On a chilly Thursday morning in Kiambu, we drive to the evergreen slopes of Kirigiti where a murram road leads to an abandoned quarry enclosed with an electric wire. It feels like we are entering an army base.
“The range is hot eyes and ears,” men shouted as they fired shots in quick succession.
Welcome to the National Gun Owners Association (Ngoa) shooting range. A host of calm and alert men that could pass for a recce squad —going by the side-pocketed trousers, army boots and half jackets, received us. Don’t be fooled, these are civilians who find good, clean fun from the crackle of gunfire.
The weekday shooting sessions subtly meant they run their own show. I am introduced to a technology expert, a pilot, an engineer and several businessmen. On its wall of fame, there are names inscribed of the who’s who in Kenya. On the plaque, among many, is Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja, a former patron who left the seat to Anthony Muchiri, Kenya’s ambassador to Cuba. Coming to the Kirigiti range does not only give these gun fans a muzzle thrill, they also practise to gain perfection, network and learn safety.
Robert Nyamongo, an engineer is Kenya’s top shooter and has achieved the “Master” crown in the International Defensive Pistol Association Africa Championships held in Johannesburg, South Africa.
According to the international shooting levels, a shooter starts from unclassified, novice, marksman, sharpshooter, expert, and then a master.
Mr Nyamongo trounced 300 shooters by shooting 400 rounds in 16 stages. He scored 336.35 points making him the only Kenyan to bag this top award in the shooting game held every two years.
He joined the gun owners association three years ago.
‘‘I got into shooting for self-protection. Later on, I found they were people shooting as a hobby so I joined. For shooters, the motivation is in competing. South Africa was very tough, four days of many competitions… It was a chance for us to witness international standards in shooting and see where we rank,’’ he says.
Elizabeth Wachianga, a police inspector is also widely respected in shooters circles, having taken part in the competition and making her the only woman representing Kenya.
Sammy Onyango, an engineer and Alex Migwi, a pilot who is also Ngao secretary-general also took part in the competition scoring (447.91) and (579.40 points respectively.
For some of these shooters, the game is all about networking and having a good time among friends.
Richard Onyoni, a businessman and rally driver says business people gravitate to one another and the shooting range is a place to relax and unwind.
‘‘It is a great way to release stress. I consider it as having a mental fit,” he says, adding that the same principles that one applies in a business apply in the shooting range. ‘‘Everything has to be structured, well-planned, well-thought out ahead of time.’’
Why put yourself in this level of risk while competing?
Mr Onyoni says shooting is safer than even driving a car. ‘‘It is safer because of all the safety standards enforced by our officers during competitions,” he says.
Shooting using a pistol, rifle or shotgun is gaining popularity among Kenyans and Ngoa has called for its recognition by the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts.
Last year’s formation of the Firearms Licensing Board by the late Interior secretary Joseph Nkaissery has also made it easier to register civilian firearm holders, dealers and manufacturers.
According to Anthony Wahome, the secretary-general Ngoa, there are about 14,000 guns in private hands and about 10,000 licensed firearm owners. But the Kenya Regiment Rifle Club and Ngoa have only 500 members.
There are other gun clubs but there are many other Kenyans who have guns but they do not practise shooting.
‘‘You cannot afford to sit out for about three months. Shooting is a perishable skill, if you don’t shoot you lose it all. So you have to keep training and keep improving your skills on the firearm,’’ says Mr Onyoni.
Apart from Ms Wachianga, there are more women finding the thrill in the muzzle. Myra Jadeja found herself using shot guns to aim at clay targets, thanks to the keen interest of her husband, Deven Jadeja.
“Shotgun shooting is exciting for me and I encourage more women to take it up. It is empowering and it is also a good skill to protect yourself,” she says.
She is a member of the Limuru Gun Club and has bagged the Alfie Reynolds competition title as the Best Lady Shooter (shot gun).
Buying a gun is likened to purchasing a tool without a manual or practice book. The country has witnessed abuse in night-club rage shootouts, gun brandishing and threats to life. Ngoa says that countries such as Switzerland have an average of four guns per citizen and has managed to maintain law and order.
Mr Wahome says the government did the licensing and vetting of civilian firearm owners but beyond that, there was no formal training for proficiency, for competency.
‘‘We felt as civilian firearm owners to form an association that will cater for that,” he says.
In the face of the Nairobi Westgate terror attack, the image of a gun-wielding civilian opening his arms to a distressed girl has increased the appeal to own one. Abdul Haji was trained by his father on how to use a gun while herding cattle.
“The idea is to try and replicate such success stories. It would do well for civilian licence owners to be included in areas such as community policing and public safety,” says Mr Wahome.
An average Kenyan civilian gun owner has pistols, short guns and rifles depending on his or her need and budget. A pistol costs about Sh200,000 and a rifle goes for Sh600,000.
For training, it will cost you an average of Sh3,000 per hour while children are trained for free to advance their shooting skills and ensure they engage in responsible shooting.
In enjoying this shoot at Kirigiti, I am given a chance to try my hand on the trigger and aim at a few dummy targets. No doubt, holding one of these weapons contains a huge responsibility.
I get the feeling that the world is on my shoulders. The trainer makes it easy to fire my first shot in life. Bang! I get the epicentre, not too bad a target.