In just five months, life for residents of Webuye Town in Western Kenya has turned into a nightmare following the closure of the Pan African Paper Mills in February. The locked shops and clusters of idle youth underscore the decline of a once vibrant trading centre on its way to becoming a ghost town.
When Pan Paper opened its doors in 1970, residents of this western town saw it as a harbinger of good things to come. And, for several decades, business did boom especially in bars and restaurants. Webuye was well on its way to becoming a major town in the region.
Vivienne Keya, a 25-year-old environmentalist who was born in the area, concedes that things were good for awhile, but that the good life came at a price.
“There was some money going around the town. People had a bit to spend,” she said. “But Pan Paper came with employment in one hand and serious environmental degradation in the other.”
Ms Keya, an officer with the Green Belt Movement, said the harm the company did to the environment outweighed the few positive things it did.
As far as she and other environmentalists are concerned, the giant paper mill caused irreversible damage to the surrounding community and the micro-climate of the area has been changing as the years go by.
“Look around,” she said, pointing at the roofs of rusting corrugated iron. “Some of these houses are less than a year old, and their roofs are already rusted.”
The culprit, she said, was the acid rain caused by the sulphuric gases the factory emitted in the process of making paper. “Imagine, then, what the rain does to the crops and the surrounding vegetation,” she said.
In spite of these negative aspects, life in Webuye centred around the factory, and when it was shut down, life more or less came to a standstill.
“There is nothing left for us here,” said 35-year-old Joseph Wafula. “I am thinking of following one of my friends to either Nairobi or Mombasa. Maybe they might have something for me to do.”
Mr Wafula, an electrical engineer, was one of the 30,000 people who depended on the factory for his livelihood. He said that although he wasn’t paid a lot, it was enough to ensure that he could cover most of his family’s needs.
“I was able to pay school fees for my children, buy food, give my wife some pocket money and even spare some change for a good time in town,” he said. “Now I have nothing.”
Many of his friends have left town. “As a man, you cannot sit at home and do nothing,” he said. “The walls will not give you food at night or pay your bills, and if you stay behind, what will you be doing?”
Some of those unable to leave have chosen a life of crime. Gideon Nyongesa, another former Pan Paper employee, sees no harm in it. Sunday Nation found him seated in Flyover, an area many residents call one of the most dangerous places in town.
“We are the ones who do ‘things’ around here,” he said. “We are not proud of what we do, but right now there are only two options on the table: steal or die of hunger. And no normal person would knowingly choose death.”
Area District Commissioner John Litunda admitted that since the closure of the factory, the crime rate in Webuye has been rising, something he attributes to the increased number of idle youths in town.
But some former workers have managed to make a new beginning in other lines of work. Zakaria Weloti, 26, was a casual labourer in the factory. At the end of each day, the father of one daughter took home Sh110 with which he bought food and other basic commodities.
Now he is a boda boda driver, a much better job for him. “I can make up to Sh300 on a good day. If I had known about this earlier, I would have quit ages ago,” he said. He plans to buy his own motor bike.
“When the company reopens, I will withdraw all the money I had put in the savings and credit society, purchase a motorbike of my own and move on,” he said.
But he is not quite sure how much money he has saved in the sacco as there has been no official communication from officials since the sacco shut down.
When the paper factory went under, so did a school, a dispensary and the Pan Paper staff savings and credit society. Sacco members who spoke to Sunday Nation say the society had more than 1,000 members.
And while many Webuye residents know the mill came with its faults, they would rather live with its harmful effects than in their current situation.
“We know the smoke from the factory is not good for us. Our children get chest infections, the little that we plant fails at times. But better this than a life that has stood still,” said Mr Wafula.
Like many others, he is eager to see the factory open its gates once more to the community. “We have had so many promises from the government and the receiver manager coming our way that we stopped anticipating when the factory will be reopened,” said Mr Watiti, who doubles as a representative of workers to the company’s management.
“There’s too much politics involved in deciding the future of the company.” Life could have been somewhat easier for former employees had the company stuck to an agreement it made with them earlier in the year.
According to Mr Watiti, before the employees were sent on a compulsory three-month leave, it had been agreed that they would be paid 30 per cent of their base pay plus a full housing allowance; those living in the company estate were to be housed for free.
“None of this has happened,” said Mr Wafula. Instead, their power and water were disconnected, and the clinic, where they and their families used to be treated free of charge, was closed down.
“There is nothing we can be proud of any more,” Mr Waititi said. “The town is a shadow of what it used to be. And the people walking the empty streets are mere shells of what they used to be.”
But the environmentalists see it differently. For them, this is the kind of break the town needed. “The break might not be a big one,” Ms Keya said. “But it is nice for a change to wake up to fresh air and a clear sky.”