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The Treasure

Follow  the ‘Countdown to 50’ Campaign!


Every single week of the 50 weeks between January 2013 and the 50th Anniversary of Kenya’s Independence on the 12th of December 2013 we are going to highlight one of the 50 Treasures of Kenya with stunning pictures, practical travel information and personal impressions.

This week we visit  Ukambani: The Mysterious Marvel

Kamba Land or Ukambani is divided in to three administrative county regions namely, Machakos, Makueni and Kitui counties, stretching east of Nairobi along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway towards Tsavo National park and North East to Embu.  It is widely perceived as a region regularly haunted by long drought seasons. Far from this notion, there are green and fertile stretches which make up for a wonderful destination outside Nairobi. Machakos for example, which was actually Kenya’s first inland capital, is surrounded by green hills. The Makongo Valley…

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Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, And The Folly Of ‘Otherness’ – What Al-Shabaab Revealed About Us



USE -westgate-shopping-mall_kenya2_mainAROUND noon on Saturday September 21, a group of terrorists believed to number 10 to 18 stormed the Westgate Mall in western Nairobi.

By the third day, 69 had been killed during the attack, or died later in hospital. Another 175 had been injured. Today the crisis entered its fourth day. In the evening a downcast President Uhuru Kenyatta, came on TV to give heartbreaking news. The crisis had come to an end, but the three floors of the mall had collapsed from explosions, and the terrorists and an unknown number of people were trapped in the rubble.

Amidst the tragedy, we are about to forget that the first day of the crisis offered quite troubling insights about how we the media view the world.

Some Kenyan journalists, especially TV presenters, inundated their audiences with references to Westgate mall being popular with “wealthy Kenyans, expatriates and diplomats”. It was also…

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Top senator slammed for comparing Italy’s first black cabinet minister to an orangutan


Italy, Italy, Italy…

National Post | News

Prime Minister Enrico Letta has harshly criticized a top Italian senator who likened the country’s first black Cabinet minister to an orangutan, the latest episode of high-profile racial tension in a nation grappling with immigration.

In a statement Sunday, Letta denounced Roberto Calderoli’s words as “unacceptable” and “beyond every limit.”

Calderoli, the Senate’s vice-president and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, made denigrating remarks about Immigration Minister Cecile Kyenge while he was speaking at a party rally Saturday in northern Italy, the populist movement’s power base.

“When I see images of Kyenge I cannot help think, even if I don’t say that she is one, of a resemblance to an orangutan,” Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted Calderoli as saying. On Sunday, Calderoli said he was making a joke, and meant no offence to the minister.

Kyenge is a Congolese-born doctor who became Italy’s first black minister when Letta’s…

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Vehicle design will be key to matatu survival


The teachers strike has entered its third week.  KUPPET have taken their winnings and ran, leaving KNUT in the trenches. Civil servants meanwhile have announced their intention to give the government a strike notice.

A search for the keyword “teacher” on the government’s Vision 2030 website turns up 15 results. Clearly, however much grief teachers cause the government, they matter.  Another search on the same website, for the term “bus” finds 4 results, while a search for “matatu”, finds nothing.  Matatus unlike buses, have no place in the developed, resurgent, Kenya of the future, if that document is to be believed. It should worry the matatu industry immensely that policymakers can see a Kenya beyond them.

Let’s get the operators out of the way first. If the bribes police are demanding keep getting bigger, at some point it will be more affordable to repair whatever it is that the police claim to stop matatus for. Matatu crews should also cease dangerous habits like refuelling with the engine running and causing death  by throwing passengers out of moving vehicles, because these exhaust whatever goodwill the public has towards them. In addition to boycotts, it may help for the Matau Welfare Association to create a legal defence fund to discourage petty arrests and reduce the chances of police succeeding with frivolous charges.

Matatus in their current form create as many problems as they solve. Yes, they provide employment, both direct and indirect, in a country where half the labour force cannot find a job. But they do an inefficient job of providing transportation, mainly due to the perception of public transit as a for-profit venture, and how matatus are manufactured and operated. Complaints have been coming  including this one by Magesha Ngwiri. As an aside, If you are interested in the matatu sector, you absolutely have to read Wambururu’s Blog, which is written by a matatu driver.

This country, particularly its larger cities, will need to decide whether the role of buses and matatus is to provide transportation efficiently to the greatest number of people, or to create profit while moving people as an afterthought, because running a proper, responsive public transit service for profit is very difficult indeed.

With the exception of very dense cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong that have well developed rail operations, most public transit authorities either break even or work with a  subsidy from government. The Tube in London and the MTA in New York do not generate profits. Not even the crowded Moscow Metro generates a profit solely from farebox receipts.

Although the transportation authority may not make a profit, connecting millions of workers to jobs and leisure, and reducing the effect of distance on business generates immense economic activity on a regional or even national scale depending on the city. Many local authorities are therefore happy to subsidize transit operations.

Seen in this light, there was nothing much wrong with Kenya Bus even if it did not generate stellar profits. It did what it was supposed to do very well indeed. For details there is a great page on the Kenya Bus website which tells of its decline. A regular, orderly, bus service that carried large numbers of sitting and standing passengers was replaced by inconsistency in fares and timing and varying routes by the hour depending on traffic jam intensity.

Then there is manufacturing. In an accident, injuries can result from sharp edges that should be rounded, protruding pieces of metal that should be made flush, lack of padding and proximity of seating to the door. As matatus grow from 21-seater to 50-seater and beyond, carrying more weight, the wheels they run on remain the same size.

Matatus as they are designed in Kenya reward competitive, or bad, driving over efficiency in carriage. A high ground clearance allows matatus to climb onto the sidewalk and overlap with ease.  The thin, manoeuvrable body able to weave in and out of traffic corresponds to a constricted aisle between seats that limits standing and restricts revenues. Not allowing standing passengers means that matatus never carry large enough numbers to benefit from peak hours. The Michuki Rules, which work on a prudent assumption that buses and matatus will always be dangerously driven, mean that this source of revenue is foreclosed, at least legally.

Contrast this with a public transit bus or train where standing at rush hour effectively doubles the passengers, and therefore the revenues. In such circumstances, the overlapping that a matatu would do in order to squeeze in an extra rush hour trip is just not worth it.

The companies involved in building these matatu bodies, like Banbros, Dodi Autotech , KVM and others, it should be understood, can make better vehicles; many are also in the business of assembling luxury safari vehicles, and buses for companies, schools and government.  Further, the recent decision by Toyota Kenya to appoint Busmark from South Africa to build its HINO bus bodies suggests that foreign competitors may have lessons for our local vehicle manufacturers who have long sold a product aimed at commuters without choices.

To stay in business long term, even before making profits , the matatu industry, both operators and vehicle builders, should be designing vehicles that can carry more commuters in dignity, and running professional operations that are safe and sensitive to development goals in areas such as clean air and accessibility. These new bus designs may not be as effective in a traffic jam as those in service today, but they will give private commuter businesses and locally built buses a fighting chance. The alternative is to lose vehicle orders to foreign companies and passengers to public train and bus services that deliver what people want.

Don‘t imitate New York. Fix Nairobi


Wishing Nairobi were more like the affluent cities of the world is good and expected. However, I would urge caution when dealing with best practice vignettes and success stories . The major lesson from examples such as Mr. Penalosa of Bogota and Mr. Bloomberg of New York, is that people-friendly projects are, by nature, inclusive. They flow from a political decision to invest in all urban residents, rich and poor alike, and not from urban envy, or a mere desire to imitate more affluent cities.

Many cities we may seek to emulate have long taken care of both the physical fundamentals, including firefighting, building safety and sewerage, and the political fundamentals, including finances, fair electoral representation of urban residents and executive powers of elected officials. If these things are not in place, then Bloomberg-type inspirational leadership becomes almost impossible to achieve.

Nairobi, viewed through this lens has a wonderful opportunity, through the election of a governor with executive powers and some presumably predictable financing, to effect change. Making this city more liveable and people-friendly involves, first, including the less fortunate in improvements of fire safety, living conditions, transportation, education and wherever else the city has a mandate, and second, increasing public participation and transparency in governance.

We should ensure adequate firefighting for the whole city, because we believe that Eastlands matters as much as Westlands, that safety from fire in 2012 should not depend on our ability to afford G4S. Our firefighting mess is a shame and this city’s business potential, much of which lies east of Tom Mboya Street, shall continue to smoulder until fire is effectively controlled.

Whereas the loudest complaints about our traffic jams typically come from drivers and and matatu users, 47% of this city’s commuters walk to work. In addition to buses and trains, an adequate public transportation system should specifically target this group with safe bicycle paths closed to cars, throughout the city, because they also matter. Similarly, we should provide parks in Kayole, South B, Embakasi and elsewhere not just because New York is providing parks, but because we do, or ought to recognize, that every Nairobian is deserving of green space, yet hardly any can routinely access Karurua Forest, the Nairobi Aboretum or Uhuru Park, which looks rather dry at the moment.

Creating people-friendly cities also goes beyond revitalizing town centres to attract creatives a la Richard Florida, whose name is rarely mentioned in Kenyan newspapers, but whose creative class theory is writ large in planned developments such as Tatu City and Konza. To invest tax shillings in the less fortunate represents significant government spending, and so a leader is required who believes that all Nairobians are worthy of investments in basic livability and can make a case for such spending in the face of more fiscally conservative opposition. Such a leader should also be willing to take on those who profit from our shortcomings in public infrastructure in defence of the public interest.

Transparent governance, the other requirement of a liveable city, does not just involve public participation as set out in the Cities and Urban Areas Act of 2011, but also the right to observe local government as it executes substantive business. In Nairobi, the public is not allowed to witness municipal decision-making around development control, zoning and other otherwise public decisions. If Parliament allows the public to observe debate and motions, if the courts allow the public to observe acquittals and convictions, then city hall should allow the public to observe zoning, development, and other approvals. The effective Official Plan and Zoning By-law, which currently decide how land should be used in Nairobi, ought to be on the website of the Nairobi City Council today.

A city that values all its residents, cares for the most vulnerable, and is not afraid to transact business in the public eye is far more likely to be people-friendly. We must learn this lesson if we are to successfully emulate Enrique Penalosa and Michael Bloomberg. Merely wanting a better city won’t get us there.