Gloomy Christmas as families travel home to celebrate with loved ones

Travelers stranded at Railways Easy Coach stage in Nairobi as they wait for vehicles to travel to Western Kenya during  Christmas rush in Nairobi on December 23, 2023. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

It has been a chaotic mad rush to find available transport for Kenyans travelling upcountry ahead of the Christmas Day celebrations.

Yesterday, hundreds of families were making the final preparations for the festivities, albeit with complaints that the high cost of basic items has dampened the Christmas mood.

Family gatherings, which have been the norm during festive seasons in most regions, have been frustrated by financial constraints that have restricted some Kenyans from travelling and meeting their basic needs.

In Nairobi, chaotic scenes were witnessed as Kenyans scrambled to travel to various destinations to celebrate with their loved ones.

Public Service Vehicle (PSV) operators hiked fares on various routes, taking advantage of the transport crisis, leaving many passengers stranded.

At the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) several passengers were stranded after failing to find connecting vehicles to their various destinations.

Newton Odhiambo, a traveller, said that despite booking his ticket to Ugunja, Kisumu two weeks ago at cost of Sh1,800, he still did not manage to leave on time.

“I booked my ticket two weeks ago. I was lucky but still I arrived here at 9am expecting to leave for Kisumu at 11am but see it’s already 1pm and yet the passengers for the 8am bus have not left,” he said.

Stranded passengers at Nakuru bus park. [Julius Chepkwony, Standard]

The situation was not different for Loice Okech who has visited the Easy Coach offices several times to book a bus to Kisumu.

“This is my second time coming. I am back today but still to this time I still have not found a ticket and if I will not be not successful then I will have to return home,” said Okech.

The burden of school fees is a bottleneck that has stopped many Kenyans from going full-throttle with their celebrations.

Long queues at uniform stores, bookshops, and supermarkets were witnessed in Kisumu as parents rushed to take advantage of Christmas shopping discounts in some places to get their children ready for schools reopening early next year.

Although the back-to-school offers usually extend into the early year, those who spoke to The Sunday Standard said they were resisting the urge to spend lavishly on the festive season and instead ensuring their children are ready for the new academic year.

There were lengthy traffic jams in Kisumu and its environs, as a huge influx of vehicles hit the road with families travelling to mark the festivities with their relatives in rural areas.

Mary Akinyi, a mother of five, said she normally takes her children home for Christmas but opted to stay around because she could not raise bus fare.

She said last year, she spent half the current fare to Siaya to take her family home for the holidays.

“I wanted to go home like it has been the norm in my family, but I won’t be able to travel because of the high cost of travelling,” said Akinyi.

As for Emmanuel Onyango, he said he could not travel home for the holidays because of fuel prices.

Onyango noted that he has two students in secondary school, adding that he was struggling to raise their school fees.

Chairman of the Matatu Owners Association Evans Andala confirmed the hike in fares, noting that it was occasioned by high demand for transport services.

Mr Andala said this year has not been as busy as previous years, adding that it is understandable due to the current high cost of living.

In Nakuru, travellers were stranded for the better part of the day as bus stops remained empty. Travellers had to wait for long hours due to a shortage of PSVs.

The travellers said going upcountry was becoming a challenge as they had to pay more and wait longer.

David Mungaro, who was travelling to Kisii, said he was forced to wait for over five hours to get a vehicle.

“I was here at around 8am, but there are no vehicles, matatu operators have also hiked fare,” he said.

Zipporah Gesare, another traveller, said she was unsure if she would reach her destination. Fares from Nakuru to Kisii have been increased from Sh800 to Sh1,000.

Daniel Nyaundi, an employee of Smartline Shuttle, said there was an increase in the number of travellers, and arrangements had been made to ensure they reached their destination.

“We have a fleet of cars on the way, and in the next few hours, we will have addressed their plight,” he said.

Nakuru Governor Susan Kihika urged Kenyans to take precautions while travelling during this festive season to avert accidents.

Speaking during the sharing of Christmas gifts, which contained foodstuffs to over ten thousand residents from Nakuru, she noted that more people are losing lives due to carelessness on the road.

The locals who could not hide their joy, expressed their gratitude, saying their families would at least put food on the table during these harsh economic times.

Christine Amo, a resident of Kitale in Trans Nzoia County, said she was not able to visit her parents in Busia due to lack of money for bus fare and gifts.

“I will not attend family gatherings due to financial constraints. It is a terrible year,” Amo told the The Sunday Standard.

“I will miss the family get-together due to the lack of financial resources to cater for travelling costs,” said Magutu.

The Salvation Army, Kenya East President of Women Guild Anne Kiama donated clothing and bedding to street families in Nairobi to mark Christmas festive at The Salvation Army Central Corps on Friday, December 22, 2023. [Mike Kihaki, Standard]

To Amo, family meetings during the festive season have been providing room for relatives to interact and celebrate together after a year of being apart. This is, however, no longer a priority due to the high cost of living.

According to Amo, travelling from Kitale to Busia costs Sh800 and a family of four will need Sh3,200 one way. He says he would need Sh10,000 to spend on transport alone.

“Schools will be opening in two weeks, and I better save the money to cater for the needs of my children,” Amo added.

Amo is not alone in the predicament. Richard Magutu wished to travel from Kitale to Kisii to attend a family meeting, but said he will not travel due to a lack of finances.

A spot check at the Kitale bus terminus revealed there was not much human traffic as was witnessed in previous years. There was a minimal number of passengers arriving from Nairobi and other parts of the country.

Supermarkets, according to operators, recorded low business compared to the last festive season.

“People have no money. We have not witnessed booming business like the previous years. Kenyans have no money due to the high cost of living,” said a manager at one of the supermarkets in Kitale.

In Kapsabet town, Nandi County, business went on as usual.

Unlike in the past when the festive mood could be felt, the town dwellers differed in their plans of going upcountry.

Instead, many resorted to staying in their residential homes this year to enable them to save for school fees next year.

Mercy Kemboi, a bookshop attendant, said she had received a good number of parents buying students’ school effects in December.

“We have received bookings, and parents buying books and school uniforms for their children early compared to past years,” she said.

“Parents have foregone pomp and colour in Chrismas and are preparing for school in January,” she added.

The supermarkets were not crowded, and the festive offers seemingly did not attract more customers.

Wilson Lelei, a maize farmer, claimed that he shelved plans to sell his produce until next year.

“We do not want to spend much for Christmas parties. We are saving for January; the cost of living is too high, and we prudently use money for Christmas,” he stated.

In West Pokot, the elderly, disabled, and vulnerable groups received food items and gifts for the festive season from well-wishers.

Touch Africa Initiative Organisation, in collaboration with the African Development Bank and the office of West Pokot Senator Julius Murgor, made the gesture to brighten the lives of the needy in the area.

Beatrice Ngao, 80, and living with disability, said: “I always sleep hungry, but today, God has answered my prayers.”

Meanwhile, the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) has classified all beaches across the country as hotspots where people are likely to drown this festive season.

KMA told guests who throng the Coast to be careful at Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach (Pirates), Shelly Beach, the ferry crossing channel, Diani Beach, and Shimoni Beach in Kwale County.

KMA Director General Martin Munga also cited hotspots as Bofa Beach and Malindi Park in Kilifi County, Shella Beach in Lamu County, and Dunga Beach in Kisumu County.

He said Homa Bay Jetty, Mulukhoba Beach in Busia County, Sori Beach, and Muhuru Bay in Migori are equally dangerous.

Munga also said that Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, Lake Baringo, and Elias Springs in Lake Turkana are hotspots for water accidents.

“We encourage and caution people to follow the rules and safety while visiting beaches and lakes by ensuring they wear life jackets and floaters,” said Munga.

Reporting by Julius Chepkwony, Irissheel Shanzu, Sharon Owino, Osinde Obare, Edward Kosut, Ronald Kipruto and Joackim Bwana