Four kilometres from Kakamega town along the Kakamega-Webuye highway lies a shopping centre known as Shimalavandu.
By and large, it is a small market centre that mainly caters for the community around, yet the most notable thing about it is the reputation of being a killer zone.
In the local dialect, Shimalavandu alludes to a place where people get killed.
Indeed, Shimalavandu has claimed many lives mainly through horrific road accidents and in the hands of criminal gangs that until recently, used to patronise the area.
The name Shimalavandu has been in existence for a long time and opinion is divided on what the original name of the place truly was.
“To my recollection, an event that led to this place being called Shimala Vandu dates back to the evening of February 2, 1947,” says 93-year Andrea Ong’ayo.
Born within the vicinity of Shimala Vandu in 1929, Ong'ayo served as the Assistant Chief of Indangalasi from the mid-1950s through to the 1970s.
“On that fateful day, two old men, Mr Tsikhungu and Mr Mwoka were basking in the sun on a boulder along the road when a vehicle travelling towards Kakamega town lost control and killed them. It was a hit and run case because the driver and vehicle were never found. From that day on, accidents increased and the place became a black spot,” says Ong'ayo.
In those days, he says it was normal for men to sit by the roadside at the market centre where an abattoir that served the community was located.
According to him, there were no butcheries then. Meat sellers used to hang meat on low lying tree branches from where buyers could make their purchases.
Ong'ayo says before the name Shimala Vandu took root, the area was known as Wamatere or Isembe.
But according to John Andala Misiko, 67, the area used to be known as Ichina, perhaps in reference to the rocks that lined the then dirt road. Ichina, a Luhya name, refers to stones.
It is not only road accidents that gave Shimalavandu the unflattering name.
In the 1970s, according to Ong'ayo and Misiko, criminal gangs used to operate in the area, pouncing on unsuspecting people, robbing them, hacking and often killing them.
The gangs seemed to mostly waylay teachers on their way home from banks in Kakamega where they had gone to withdraw their salaries.
There was a joke at the time that the easiest way to identify a teacher was to look for a man carrying a five-litre jerrycan of paraffin and riding a bicycle.
A number of unrelated violent incidents in the 1970s cemented the name Shimala Vandu. “In December 1970, a group of youngsters from both the Isukha and Batsotso clans were on their way home from a night dance when something said in jest sparked violence at Shimala Vandu,” Andala says.
“One of the young men from Isukha was killed that night. The next day, the Isukha’s avenged that death by killing a youth from Butsotso. It was the origin of bad blood and gangs in the area”.
According to Agnes Mbagaya Muhavi, a son of her in-law became a victim of the gangs in 1970.
“My nephew Clement Livuyi had urged some of the gang members to stop the violence when his relative, apparently a member of one of the gangs, grabbed a machete and split open his stomach wall, killing him”.
She says traditional rites, including the torching of houses belonging to the offending family, were performed and its members were excommunicated from the community.
In the same year at the same place, Ong'ayo, who was then an assistant chief, says that a man stabbed his brother to death, adding to the reputation of killings in the area.
“They had been drinking together but on their way home disagreed while at Shimala Vandu and one stabbed the other to death. He was arrested, charged and jailed”.
Both people interviewed could not pinpoint the exact time the area got the bad name, but agree it was the combination of road accidents, marauding gangs of killer youth and unexplained cases of inter-clan mistrust that gave rise to the name in the 1970s.
Today, however, Shimala Vandu is no longer the dangerous place it used to be years back.
Conducive for business
Elders, villagers and the youth who ply their trades at Shimala Vandu agree the place is safe and conducive for business.
“I own a small hotel business here and open by 5 am and close around 7 pm. I can assure you there is no more violence and killings here. The construction of this modern road has helped a great deal in reducing road accidents that are now a thing of the past,” says Reuben Lukoye.
A cobbler, Wycliffe Were Makokha agrees.
“This place is okay nowadays. We no longer operate under fear. Boda boda guys have nothing to fear and accidents have been reduced," he says.
Some residents have called for a change of name, but that might take some time before it happens. However, there are deliberate attempts to obliterate the bad past by people who use public means and alight at Shimala Vandu.
Gradually, the area is becoming known as Bishop Stam, a Catholic pastoral centre right by the bus stage at the market.
The setting up of a hospital and one of the most popular pubs in Kakamega where no incidents of muggings, vehicle break-ins or killings occur attest to the present peace at Shimalavandu.