The sound of rumbling earthmovers in their neighbourhoods is music to the ears of most of those whose land has been acquired by the government for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line.
Most have been compensated in millions of shillings, but even as they prepare to vacate their parcels of land along the corridor to pave way for the commencement of the construction, some are already stranded, having squandered their cash awards.
Abigail Idi Wawuda, a widow who asked her son to receive the compensation money on her behalf, is a depressed woman.
We spoke to her last week inside her three-bedroom brick house in Voi’s Kaloleni estate, where she also houses a daughter and her two children.
“I am not even sure how much we were to receive for this house because my son won’t reveal the amount to me but my daughter says it was about Sh360,000,” she said.
Since the release of the money on December 7 last year, she has not seen her 30-year-old son, Hamisi Kilunju Idi.
“I didn’t even know the money had been deposited to the account, which was in his name. He just vanished and stopped coming home. So we went looking for him and asking around in town (Voi), only to be informed by his friends that he had gone to Mombasa,” Wawuda said.
A few days later we went back to Wawuda, and she told us that Kilunju had returned home... as broke as a church mouse. We asked him how much money he had received and what he had done with it and he stubbornly dismissed us, saying “I can’t remember how much it was”.
When her mother insisted that he brings the award papers, he said he had no idea where he had put them.
“He drank all that money!” his mother shrieked. “It is hard to believe it. I do not even want to think about it because it is going to make me sick. When the next batch for my 100-by-100 piece of land is released, I have applied to the government to change the awardee from my son’s names to mine.”
In another village, a few kilometres away in Manyani, two teenage girls are in a dilemma after receiving a notice to vacate a house they have always known as home. They have no idea where their father, Edward Wambua, a widower, is.
“We have heard rumors that he bought an old van, which we have seen, but we don’t know whether it is his because he hasn’t told us so,” Angela Ndisya, the elder of the two girls, told us recently. “We are also told that he drove to Mombasa but that too we can’t confirm.”
Ndisya, however, does not know what arrangements her father has made for them to relocate, and neither does she know how much he was awarded.
Public records at the Kenya Railways office in Voi show that he received slightly above Sh5.5 million for a row of houses, some of which were rentals.
Two men we found demolishing a house adjacent to his claimed to have seen Wambua in the local bars severally, hemmed in by a bevy of “night girls”.
“The other day he came back from Voi very drunk. And then the following day he was asking around for his identification documents.
He had lost his ATM card and other things. I feel sorry for him and his children. He has just wasted most of that money,” Mwangala Mwaveka pointed out.
At Mtito Andei, it took the intervention of the area chief Paul Luvai to stop a family wrangle in which an awardee, Phelamon Kimanthi, was involved in a brawl with his sons after he withdraw a portion of the money awarded for the jointly owned land and then locked the rest up in a savings account.
“The sons, after learning that the money had come and their father was trying to hide it from them, waited until he came back home drunk and then pounced on him,” said Chief Luvai.
Kimanthi wasn’t home when we visited, but in a phone interview he said he had moved from the homestead he shared with his three sons to an older home because he feared they planned to kill him.
Along the line route, all the way from Mombasa to Nairobi, those who are yet to receive the money cannot wait to enjoy the luxurious interlude.
Titus Bondo, a primary school teacher at Mtito Andei, says he will plan for his Sh3.8 million bounty when it finally comes, but he knows he will use about half a million of “to fly to Seychelles.”
“The new Slumdog Millionaires of the Standard Gauge Railway line” is what the MCA for Kaloleni Ward, Omar Ahmad, called the beneficiaries of the government payouts when we called to talk to him about the situation in his constituency, which is where most of the track will go through.
“It has been a constant party at Voi since this money was released. Judicious planning for most of those who have been displaced seems to be nowhere in their realm of things. People are going to cry as, tragically for many, the train might just end up being the wicked electric python that devoured their lands.”
Rev Agnes Suva, a recipient in Kathekani who gave up her land for the construction of the projects slippers’ and precast beams factory, notes that the money is bound to be “squandered” as many of those receiving it lack any understanding of wealth management.
Our team discovered that the awardees were not given any financial management training ahead of the disbursements. An official at Kenya Railways, who declined to be named for fear of being persecuted for revealing the information, said:
“The release of the money has been a bit disorganised. We did not even get time to do the education even though it was part of the programme.”
New line will put us out of business, cry truckers
Truckers transporting cargo mostly from the port of Mombasa to the interiors of the country and other countries within East Africa are crying foul over the new railway line.
They say they foresee a situation where the new rail will hurt the trucking industry, subsequently pushing many out of work, as a big chunk of the cargo they transport is gobbled up by the new freight trains.
“I have heard that the new trains will carry four times as much cargo as the old ones, yet even that old ones will continue to operate,” says Mary Wangare, a truck driver doing the East African run.
According to the design paperwork, the trailing load of the new trains will be 4,000 tonnes (which is equivalent to 216 20-foot containers) as compared to the old trains with a capacity for only 1,000 tonnes.
“That means that many of us will have no work to do anymore,” the communications graduate, who instead of getting a “conventional job” in her line of education chose to follow her passion to become a truck driver, says thousands of families depend on their jobs on the road for survival. There are an estimated 40,000 truck drivers in Kenya.
Wangare, a single mother of one, says her job has enabled her build a three-bedroom residential house for her family, including her parents, in Busia and has started developing rentals, but the future is bleak with the new infrastructure.
Her fears are echoed by Omar Ali, a trucker who spoke to us at Mtito Andei last week.
“(The project will) make things worse for us because as it is we already have to wait for cargo for many days. Now I am headed to Mombasa to load but I have to wait for an entire week or more. Eventually, we might have to be waiting for an entire month to get cargo to transport,” says Ali, adding that the rail should have been constructed for passenger trains only.
While rallying support for the project, President Uhuru Kenyatta has said severally that the modal shift from road to rail is expected to increase the rail transport market share and in effect divert business from the road to the railway.
This, it is anticipated, will reduce wear and tear on roads; hence reduce maintenance costs.
But Omar feels that the argument that the government wants to reduce damage to the roads is not defensible because truckers pay road tolls for repairs.
However, Kenya Transporters Association chief executive officer Willington Kiverenge says these worries are unwarranted.
Currently, road is doing about 96 per cent of all the cargo while rail caters for about three per cent.
He figures it won’t even be easy attaining the 50 per cent that the railway line is projected to seize, “because road always takes the larger share of cargo anywhere in the world”.
“The train cannot take cargo up to the doorstep of the client’s warehouse or factory. Furthermore, the train may not be as cheap as it has been made to seem,” he says.
“Besides, when one considers the fact that one will have to incur additional road transport and handling costs to get one’s cargo to one’s doorstep, then you’ll still find most cargo owners resorting to trucks.”
Moreover, he argues, with the recently announced increase in the volumes of cargo at the port of Mombasa, there is going to be “enough for all”.
According to the Kenya Ports Authority, the East African port of Mombasa witnessed a cargo volume increase of more than 10 per cent last year, up from 2013.