In the 1990s, Ruaka was a desolate village frozen in time and prospects.
Then during the Kibaki era, a new bypass brought the sleepy town to life. Maize farms gave way to high-rise apartments.
The town even acquired a nickname - Three Rivers View.
A stone’s throw away from Ruaka is another oddly named town - Gachie.
The latter, like many other Kiambu towns such as Kihara, Wangige and Karuri take up boys’ names.
But Gachie lacks the vibrancy and renewal of Ruaka, yet the two are just 2km apart.
Last week, I drove into Gachie from Nyari West (Nairobi side) at around 5pm.
It’s like visiting another country. Suddenly the roads are potholed, and the narrow streets are crammed with people and vehicles.
Traders selling old lawnmowers, deep-fried fish, metal boxes, tomatoes, sugar cane, and all manner of goods take up the little space that is supposed to be the sidewalks.
Gachie is no different from Shamakhokho in Western Kenya or any other outlying town in rural Kenya like Ekalakala.
I talked to several residents about why Ruaka has done much better than Gachie despite the two being in close proximity.
The first young man I talked to told me the area’s bad reputation has hindered development, although things are improving.
That could be true; a women’s Sacco has even put up some flats for sale in Gachie. He told me his friends were surprised when he moved to the town three weeks ago.
The other two people I talked to, who were much younger, told me plainly: “sijui (I don’t know).” Another blamed the road, which is now under construction. A lady selling fruits by the roadside wanted to know why I was so curious. But she gave me a hint as to why the area has remained largely underdeveloped - no one wants to sell land in Gachie.
The last respondents were a group of men chilling by the roadside who also confirmed the reluctance by many locals to sell their land.
Enter golden age
And true, not much land subdivision is evident in the area. They also added that the shortage of land is another factor, with former Ruaka owners having larger pieces.
They told me that once the bypass was built, itonga cia Runda (the rich of Runda) started buying land in Ruaka.
They think that once the road from Nyari West through Gachie to Limuru is fixed, the area will enter its golden age.
I later got more than I bargained for. My former student Antony Chege Mburu, a descendant of Kihara, the father of Gachie (after whom the town is named) said the latter had a smaller portion of land compared to Kihara’s other sons.
“Kihara forbade the Gachies from selling their land. Until today, this is a widely held practice, as many believe misfortunes will befall them should they do so. Many people have experienced serious misfortune after selling,” said Mr Mburu. When I talked to residents of Ruaka, they told me most of the apartments in the area are owned by Kenyans in the diaspora, mostly women. Names like Oklahoma, Pork Barrel, Dallas, Goshen, among others, are common on the buildings around Ruaka.
The two small towns are a good case study of how infrastructure and culture can spur economic growth. The Eastern Bypass is a good example of what difference a road can make. It opens up a place by importing investors from other parts of the world. They vote with their money, seeing opportunities locals can’t.
Someone brought up in Gachie can’t appreciate the proximity to Nairobi. It has always been there! An outsider who takes a whole day’s journey from Nairobi to their village will think differently about Gachie.
Deep cultural ties make it hard to buy and develop land in Gachie. Just cross over into Nyari; every Kenyan tribe or race is represented there as a house or landowner. In Gachie, on the other hand, every community is represented as a tenant.
The two towns illustrate how economic growth can be catalysed by infrastructure or held back by cultures or beliefs. The soft part (our mindset and beliefs) of economic growth is as important as the hard part (infrastructure). That is probably one reason why Jubilee lost in Kiambaa. They ignored the soft part - the emotions and beliefs.