslim community who live or have ties there, only makes the place an area of interest to authorities.
Nyeri County is thus believed to be a transit point and hideout for terrorists for its proximity to major towns such Isiolo, Meru, Embu and Nairobi.
Sheikh Uledi Majid, a resident of Majengo and chair of the Muslim Development Group in Nyeri said he was among clerics who denounced Rogo “because what he was teaching was not in line with our faith. I was not afraid of him and stood up to him making it clear he was not welcome in Nyeri. There is no verse in the Holy Quran which calls for people to kill each other.”
Though majority of Majengo residents are Muslim, they have co-existed with the Christians since colonial times.
Uledi Majid’s great grandfather moved to Majengo in the 1900s and married a Kikuyu woman who converted to Islam about the 100 families that had settled there at the time.
“Most were farmhands who followed their colonial masters, others had served in the Kings African Rifles regiment, while others were Muslim missionaries, and they settled in the area and intermarried with the local communities,” explained Majid, adding that entire families settled on parcels measuring 200 metres square.
“Our parents relied on menial jobs to make ends meet, they were issued with Temporary Occupation Licenses, which meant they could not build permanent homes, develop, or subdivide the land,” he explained. This confined the families in the area to few economic opportunities.
However, radicalisation has slowly become the unspoken yoke in the community after two of the oldest mosques in Nyeri town, Majengo and Ruringu mosques- which were built in the 1930s- featured prominently in conversations surrounding radicalisation.
“The youth who are desperate for work, are often lured into making bad decisions by the promise of money and jobs, outside the country,” explains Majid.
Those who fall prey do leave, cut ties and never return to their relatives. Many families never admit their children are missing, often claiming they’re in the Middle East searching for jobs and thus rarely reports any disappearances.
Majid has been vocal on the need to stem radicalisation among Muslim youth in the community, but remains adamant that lack of employment and economic hardships for the youth encourages recruiters who use football.
“The use of football to lure the youth into embracing radical Islam has been an issue, I hear that the young boys are allowed to go to training camps away from home which is very suspicious,” he explained, adding that one unique challenge in Majengo which makes the community vulnerable is that most members were not born into Islam but converted as they became older.
Majid elaborates that for this reason it has become the norm for non-Muslim youth to turn to Islam, unlike in other parts of the country where most are born into the faith. “Several years ago, 100 youth linked to Mungiki approached the Nyeri Muslim leaders and sought to convert to the faith. Initially we welcomed them in the belief they were reformed. However, we discovered they were sniffing snuff and smoking tobacco and were breaking the tenets of our faith and we had to disassociate ourselves from them,” Majid said.
While some residents got title deeds to their lands and sold them to developers, about 70 families from the original 100 still hold on to what they consider ancestral land.