There is a small gold mine in Nyeri town that very few people care or know about: The shrine of Lord Baden Powell and his wife, Lady Olave Powell, the founders of the scouts and girl guides movement — one of the largest youth organisations in the world.
“The shrine can easily contribute a half of all foreign tourists in the Mount Kenya Tourism circuit. At least four in every ten people across the world have been involved in scouting, either directly or indirectly and would love to visit the burial place of Baden Powell,” says Mount Kenya Tourist circuit association chairperson, Mr Simon Wachira.
The association estimates the shrine can easily rake in at least half a billion shillings or more, per year. At least 15,000 foreign tourists visit the site every year.
In total, the Kenya Scouts Association says over 50,000 pilgrims from Kenya and abroad, troop to the shrine every year. But why is the tourism sector not investing in the Baden Powell shrine, arguably one of the most famous grave sites in the world?
Yet, unlike many tourist spots across the country, there are no curio shops near the shrine, no restaurants... it is bare and lacks the basic facilities like ‘a decent toilet.’
In a recent incident, a bus-load of British tourists drove in from Tree Tops Tourist Lodge (remember Treetops? The place where Princess Elizabeth climbed a tree and came down a queen?)
“Do you have a toilet I can use?” asked a middle-aged British tourist.
“No madam,” replied a slightly embarrassed official. She then directed the tourist to a deserted latrine, about 100 metres away. The lady was clearly disgusted. So were the tourists in her entourage.
In his will, Lord Baden Powell, asked to be buried in Nyeri, Central Kenya. No amount of convincing would make him change his mind.
And before his wife, lady Olave Powell died 36 years later, she directed that her remains be buried beside her husband’s.
To date, the couple’s graves continue to attract local and international visitors.
Every year, thousands of scouts and guides from Kenya and abroad, young and old, throng the grave side.
Tourism stakeholders in the region are reluctant to invest in and promote the attraction, saying it does not belong to them.
“It does not belong to us; it belongs to the scouting movement. You cannot enter someone’s kitchen and start preparing soup,” says the Mount Kenya Tourist Circuit Association chairperson.
The site, he told Business Daily, has been grossly under-used.
Well spruced up and marketed, the shrine would easily transform Nyeri town, and indeed, Central Kenya into a major tourist destination.
The local chapter of the Kenya Scouts Association admits they are sitting on a gold mine, and do not have the resources to convert the Powell shrine to a major tourist attraction.
“This is a big business opportunity for them, scouting is the biggest youth movement with over 32 million members worldwide; the Powell shrine would easily make Nyeri [a must-visit location] but we (scouts) cannot achieve this alone, we do not have the resources,” says assistant chief commissioner of scouts, Mr Peter Kimita.
The scouting official, however, says the movement has been pleading with the tourism sector stakeholders to invest in the shrine for years without avail. So far, they say, the sector has not put a single coin in the shrine.
“They have not done anything for this shrine, I have written letters to them inviting them to join us to do business. But, so far, I have not received any response, only promises that have never been met,” he says.
Mr Kimita has single-handedly mobilised resources to reclaim the Baden Powell grave site, from a dilapidated grave yard where cows and goats grazed and people hid to smoke bhang seven years ago, to a well-fenced compound.
With the help of Norwegian, American and British scouts, the local scouting chapter has put up a two-storey information centre. But it still lacks basic facilities like toilets, furniture, and electricity.
Kenya is a known tourism destination in the world and the sector has, for years, been the top foreign exchange earner, giving the country up to Sh64.3 billion in 2007.
Last year, due to the post-poll chaos and the economic crunch, the earnings dropped significantly to Sh52.7 billion.
Electricity and fence
However, marketers are firing on all the cylinders to reclaim the top spot by improving products, opening more circuits and running adverts on top international media channels.
According to the scouts’ official, at least Sh5 million is required to “completely refurbish the shrine.”
“We need to furnish the information centre, we also need to get electricity, and to put up a wall fence around the shrine,” he said.
But the Mount Kenya tourist circuit association says it will not do much until the scouts throw open the doors to let them in.
“We have invited them to our meetings. It is up to them to take action,” said the tourist circuit boss.
“I have not seen any proposal,” says assistant scouts chief commissioner, on the repositioning of the site.
The scouts team has the plans of forming a committee of stakeholders, comprising the tourism marketers, business leaders, and the local government.
“Our mandate is to market mount Kenya as a tourist destination, and this includes the Baden Powell shrine, we even have it on our brochures,” says the tourism circuit chairman.