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DISCOVER THIKA: KENYAN BIRMINGHAM, THE CLEANEST CITY IN THE COUNTRY

We present parts of an article presented in the Kenyan journal East Standard (16.07.2008, "Inside the town that refused to die"), by Peter Thatiah.

Inside the town that refused to die

When the British adventurers of the 19th century passed through this dual carriageway, it was just a winding mud track; their wagons sagging with guns, bibles, and ambition. To get the feel of their footsteps I decide to start at the location of the Blue Posts Hotel, the very spot where modern history of Thika begun.

Here, lounging on the seats overlooking the confluence of Chania and Thika rivers, you will see landmarks that owe their existence to both good intentions and happenstance. The former demonstrated by a century-old arc bridge that is the only one of its class in the country still in use, and the latter represented by a lush jungle downstream between the two falls, also the scene where the movie Tarzan was shot.

As you enter town, sights of an earlier age will welcome you into Thika. The vintage buildings along Kwameh Nkrumah Road, their pre-1930 stone plaques still in place, bring to the present the town’s era of elegance. This is a provincial town where intimacy is not shunned.

But Shanket Shah, a native of Thika of Asian extract, says that this is a town that has been changing its mind on a whim. In fact, he insists, Thika town proper was founded in order to become the Birmingham of Kenya, in essence a key manufacturing centre.

From 1950s through to the 1980s, Thika was squarely on the track to becoming the manufacturing capital of Kenya. Then things started going south, with many companies collapsing and others relocating for reasons that were for a long time a subject of discussion.

Indeed, according to the Kenya Chambers of Commerce office at Thika, more than 20 manufacturing companies that were operational in 1985 are no longer there. However, it is noted that not all of them closed shop. Most relocated to Athi River, an emerging industrial base that is along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and thus on the conduit of imported raw materials. Some of the companies have since come back.

Shanket says Thika is on the resurgent path. In the skyline of the town’s CBD construction sites are shedding their mantles of scaffolding and wood, the crunching sounds of mortar mixers announcing the dawn of yet another beginning. Competition has never been stiffer.

Across the street along Kenyatta Avenue an imposing building houses the Town Hall. Here the director of Social Services, Mr Francis Ndirangu, spends two hours trying to convince me why Thika is the most important town in the country. Town Clerk Johnson Kariuki says that if the job he has done in Thika does not win him recognition then he will never get it. Some facts here are telling, however: Thika has been named the cleanest town in the country for four years in a row. A glance out of the windows from his first-floor office bares it all.

You don’t walk on the soil in Thika town; there are pavements. You don’t just park your car anywhere; they will tow it away to teach you some motoring etiquette. Parking is not free like in other provincial towns; you’ll pay Sh35 for the service. Try throwing a banana peel or a sweet wrapper on the street and you would have earned yourself a place in the police cell.

The drainage system works, there is ample street lighting and water sprays out even on obscure fountains. The roads are smooth to a fault, the parks manicured and the Town Clock works. But if it is the cleanliness that the town’s authorities want to be recognised for, it is education they have bet the future on. In municipalities rankings in the country Thika has been number one for five consecutive years in the KCSE exams. The town of 250,000 is home to Gretsa University. Mount Kenya University, which was given a Charter last month, is the latest feather on the cap of Thika town.

We are in the Makongeni area, the industrial part of Thika. Further towards the east on the road to Garissa you can see Thika army barracks. Beyond, pineapple plantations seem to cover every inch of the vast plains. There are seven others lower and middle class estate. But it is at Kiboko estate on the banks of Chania River that the view is breathtaking. This is where the rich and the famous live.

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