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Njii-Ithatu (Three Gs), one of the tiny tired towns of Murang’a. [XN Iraki, Standard]
Murang'a is famous as the cradle of the Agikuyu. It is also home to some affluent men and women who made Nairobi their home long before independence. Wattle trees were the first cash crop long before coffee and tea. This crop spawned the first generation of tycoons like the famous Jogoo Kimakia.

Proximity to Nairobi played a role in spawning these tycoons; they were at the right place as uhuru came and already had the basics of capitalism. Overcrowding, resulting from modern medicine and better hygiene planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in this county.

The county, which gives Nairobi its water and entrepreneurs, is famous for another curiosity; men and women who resemble Ethiopians particularly near the Aberdares around Kangari, Kanyenyaini and their environs. A DNA test would be in order.

The county has stunning beauty with scenic view of two great mountains, Kenya and Aberdares. Smaller mountains like Ngong and Kilimambogo are also visible from Murang'a. The hills and valleys would earn this county the name “Switzerland without snow.”

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The county curiously called Metumi has another fascination; tiny tired towns. They have curious names like Nyagatugu, Nyakahura, Gakurwe, Gacharage, Gikui, Irima, Turuturu, Gaitega, Kigetuiini, Kabuta, Ikumbi, and Njii -Ithatu among others.

The tiny towns seem frozen in time and prospects. They seem untouched by devolution or globalisation. They have traditional dukas with a canopy. The buildings in the tiny towns seem thinner than in other towns. The tiny towns boast lots of incomplete, abandoned buildings or empty plots.

The presence of so many tiny tired towns in this county left my head spinning. They might be best manifestation of brain drain. Once men and women go through school, they just leave the countryside and never return.

The educated and ambitious find higher returns in bigger towns like Thika or Nairobi and surprisingly abroad. You know where little Murang’a is in USA with Kamaus for nyama choma? Even Kikuyu church services are there for you.

Without any injection of investment the small towns remain small and struggling. The types of businesses only cater for the local needs. Even beer brands stand out like Allsopps and Amarios. Curiously, hotels are rare in tiny tired towns of Murang’a. Why?

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There is never a critical demand for goods and services to grow the small towns. It seems to me that the tarmac roads made the towns’ future more precarious. It became easier to leave. The furthest part of Murang’a is at most 150km from Nairobi; one can visit and get back to the city in about 3 hours. So why invest in the rural areas?

The small tired towns indicate poverty is not far. The tiny towns are good counter example to the popular myth that central Kenya overflows with riches. Those left behind have no money to create demand for goods and services. The land pieces are small and overcrowded. This could also explain why the brains never return. For what?

One native of Murang'a suggests the tiny towns were concentration camps during Mau Mau and evoke bad memories.

Conventional wisdom also suggests that overcrowding and scarcity of opportunities epitomised by the tiny tired towns make Murang’a a good source of wives. They stick to their husband no matter what. Anyone who can independently confirm that?

To be fair, I have found such small towns in other parts of central Kenya such as Nyeri, only that they seem fewer and more vibrant. The upper part of Murang’a, where tea is the king has few such towns. The small towns seem to have frozen after coffee boom. Interestingly as soon you cross into Nyeri from Murang’a, the “tiredness” ends.

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A visit to such small towns leaves one wondering how we can change their fortunes. Devolution does not seem to have awakened the small towns, or came too late.

Deep kinship makes changes hard to institute. How do you stop people from marrying their neighbours? How can you cross pollinate local thinking with global thinking? How would you turn pessimism into optimism? Societies are changed by immigrants. With no land to buy or industries to work in, few newcomers bring new ideas to the tiny tired towns.

But there are some bright spots; cash transfers have brightened the lives of the elderly. My greatest concern is about the youth. What will they be doing before they qualify to get that money?

More broadly, how will they benefit from the Big 4? In Murang’a, developments seem to favour Maragua, drier but with plenty of land. There is a milk plant and an industrial park and several schools including “Small Earth Girls School.” The much hilly parts but more crowded have no such land.

Enough lamentation. Where do we go from here?

There are three options for the small tired towns. One; with no land for expansion and no injection of investment, we can let the tiny towns die so that new thinking can get a chance. For example, has anybody tried to sell Murang’a beauty, a Switzerland without snow? Why do we drive to Nyeri through Sagana instead of through Murang’a to enjoy the stunning beauty? Who knows, a few investors could sympathize with the tiny tired towns. Will the envisaged Mau Mau road make a difference to central region like USA Route 66?

Two, educate a critical mass of the next generation to leave the small towns, they could return to build them. That will take a generation. But what will attract them back beyond genetic roots?

Three, we let the governments pour resources to the small towns. That is what devolution was supposed to do. But where do you pour the resources? The tiny towns seem to defy both the visible hand of the government and invisible hand of the market.

Either way the small tired towns of Murang’a seem destined to remain small and tired. The tiny towns should thank teachers who invest and keep their economies humming.

What is clear is that infrastructure is not enough for economic growth. The cultural contexts matters. The small tired towns have electric power and good roads. In trying to jump-start the economies of the tired tiny towns of Murang’a, an economist would easily get mental blisters.

Out of curiosity; how have the tiny tired towns reacted to daughters inheriting their fathers even if married as per the 2010 constitution?

To awaken the tiny towns, we need help from every source, from sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and possibly witch-doctors. Echoes of witchcraft are still heard in Murang’a. Did I hear Kaharati has replaced Gaturi as the source of witchcraft (urogi)?

Unconfirmed reports indicate the new urogi is being used to “control” men, mostly those with some money. Do you come from such a tiny tired town? Talk to us…

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.

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Murang'a Murang'a county Njii-Ithatu
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