Nyeri town literary sleeps at night. Even as other provincial headquarters across the country gear up towards 24-hour economies, the town simply shuts down at dusk. Totally.
“Nyeri has been a dead town for a long time,” confesses mayor Joseph Thairu. This reality worries the business community who, together with the municipal council and the provincial administration, have mooted a project to breathe some life into Central Province’s largest town.
Fancy this: there are no 24-hour restaurants in Nyeri, no all-night entertainment spots, and definitely no 24-hour transport. The town’s only major supermarket closes at dusk, and so do all shops, hotels, butcheries, M-pesa outlets… even saloons. The entire town boasts less than 10 cyber cafés.
On Sundays, the town virtually shuts down and empties its residents into churches. When former PC Peter Raburu slapped a ban on 24-hour bars and restaurants in the town years ago and declared it “God’s town,” little did it occur to the business community and administration that it would hurt commerce. After that order, the town’s night economy simply went to sleep.
“Business died, almost as if the town was switched off,” says Joseph Mbao, a taxi driver. Woe unto a stranger who arrives late at night for it would be tough getting transport. Now the business community, municipal council and provincial administration have teamed up to jump-start the economic clock of the town after sunset.
Nyeri Central District Commissioner, Mr Michael Mwangi, whose men enforce the ban on night business, says part of the reason why the town goes to bed early is the absence of street lights. Currently, only one street is lit and the town’s main business centre remains dark.
“One of the reasons why we do not allow business premises to remain open all night is (lack of) light. The council set up street lights only this year,” says Mr Mwangi.
The DC is leading a team that includes the mayor, local Chamber of Commerce officials and investors to look into ways of keeping the town awake at night. The first phase of the project is to light up the streets.
“We have formed a special committee consisting of the council, business owners and the provincial administration to look into ways of opening up a few businesses after six,” the DC says. But he ruled out allowing bars and restaurants to operate past the mandatory 1 pm deadline, citing security concerns.
Elements of the outlawed Mungiki sect still roam the town’s streets. Only last week, the sect went around the town’s outskirts preaching against the national census. “They are saying the census goes against the Kikuyu culture,” Mr Mwangi says.
Investors describe the town, which lies at the heart of the Mt Kenya tourist circuit, as a bundle of underutilised potential. Aberdares National Park is only a few minute’s drive waay. Mount Kenya National Park is barely 20 kilometres from the town. A string of tourist hotels stand on its outskirts.
But much of its tourism potential is largely unexploited. “It is a slow town with a lot of potential,” says Mr John Wambugu, the sales manager of Aberdares Safari Hotels. Right at the town centre lies what could easily become a tourist attraction — the grave of Lord Baden Powell and his wife Lady Olave — founders of the scouting and girl guide movements.
But even this important site goes largely unnoticed. An occasional tourist ventures into the shrine despite the fact that the British and South Africans have been clamouring to relocate the grave to their land.
“Both envy us for hosting the Powells’ grave. I am sure if it was in their country they would cash in on it,” says scouts assistant commissioner Peter Kimita, the man in charge of the shrine. But the town does have its brighter side.
To begin with, it does not experience water shortages. And as Nairobi grapples with an acute shortage of this crucial commodity, taps run 24/7 in Nyeri town, even at the height of a prolonged dry spell.
“We do not have problems with water here,” says Nyeri Water and Sewerage Company auditor, Mr Wilson Mwai.
There are no traffic jams and motorists pay a paltry Sh30 per day in parking fee — compare this with the Sh140 paid per day in Nairobi. Transport in and around the town is relatively cheap, largely because of low demand. And despite the fears occasioned by Mungiki gangs, security remains tight.
“It is quiet here. We have not had any major insecurity incidents of late,” says Central Provincial Police Officer, John M’mbijjiwe.