Long before we had swallowed the bitter-sweet pill of colonialism, an ancient community of skilful Kamba iron craftsmen thrived in Kitui. It was they who gave this place its name which means ‘a place where iron goods are made’.
Over a century later, Kitui bares all the hallmarks of a metropolis in the making but its fabled ironsmiths are long gone or sadly relegated to the margins of extinction as old cultures got replaced by more ‘progressive’ ones.
But as I was to quickly discover during my 4-day stay here, forging items from iron is not the only thing Kitui has to offer nowadays. The Kamba people have long found new preoccupations – Agriculture is one of them.
It was evident in every market I visited. Four of these markets intrigued me a lot not only because of the wares that were sold but because of a curious history they each had.
Kalundu market in Kitui town opens its doors on Mondays when it is market day. An otherwise ordinary open-air market selling the usual farm produce one would expect from an arid area, Kalundu made news headlines back in June 2017 when Kamene Kakai, a resident here, tried to sell an owl at the market for KES 250 to raise money to feed her 5 starving children.
She had trekked for 15 KM to Kalundu market hoping someone would buy the bird but an owl is the harbinger of evil in Kamba land. It is associated with bad omens and so she should have known she never stood a chance with the sale from the word go – yet she tried either way, for her children.
While agricultural produce is sold in Zombe, the predominant trading item here is livestock. Every Tuesday farmers descend to the market, herding their goats and cows, ready to sell them to whoever offers the best price
Like all other markets, Zombe has its fair share of peripheral traders who come to sell a range of other smaller fancy-looking household products, most likely from China.
I was drawn to one vendor who had lined up a collection of colourful sandals made from old vehicle tyres. These sandals are so ubiquitous, nearly every tribe has a name for them. The Luos call them Akalas, the Kikuyu, Nyamoga. This particular type was a more modern design with nice padding for the sole and some nice beadwork to complete the fancy look.
The all-weather road to Zombe passes through Kyuluni Market, or at least what is left of it. A great section of the market lies in ruins like an ancient civilisation gone under.
The market fell victim to an ongoing 172 KM Kibwezi-Kitui-Migwani road construction project. Most buildings were demolished to pave way for the road which, it is estimated, will cost KES 18 billion when completed.
I learn that it is not only buildings the new road will affect. At least 38 bodies will also have to be exhumed between Kyuluni market and Kitui town to allow the road to pass! When they say progress comes at a cost, I guess this is what they have in mind.
A few winding turns past Kyuluni and about 10 KM from Kitui, stands the legendary 183 M (600 F) high rock outcrop called the Nzambani Rock. Locals call it Ivia ya Nzambani.
The rock, shrouded in myth and mystery, is a popular attraction in Kitui. Locals claim that if you go round it 7 times, your gender changes! I never tried, after all, it is too large to go round and I was pressed for time!
Mwingi market has experienced a multiplicity of fortunes over the years. At one point, at the height of the Ukambani drought, livestock in this market was being sold at throwaway prices.
A bull then could fetch as low as KES 4,000. The Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), the government body tasked with livestock marketing, intervened by offering the higher price of KES 8,000. Unfortunately, only a few farmers benefited.
Kabati market is a more liberal and diverse market, perhaps because it is nearer the more larger Thika town. Operating mostly on Thursdays, this market has had a few
A year ago some young men were nabbed here carrying a briefcase holding fake Kenyan currency worth KES 1 million. Not too far from here, is the home of the former MP for Kitui West, the late Francis Nyenze.
Locals still remember how, back in April 1998, President Moi had made an unusual request to be a guest at Nyenze’s home. Nyenze, of course, had resisted, even hinted to the president that better accommodation existed to which the president had insisted he had no problem “sleeping in whatever rural house or ramshackle” the politician had.
If you have time, you can explore Kitui’s upcoming mining scene. I hear large deposits of coal have been discovered in Mui Basin. It is the low energy kind which produces less heat when burned.
Plans are underway, either way, to use it to supply the 1,000 MW Lamu Coal Power Station and the 960 MW Kitui coal plant. Some Sulphur has also been discovered in this area while in Mutomo limestone is being extracted.
I stayed at the Parkside Villa for a night before a friend recommended the Symona Cabins, a small family-run Bed & Breakfast that offers a homely ambience that is so basic, it is refreshing. Budget for between KES 1,000 to KES 1,500 at Symona.
Stop by this joint called Kavoka that used to be a cafeteria of sorts for the military and try their Githeri. Your experience, when you are served with a mixture of maize and peas instead of the usual beans, I am sure, will be quite an experience! Or pop in at the Second Wife Fast Food in Kitui’s CBD, if only to sample the treatment of a second wife!