Kakamega, the intellectual town with hidden potential

There is nothing more relieving than getting out of Nairobi, a city I have lived in since I was a school boy, freshly minted from the countryside. The more I travel to other towns, the more I find Nairobi overrated and other towns alluring.

Kakamega was my most recent destination. Only 50km from Kisumu, the easiest way to get there is to fly to Kisumu then take a bus ride through towns with unique names; Stendikisa (Stage to Kisa’s), Shamakhokho, Makhokho, Sigalagala, Mbale, among others.

Passing through Vihiga County leaves no doubt why the place has the name, stones are used for sign boards to homesteads while “shamba la mawe” are everywhere. 

I was lucky to find a rehearsal for a bull fight at Sigalagala on my way back to Kisumu. I got out of the van to take a few shots. None of my fellow passengers got out, and they are not natives. Curiosity is a scarce resource.

Beyond the fine weather - with rainfall around 3pm every day, greenery and fresh air - Kakamega is a welcoming town. You feel at home as soon as you get there. Everyone greets you with respect; ask for direction and someone will offer to take you wherever you want. In Nairobi, they ask you to consult Google Maps.

A walk through the town in the evening and just before sunrise gave me a glimpse into this historic town where even foreigners are at home. When I got a haircut, I noted through the M-Pesa payment that the barber’s name was very Zimbabwean.

I was not the first to feel welcome here. The presence of Mahatma Gandhi Hall and a temple leaves no doubt some people from the Indian sub-continent had found a home there much earlier. The multinational and multi-ethnic nature of the town gives it a character, an identity.

I noted every street has one or more bookshops. Kakamega is an intellectual city. Several yellow school buses and a university added to the intellectualism of the town.

You don’t walk on mud in this town, street paths are paved. I did not see a “no photos” warning on the governor’s office in the middle of the town, an old building. It has no razor wire and I do not recall seeing mean-looking security guards. Intellectualism seems to have given this city its freedom.

The city has an affluent side, Milimani, with a golf course whose first two chairmen on the billboard came from central Kenya, another indicator how welcoming the town is.

I was too tied up by the work that took me to Kakamega to go sight-seeing. I have a debt in visiting the crying rock (Ikhongo Murwi), the rain forest and Mumias sugar factory. (I got a job offer to work at Mumias while I was in Form 2. I passed it on to someone from Kakamega and he left school for work.) 

Lubao, I was told, is a dog supermarket just like Ruaka roundabout. It will be another future destination besides Navakholo and Lumusu. I also heard a rumour that some homes in this part of the country keep snakes for rituals. Fact or fiction?

Kakamega is a civilised town, even boda boda riders stop at traffic lights. Bicycles still give motorbikes a run for their money. Boiled green maize is hawked in buckets balanced on the sellers’ heads as they walk around. Carrying luggage on the head contrasts with other regions like central Kenya where they use their back.

Muliro Gardens in the middle of the town is another landmark. In Kakamega, neighbourhoods rarely hide behind high walls that characterise Nairobi, where even police stations are fenced off with high walls. It seems to be a town of peace, serenity and intellect.

Thinking strategically, the Kakamega-Kisumu road should be dualled to create a super economic corridor like the Thika highway. The population density would make such a project viable. Kakamega would easily outgrow Kisumu, which is ‘defended’ by culture and not as welcoming as Kakamega.

My stay in Kakamega left my head spinning. It seems as you get away from Nairobi to the west, people become more humble, welcoming and cultured. Beyond Kakamega you get into Uganda and Rwanda where remnants of traditional culture make you feel at home and at peace.

Going east, you find the same with coastal communities very welcoming. What of north and south?

Human factor

Lack of the ‘human’ factor is what makes Nairobi a very unwelcoming town. Nairobians see money, then a human being. Yet, capitalism without a human face is incompatible with our African values. I don’t need to do a survey but I can bet Kakamegans are happier than Nairobians and their misplaced heroism.

Strangely and despite overwhelming evidence that towns outside Nairobi are more liveable, have better quality of life, no one wants to leave Nairobi. Who wants to lose the prestige of being called a Nairobian? It’s only in the city where suffering is prestigious.

As a visitor, I pondered the future of Kakamega. With all the serenity, fine weather and cultured people, why can’t I retire there? Why in my old age would I worry over traffic jams, pollution, security and fresh food in Nairobi? There is even a golf course and some decent restaurants.

The key lesson from Kakamega is that small towns can become magnets for retirees and their money. They just need a good hospital, some parks and a few other amenities.

Who said you can only make money from the youth, their energy and exuberance?