By Zak Syengo
Gikomba fires are a common duty, as sure as a church on Sunday, at least for the traders who have suffered from this endemic occurrence for over ten times in the last decade.
Every year these trends on social media, just like early this month, but the pain of loss bites the thousands of traders in this area.
The market dates back to around 1952, a facility set up by the government to take care of the growing need for Kenyans of African descent who would buy wares from their Asian counterparts. Over the years, there was an inclusion of indigenous businesspeople and tremendous growth.
The original idea of fencing off the open air market and putting up mabati structures still prevails, albeit a few permanent structures. Surrounding the market though, a number of the building providing a residence or medium wholesale business adorn the expansive area. However, small traders still dominate the market, creating employment to thousands of men and women.
On a normal day, it will surprise you how millions of people walk into the market from across the city and the country. A bulk of these will be looking for wares to auction at their respective business elsewhere, popularly known as camera. This market thrives on bales and bales of imported second-hand clothes and footwear, commonly known as mutumba. This is home to food vendors who have to satisfy the secondary market created by traders.
One thing will strike a visitor though. Despite the market growth over slightly half a century, one thing has remained constant. The level of infrastructure development from Muthurwa to Majengo, Shauri Moyo to Kamukunji, is totally pathetic. In fact, to put it correctly, based on the population that visits this market in a day, Gikomba people must be the most underserved community in this city.
The few tarmacked roads are in a dilapidated state and poorly marked. Most other roads or pathways are weather affected, and mostly impassable during rainy days. And when the tenacious Kenyans decide to use these pathways under the rain, they risk sliding into dredges. The drainage system is wanting, still making use of ancient infrastructure. One would shy away from picking a phone that falls on the ground under such circumstances. A few washrooms dot the expansive area, again exposing the traders and their clients to numerous health risks. The stench from the poor passing drainage system is sickening. Municipal and county governments allude all this mess to poor planning, but nobody showing signs of correction, all this laced with perennial promises to the traders.
Poor planning, however, has far-reaching implications, the biggest challenge being the inability to manage emergent issues, like fires and recently terrorist incidences. Gikomba is more famous for the fires than the purpose it was set up for. The fact that in one year several parts of Gikomba burn down, sometimes leading to loss of lives, and obviously millions of property should worry anyone managing this city.
No trader is certain that they have a future in this market. It’s not a surprise to be woken up at 4 am and learn that all the wares for the business are just but ashes. Most occurrences, the fire is only contained when thousands of businesses have burnt down, no salvages at all.
The causes of the fire are as many as the sand of the sea. Some suspect works of arson, while others deliberate attempts by fraudsters to benefit from insurance covers for loans or business risk management initiatives. There are also reports of acts of omission or commission emanating from residential areas. All in all, it has become entirely impossible to know exactly what causes these perennial fires.
The greatest worry though for any of the traders in Gikomba remains how to coordinate response to all corners of the market when such incidents kick in. For now, it remains a market shrouded with mystery and imminent tragedy.