Evolution of Karatina: From landmark tree to largest modern open-air market

An aerial view of Karatina market. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG

Over the weekend I visited a schoolmate from our primary school days in the 1960s at his home just under 10 kilometres east of Karatina Town. In the course of sharing old memories, the subject of Karatina and its history came up.

Contrary to popular theory, the name Karatina is not derived from the English word “quarantine” nor was the town established by the colonial authorities.

The name karatina is a diminutive term for muratina, the sausage tree (Kigelia Africana), or its fruit, a key ingredient in the brewing of the popular eponymous traditional alcoholic drink.

Situated in the rich agricultural hinterlands of central Kenya, Karatina was founded in pre-colonial times by Kikuyu women who used to trade their crafts and food under a muratina tree. They would direct each other on where to sell or buy merchandise under the Karatina. The town also served as a meeting place for social and political gatherings.

As more European settlers moved north, Karatina became a colonial administrative centre in the 1920s.

Although the multi-functional role of the town was maintained, it was within the framework of the colonial system attracting Indian traders who were largely instrumental in the introduction of a cash economy to this traditional trading centre and the subsequent commercialisation of agriculture.

The knock-on effect of the activities of the Indian traders was the decline of some of the traditional economic practices.

The completion of the railway line to Nanyuki in the early 1930s and the establishment of a permanent railway station at Karatina stimulated and accelerated the commercialisation of agriculture which contributed to the further decline of traditional food crops.

Supplying the railway station at Karatina with firewood became a lucrative business for men. With this income, some men started small retailing gradually challenging the Indian dukawalahs (shopkeepers).

The offspring of those who started business formed an elite class that still dominates the commerce and politics in Karatina today.

In addition, the railway line made it easier for the British to exploit Kikuyu land and labour in the wider Mathira for their benefit.

During World War II, British troops were fed freshly cooked food whenever in camp or barracks. On deployments, field kitchens were sometimes established.

However, soldiers at the front still relied on preserved foods which largely consisted of tinned items, but also dehydrated meats, vegetables, and oatmeal which were designed to be mixed with water. Morale-boosting items such as chocolates and sweets were also included.

At about the same time that Liebig’s (later Kenya Meat Commission) was commissioned to process canned beef for the British Army in the early 1940s, a dried vegetable factory was established in Karatina town to supply British troops in the war.

Large tracts of land were forcibly put under vegetable growing to supply the factory enhancing the commercial and demographic growth of the town.

As agricultural market spaces, small rural markets are highly gendered, particularly in Africa where the food value chain is dominated by women.

Being fluid social places, small towns and marketplaces are ideal for processing news. Historically, across cultures, leaders and hegemonic administrations have found marketplaces to be of strategic value in sending out essential information.

It was where foreign invaders, whether the bible-carrying missionaries or gun-toting armies would first pitch their tent and flag. It would be easier from here to gather essential information about the surroundings.

According to local stereotypes, women are good at spreading news, and traditionally dominating the marketplace, they would be the first to get into contact with “foreign” news and visitors.

Strategic location

Karatina was at the crossroads of trade paths where it was easy to pick news from across the mountains and beyond; from Meru, Embu, and Kamba land, and later, Nairobi, Mombasa, and Tanganyika. (Rural, Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains: Sylvia Racaud & Others).

According to oral sources, men were barred from operating at the Karatina market until the 1950s when the colonial government installed male authority at the marketplace.

The most remembered “market regulator” was Gaching’a who worked there in the 1950s and who, according to one source was cursed by women traders for being harsh and insensitive to them and was struck with elephantiasis or suchlike disease which made his legs swollen.

Today, Karatina hosts the largest open-air market in Kenya and the people are known to be very industrious with most activities starting at 4am and ending at 10pm. Most of the major banks are represented in the town alongside smaller microfinance institutions indicating a high level of financial turnover.

With the reopening of the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway and the ongoing construction of the Kenol-Marua superhighway, Karatina is set to witness mercurial growth in line with its chequered history.

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