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Letter from New City, Nyeri County

By XN Iraki | September 19th 2021

A view of The Aberdares from New City.

A small town on the edge of Nyeri County has a curious name - New City.

It is said that one pioneer shop owner called his shop new city, and the town took up the name. Surprisingly, I got the name on Google Maps. It’s 200 kilometres from Nairobi, about halfway between Nyahururu and Nyeri. 

It’s a windswept place, unfavoured by nature, on the leeward side of Mt Kenya that beautifully rises from the plains to the east. The town is too far to benefit from the windward side of The Aberdares, which has a majestic view to the west. It sits in a bowl between Mt Kenya and The Aberdares.

New City and its surroundings is a transition zone as you shift from the well-watered highlands to the arid and semi-arid Laikipia plains further north, all the way to Lake Turkana and Chalbi Desert on the Ethiopia border.

The presence of aloe, acacia and cactus leaves no doubt this is an arid area. Rearing of goats is another indicator this is a dry place. Withering crops on the farms leaves no doubt rain is scarce. Cracks on the ground show evidence of black cotton soil, which is not known for its fertility.

New City, like most rural centres is, economically slow. The residents look very healthy and slim, with no signs of obesity around. It could be good diet or the physical work.

On Tuesday last week, I visited this ‘city’ while in tears for a burial. My curiosity led me to Great Hour Hotel, with only one table and two long seats, popular in churches. It had timber walls and an iron sheet roof. A menu on the wall left no doubt the economy there is slow.

A cup of tea goes for Sh10, served in bigger cups than the fancy ones found in five-star hotels. They use a big metallic cup (curiously called ‘15’). Chapati goes for Sh15, Andazi Sh10, githeri, ugali and chips each goes for Sh50 a plate. Compare the prices with those in five-star hotels or wherever you frequent.

The low prices are nothing but economic laws at work. The demand for hotel food is low and price must go down. Inputs such as labour might be cheap, too.

My economic mind got me curious. I noted something innovative about Great Hour Hotel - efficiency. A young man was doing everything; he was the cook and the cashier. While sipping my tea, I could see him making chapatis. Once we were through with tea, he came for our money.

Like any other town, big or small, New City has one or two bars. I did not find out what’s sold in them, it was too early in the day. A few shops, a butchery and a market square made the New City.

Beyond the low prices of foodstuff, the prevalence of wooden buildings shows the city is struggling economically. One reason could be that economic activities in New City and its environs are not compatible with the weather.

Why do they grow maize, of all crops? Why not drought-resistant crops like cassava or millet? Why not just concentrate on goats, which could do so well? Is meat not one of the staples as Kenyans change their lifestyles?

I did notice a few beehives, which could be another alternative economic activity. I also thought tourism would do well with all the natural beauty.

To understand the economics of New City, I delved into its history. This land was never meant for agriculture unless water is provided through irrigation. It was traditionally grazing land, too dry for crop farming. That is why central Kenya natives kept off until after independence.

When the British arrived, they settled on this land and kept goats. Initial British landowners where New City is were William Howard and John Jeffreys.

Major Francis Carnegie (now called Kaniki) farmed nearby and kept Angora goats. He probably knew a few secrets about the weather. He is buried at Ngobit, about 50 kilometres from Nyeri towards Nyahururu, together with a son who died in a plane crash and someone else who could be his wife.

The last time I visited their graves, they had been dug up and you could see their bones. I am told the locals were looking for treasures.

After independence, the pressure on land in Nyeri led to a spillover into the semi-arid region in the northern part called Kieni (plains). Later people spilled over into Laikipia, they bought former mzungu farms and subdivided them. Economic feasibility of their small pieces of land was not an issue till now.

Subdividing arid or semi-arid land into small uneconomical pieces is not unique to New City and its environs. I found that in Ithanga, Murang’a, northern part of Nyandarua, Gilgil, Kajiado and other parts of the country.

Our traditional attachment to land is to blame and government policy that allows subdivision into uneconomical units.

Remember once land is subdivided, consolidating it back is almost impossible, particularly because of population growth.

Ranches, conservancies or national parks would be a better use of such arid areas. They can benefit from economies of scale. Solio ranch neighbours New City. The world famous Laikipia ranches are not too far.

Good news; a new tarmac road has just reached New City. Land speculators will make a fortune. But it’s another question if the economic status of this faraway land will change.

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