Appetising aromas waft from mud and iron-sheet structures. Sharp melodies of Swahili songs fill the air as women sing their hearts out and children play on the road. Welcome to the sprawling informal settlement of Majengo in Nyeri town, where life is as ordinary and bustling as in any other slum, but now it’s in the news for all the wrong reasons.
As in other estates christened Majengo, crimes are reported almost daily and it may come as no surprise that one of the DusitD2 slain terrorists — Farouk — lived there after high school. Crime is still high in Majengo, raids and arrests are not uncommon.
It was no different for us in Nyeri, born and raised just next door in another informal settlement called Kiawara.
The only difference between Kiawara, where I grew up, and Majengo is that there were more permanent houses in our neighbourhood. With the busy Nyeri Muslim Association Mosque in the upper side of Majengo, most residents profess the Islamic faith and the many I interacted were devout.
So close was Majengo to us that my brother and I used the 4pm call to prayer to be on our best behaviour as it meant our mother was about to get home.
We, however, grew up referring to Majengo residents more as Waswahili (Coast people) than Waisilamu (Muslims). The lower side of Majengo had more Christians and churches with blaring sound systems ruled the area on Sundays. Religiosity, however, did not save Majengo from crime. The’criminal’ tag was so engraved in the minds of Nyeri residents that if you were seen taking any of the paths leading to Majengo, your parents would be told.
Our parents even forbade us from making friends with Majengo kids, though we secretly associated with our Majengo schoolmates. This warning persisted despite the fact Majengo was not only on my way to school but also had some of the best posho mills where we would be sent for maize flour. Majengo was a great place to go to during the holy month of Ramadhan as our secret friends would get us all manner of delicacies. It was also the best place to buy kachatas on our way from school, so I often went there.
Also, it had a shortcut I used to get to Nyamachaki Primary School and church, but my parents would never have allowed it in the early morning, for good reason.
Some pupils ‘lost’ books and even uniforms if they went to school via Majengo. One time, while in Standard 5, we were caught up in a gang fight on our way to school and I lost my spectacles (a secret my parents will read here today). The story I told at home was that I lost them in the playing field and spent the next two weeks ‘looking’ for them without success.
Actually, I lost them after falling into a ditch as I made way for gangs of young men chasing each other with pangas and rungus.
As Majengo was less than 100 metres from Kimathi Way (a main road in Nyeri’s CBD), pickpockets and petty thieves ran there to hide. Police swoops were common, extending to our Kiawara area and instilling fear in most of us. Sometimes Majengo, Kiawara (and to some extent more ‘elite’ Blue Valley Estate) residents would suffer the wrath of police searching for escaped prisoners.
Famous Kingongo GK Prison is across the Chania River valley and I recall instances after prison breaks when Majengo and Kiawara were the targets for security personnel. Running battles between police and Majengo youth were common, especially because of bhang and illicit liquor. Majengo, Kiawara and Kangemi, which is 3km away, were Nyeri’s dens of vice.
Due to its reputation, teachers and pupils treated Majengo kids with suspicion, though some classmates who lived were among the best in class.
While in lower classes, we also feared older boys from Majengo who mostly were bullies.