Letter from Nanyuki: Facing Mt Kenya craze new cash cow for region

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua prays while facing Mt Kenya during a recent visit to the mountain. [Jeff Angote, Standard]

Facing Mt Kenya, a book written in 1938 by Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, chronicles the traditions of the Agikiyu.

Its other competitors are The History of the Southern Kikuyu before 1903 by Louis Leakey published in 1977 and Godfrey Muriuki’s History of the Kikuyu 1500-1900 published in 1974. The list could be longer.

These books explain how the Agikuyu faced Mt Kenya while praying. Today, traditionists still do the same while raising their hands towards the mountain.  

The mountain, they believe, is the seat of their God and is, therefore, sacred. Not so surprising with the snow and the mountain being the highest point in the land.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and it is not just the traditionists and the ancestors who faced or still face Mt Kenya.

Entrepreneurs also face the mountain. Having a view of the mountain is a money minter for key sectors like religion, hospitality and real estate.

I will leave religion to the experts. Clearly, there has been a concerted effort to revive traditional religion around Mt Kenya. The council of elders with their traditional attire and ceremonies are now part of the landscape with boys going through the rite of passage and finally getting age sets (marika) after almost half a century break.

The Christian churches are not happy with new competitors, but it seems they are learning to co-exist.

Why are some churches hosting rites of passage ceremonies?  Let’s shift to the hospitality industry. The top hotels boast rooms with a view of Mt Kenya just like a view of the ocean along the Coast. There is still something magical about watching the snow-peaked mountain at sunrise or sunset when it is not hidden by the clouds.

I am writing this while watching the snow-peaked mountain from a hotel room in Nanyuki. The mountain sucks in everyone from pilgrims to historians seeking wreckages of Word War II bombers to climatologists and volcanologists.

Even politicians know the association with the mountain can get you votes. 

The high-end investors value the view of the mountain. They are represented by big hotels, mainly on the leeward side of the mountain. Add the vast ranches with their hospitality facilities.

Have you noted how the British settlers’ houses had the best views unlike the Boers (Afrikaans) who preferred the plains? I am told the Boers loved game meat, which was plenty on the plains.

Did they make biltong (a form of dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa)? 

Mountain peak

For investors in the hospitality industry, facing Mt Kenya is a money minter. Add mountain climbing and other adventures. If you play golf at the Nanyuki Golf Club in the morning, the view of the mountain on hole number one is breathtaking. You feel as if the ball will land on the mountain peak.

Real estate is booming around Nanyuki, sucking in even Kenyans in the diaspora. The land buyers are attracted by the availability of land. Being on the leeward side of the mountain, there is plenty of semi-arid land.

Contrast that with Embu, Meru or Nyeri, all well watered and long settled.

It’s a historical curiosity why after independence many whites found a home on this semi-arid side of the mountain, perhaps too aware of its unattractiveness to agriculture—talk of strategic thinking.

One anonymous Kenyan aptly explained the rush to Nanyuki: “It’s for the same reason why in the past we all rushed to buy land in Karen, Watamu and elsewhere. We are following the Kenyan Britons.”

I would call it the mannequin effect. Why are mannequins always white, though I saw a black one in Dubai?

We love being associated with whites, including our names. And that includes neighbourhoods, and willing to pay a premium for it. It’s also possible that buyers hope to emulate successful investors like ranchers and hoteliers.

Forgetting that you need a lot of land in such a place to break even and many global networks, going by the calibre of visitors to these premises. The psychic satisfaction of owning a plot in Nanyuki, like a beach plot could be another factor driving us to the leeward side of Mt Kenya. It’s satisfying to tell someone, “I can see Mt Kenya, from my plot.”

Some also argue the military facilities with British presence give a sense of security. The media too has been actively promoting real estate in this region, with speculation as the underlying theme.

Having driven to this century-old town from Nyahururu, Nyeri, Isiolo, Meru or Rumuruti, the feeling of openness and freedom is alluring. Ever driven in Southern California towards Nevada?

Beyond this sentimentality, money is likely to be made by only a few, the rest chase dreams, not necessarily valid. I own no land in Nanyuki, but my genes found a home. My hunch is that Nanyuki would make a great retirement home.