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Slim wallets, extreme fun: Why this will be a Christmas like no other

By Vincent Achuka | December 24th 2017 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Deputy President William Ruto shares a light moment with children from various children's homes from Uasin Gishu County who visited him in Eldoret. He presented them with a donation to celebrate the Christmas festivities.

With a battered economy, disenfranchised parents over mass failure in KCSE, deaths on our roads and a deeply divided country facing an uncertain political future, this will be one Christmas many Kenyans will want to forget.

It will also be a Christmas of many firsts. Nakumatt, which has for three decades dominated the retail sector and has been the first choice for shoppers, is on its deathbed. And for those going to the Coast, the Standard Gauge Railway -- now an important piece in the local travel puzzle, injecting 10,000 people to Mombasa’s population each day -- is fully booked till January 10.

Civil servants who were this week awarded a salary increment backdated to July have at least something to celebrate about. But most salaried employees will be celebrating Christmas tomorrow without end year bonuses as has been the tradition.

Reason? The prolonged drought and electioneering period hit the economy hard.

So bad has the year been that the government revised downwards Kenya’s economic growth projections on three occasions. From an initial 6 per cent projection, then to 5.5 and finally 5, Kenya has had a tough year. Economists say the real cost of the damage inflicted to the country’s economy will be known next year. “The bad thing is that our economy and politics are intertwined with each other, which makes it very fragile. If the standoff between the Opposition and government doesn’t end soon, things may get worse next year,” said Dr Samuel Nyandemo, of the University of Nairobi’s School of Economics.

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Add this to the fact that at least half of the country are a disenfranchised lot following the presidential elections, and you have on your hands all the ingredients for an extraordinary festive season.

The last time tensions were this high in a festive season was in 2007 just before violence broke out on the eve of New Year following the disputed elections.

Political uncertainty

Like in 2007, this year’s elections were not only disputed but have split the country, creating uncertainty over what lies ahead.

A plan to bring the two protagonists, Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, to the negotiating table has failed as the two cannot agree on what the talks will be about.

Raila, who cancelled a plan to swear himself in at the last minute on Jamhuri Day, has vowed that the planned inauguration will still go on and will happen before the New Year. Religious leaders and foreign envoys have warned that this will be a recipe for chaos.

Uhuru, on the other hand, has now withdrawn the olive branch he had extended to the Opposition and asked them to move on.

“My aim is to improve the lives of Kenyans. You can take politics elsewhere but for me, this is my final term in office and my focus is on development to transform the lives of the people,” he said during the lighting ceremony of the Governor’s Christmas tree on Friday night.

“The season of politics is over and there is need to use the Christmas season and the time to follow to concentrate on bettering the lives of all Kenyans,” he said on his Facebook page Saturday morning.

If Raila does indeed swear himself in before the New Year, there is a possibility of violent clashes between his supporters and the police.

With at least 50 people killed between August and November in Opposition protests and more than 150 on the roads in the run up to Christmas, Kenya cannot afford more deaths.

Saturday, eight people died in two separate accidents along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

In the first accident, a hearse ferrying mourners to Mombasa collided head-on with a truck near Sultan Hamud. In the second, a man died on the spot after a lorry collided with a pick up at Kiundani market in Makindu.

As the authorities were struggling to find out the causes of the two accidents, the family that lost eight members in a single accident a fortnight ago along the Kitale Webuye road were burying their loved ones in Vihiga.

Heavy traffic along Nakuru Nairobi as Kenyans leave the city in haste for Christmas. (George Njunge, Standard)

Black spots

Interestingly, the two accidents Saturday happened days after the government said it had intensified patrols in 16 areas identified as black spots in an effort to reverse the tide.

National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) Managing Director Francis Meja has cautioned drivers to be careful.

“We urge all road users to exercise extra caution during this period. We remind the public that law breakers will be dealt with in strict adherence to the law,” he said

A key reason for the surge in deaths on the roads during Christmas is fatigue and a rush to make money from the windfall brought by demand in travel. Several vehicles that don’t operate on inter-country routes do so and drivers are forced to make quick turn-around by operators, an illegality authorities have failed to address.

Meanwhile, as drivers continue playing hide and seek with death on the roads, parents whose children sat national examinations will not be having an easy Christmas. Form One students are set to report on January 9 while the parents of some 350,000 KCSE candidates are wondering where to take their children after they failed. Those with children joining Form One say they have cut back on spending.

“We will stick to the normal diet because in a few days, I am required to buy uniform and pay school fees for my sons,” said Gideon Kibiwott, a resident of Elgeyo Marakwet. “My family is prepared psychologically that we will not have a Christmas outing except for a church service, maybe we will make up during Easter”.

It's a mad rush as travelers try get a booking to their upcountry destinations (Kisii) for the Christmas festivities at the Afya Centre, Nairobi. With the high rate of demand for upcountry vehicles, the town service vehicles have joined in to ferry people upcountry. Those with heavy luggage are also finding it hard to be booked in the vehicles [Elvis Ogina.Standard]

Rising fare

But for the rest of Kenyans, especially those with financial means, the next few days will be a season to drop all the worries about the difficult year and make merry as ‘January will sort itself.’

Saturday, all the buses in Nairobi on upcountry routes were full. Passengers had to wait for hours to get means to travel as ticket prices soared to more than twice their normal rates.

Buses to Kakamega were charging Sh1,500, up from Sh800. Those to Kisumu were charging Sh1,400, up from Sh1,000.

All domestic airlines to Western Kenya routes and the Coast are fully booked to Monday, the Sunday Standardwas told upon enquiry. And being the first Christmas Kenyans are celebrating with the existence of a high speed railway to Mombasa, they have responded with phenomenal fashion.

Saturday, Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Maina said that all trains are fully booked till January 10. So huge is the demand for tickets that the online booking system crushed due to pressure for some hours Saturday.

“We are unable to cope with demand. From the time we started, the trains have always been full but this festive season you can’t get a single seat,” he said.

“This has given us food for thought. Next year we will have more trains during rush periods like this.”

With the Madaraka Express ferrying at least 10,000 people to Mombasa every day, the coastal town is witnessing a surge in tourism never felt before. Hoteliers have expressed optimism that the fragile tourism sector is once again looking up after a challenging electioneering period that led to a decline in international arrivals.

—Additional reporting by Michael Olinga and Philip Mwakio

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