Construction of Karen bypass sees demise of Nairobi’s valley of robbers

Between 1944 and sometime just before the state of emergency in Kenya in 1952, my uncle, Jeremiah Mugo, worked as a driver for the Karen Country Club. Our rural home is in Kibichoi, about 15km west of Ruiru town and not far from the Coffee Research Foundation at Jacaranda.

In fact we were on the border, marking the edge of the then African Reserve and the Settled Area, as they were known during the Colonial era.

During this period it was the custom that the native workers would be given the weekend off to visit their families in the reserves while their masters retreated to one of their Happy Valley destinations.

Mugo was an extraordinary man. Spare bodied, soft spoken, almost self-effacing, beady eyed and not known to engage in controversy. He was always immaculately dressed in his chauffeur’s uniform, shiny black leather shoes and a peak cap. That is how I best remember him.

Around 1961 he was working as a chauffeur for Count Beaumont of the French plantation group Socfinaf – whose head office was near Kamiitu, meaning the Place of Robbers, some 6km from Ruiru town.

I remember him animatedly narrating the story of another frightful place known as Ngai Ndeithia, which means “God help me”. As he spoke, his eyes dartedfrom side to side, conjuring the image of fear itself.

Ngai Ndeithia was located at the valley between the turn-off to Duke of York (modern day Lenana School) and Miotoni Road towards the Karen shopping centre.

From Mugo’s description it sounded like the biblical valley of the shadow of death. This area was part of the Ngong Forest and the main road snaked through it.

Apparently there were highway men who waylaid pedestrians, cyclists and slow motorists and violently robbed them of their possesions, leaving them for dead. The trick was to navigate this area in large groups, which put off the would-be highway men.

Many of the African workers owned bicycles, certainly acquired with generous aances from their white masters.

As public transport was non-existent or unreliable at best, the bicycle provided an independent and efficient mode of transport. So on Saturday mornings, many of these cyclists would congregate at the Karen dukas for the joint crossing of Ngai Ndeithia.

Even when the group was big, Mugo claimed that many could be heard muttering under their breath, “Ngai ndeithia.”

As they got to Ngando on the other side, many breathed a sigh of relief. Needless to say the process would be repeated in reverse on their return the following day or early Monday morning.

By now you may have identified Ngai Ndeithia as the area where the interchange for the Southern bypass is being built, effectively wiping out this valley of death.

The fear of Ngai Ndeithia persisted up to modern times and if your car broke down in that valley you would be well aised to leave it and scramble to safety.

There has been some debate of late regarding the transformation of beautiful coffee estates on Kiambu Road and elsewhere in Thika and Murang’a into massive residential neighbourhoods and conurbations, and about the standard gauge railway passing through the Nairobi National Park.

Whereas the transformation of Ngai Ndeithia from a den of thieves to a work of engineering art is unlikely to stir much controversy, the same cannot be said of other areas where environmental concerns may be raised.

There is a principle in economics that states that factors of production will eventually move to where they are best rewarded. Land is one of the basic factors of production and it is this principle we are witnessing in practice.

For the coffee estates giving way to residential neighbourhoods, coffee no longer commands a leading role in our foreign exchange earnings and costs of production have risen to unprecedented levels making coffee farming less attractive as an investment.

Conversely the demand for residential accommodation has grown exponentially in Nairobi and we are seeing more development towards and beyond the city limits.

The return on the use of land on Kiambu Road for residential development is more than 10 times that from coffee farming. Therefore, more land is being converted to residential use.

Let us not forget that Karen, Kitisuru, Lavington and Runda all used to be coffee estates and Nairobi was once an almighty swamp.

While we may wish to protect the fauna and flora in our environment and the free movement of wild animals, unfortunately in the real world the entrenchment of commercial interests under the guise of development often take the day.