Kiambu is not often associated with the arts, but going by its famous sons and daughters and a hamlet near Limuru, this metropolitan county may just be the capital of art in Kenya.
It is the home of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of East Africa’s greatest novelists, and a nominee for last year’s Nobel prize for literature.
It was at Kamirithu, about seven kilometres from Limuru Town, that he tried to stage Ngahiika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), the play that earned him the wrath of the then President Moi.
His house, which he built shortly before fleeing into exile in the United States, attracts a number of literary pilgrims.
The deserted building, constructed in the trademark style of a traditional African hut, rarely houses the writer, but it does house the literary aspirations of many budding writers and literature lovers.
Kamirithu, where Ngugi attempted to set up an open-air theatre to stage his plays, has developed into a youth polytechnic.
The place where the stage stood — a slightly higher point of a grass field — is now a netball pitch. The village is also the home of veteran writers Sam Kahiga and Leonard Kibera.
The densely populated county is also home to veteran musician CDM Kiratu, of the song Kaba Kuinuka ( I have decided to go back home), the late Peter Mbui (Rekia Wacuka), the late Ruguiti wa Njeri (Marua ma Pati).
It is also home to Jimmi Wayuni (Wayuni Utuire Uhenagia), Mwalimu James Mbugua, Jimmy Gait and many more.
But nothing captures the spirit of Kiambu art like the little town of Ngecha, named after the Ngecha families, who migrated from Ukambani to settle among the Kikuyu sometime in 1939. The shopping centre at Ngecha is ordinary by any standards.
There is the crumbling tarmac road, handcarts, the mud whenever it rains, a few idle youths hanging about and the market in the middle where women take their surplus food for sale.
But one soon discovers that while the walls of the buildings in any other rural shopping centre would be covered with advertisements, or mud, these are covered with paintings.
Ngecha is an artist’s haven and one of the few villages in Kiambu where men and women make a tidy sum of money, not from farming or trade, but from painting on canvas whatever images are in their minds.
“Everybody here is an artist. We usually ask the children from the village to draw whatever they want and the product is what you see on the walls outside,” said John Ngaruiya, an artist.
Mr Ngaruiya’s paintings form a sizeable percentage of the works of art on display at the Ngecha Artists Association gallery on the first floor of the tallest building in the town. His are abstract and he said he got inspiration from the environment.
The artists’ association brings together various artists from the villages around Ngecha into a community-owned art gallery.
Looking at the paintings and sculptures on show, Fred Kamau, the chairman of the association, commented, “This things are expensive,” showing one painting he thought might be worth up to Sh1 million.
The gallery was formed in 1995, with the backing of the late Ruth Schaffner, former director of Gallery Watatu in Nairobi. According to the artists, the American planted the seed that has now sprouted into the artists’ association.
“Before then we would travel all the way to Nairobi to showcase our work, and it was at Gallery Watatu that Ruth Schaffner realised that Ngecha had talent,” said Ken Ndung’u, the secretary of the association.
With Kiambu District becoming a county, the artists are bubbling with hope that incoming leaders will realise the importance of art and make Ngecha the new capital of art.