Fred Aminga @faminga
Everyday, traders at Gikomba market in Nairobi sleep with their ears on their phones, awaiting that call alerting them of a fire at the expansive market.
The calls usually come shortly before the crack of dawn, and with military precision, mostly between 3am and 4am. The chilling message, usually short and precise, cuts through the still night like a flash of thunder….
“Boss, Gikomba inachomeka, kuja haraka, (Boss, Gikomba is on fire, come quickly),” then they hang up before they call another trader. The traders then alert one other as they rush to salvage their lifetime savings.
First responders are traders using buckets filled with water. The firefighters, just within the central business district, a distance of less than a five minutes drive, arrive at the scene 30 minutes later.
In no time, the traders assemble an army of helpers who quickly dash to Gikomba to help salvage cargo from the mostly makeshift stores bilt of timber and old iron sheets. There are very few permanent structures that have survived over the years since World War 1 when people started settling at the place.
Most arrive in time to salvage their stock, but others are usually not lucky as the highly flammable bales of shoes and clothes erupt into an inferno. Petty thieves, who are always on standby, also use the confusion to help themselves to cargo in the name of salvaging goods.
Those traders who do not make it in good time only wake up to news of another inferno having burnt down a section of the open-air market.
This is the story of the lives of thousands of traders at one of the largest open air markets in sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of millions of shillings exchange hands daily, but most of it is usually razed to the ground by some faceless cartels.
Reports show that the market has had such fire incidents annually since 2010, raising eyebrows about the causes of these frequent infernos, with fingers pointing at growing appetite from people who wanted to control the massive market.
Gikomba market, which is located on a 20-hectare piece of land, making it Kenya’s largest second-hand clothes and shoes market, is divided into 15 sections hosting about 1,000 traders each. It also acts as the distribution point for smaller markets countrywide making it an important economic hub in the second-hand market.
People Daily learnt that, while investigations about these fires are still inconclusive, ownership of the land has been part of the speculation with residents claiming that plans abound to kick out the original owners in Majengo, Gorofani and Gikomba areas by people who had been irregularly assigned land titles from then Nairobi City Council (NCC).
A report filed in 2014 by then chairman Mwalimu Sood Ahmed Mohamed and later presented to the National Land Commission (NLC) Task Force on Historic Land Injustice at Kariokor Social Hall, said powerful forces were after the land. Things worsened after this report, as fires became even more frequent with two fire incidents in April followed by another eruption in June 23, 2015 where more than 12,000 traders lost goods worth millions of shillings having burnt down hundreds of business premises, including a Family Bank branch.
This forced area Member of Parliament Yusuf Hassan to call for urgent investigations into the frequent fires.
Calling the fires abnormal, he alluded that there were people intent on destroying the businesses and livelihoods of traders and families that depend on Gikomba.
However, people who are being referred to as the original landowners of Majengo, Gorofani and Gikomba, say they are being evicted by people who have allegedly been irregularly allocated title deeds by the Nairobi City.
“We want those who served in the city council held responsible for planning to grab this land,” says Mama Sophia who has lived in Majengo since 1972.
She says NCC used cartels working closely with caretakers and landlords to evict and displace people so that tycoons can take over.
“That is why they are burning this place. They want to scare us away and grab the land,” she says.
In the report to NLC, the residents named several former councillors, landlords, land brokers, prominent businesspeople and past government officials for using fake allotment letters, title deeds, court orders, renovation notices, fire excuses, forced evictions, issued by the then NCC, to claim ownership of land and other properties in the area. They say that since late 1990s, the NCC has been issuing title deeds to foreign investors and tycoons.
Last year, a group of youths were found with gallons of petroleum, with the intention of dozing stores with fuel but they escaped as the guards raised the alarm.
“The boys were about to dose several stores when they were apprehended, but they ran away,” says Peter Kinza, a guard at the market and a resident of Gorofani since 1974.
“The intention was to cause commotion so that they can help themselves to shoes and clothes before the owners arrive at the scene,” he says.
“Some of these people sleep in those stores and they can easily move cargo quickly and lit fires so that the owners think their stock was burnt,” said another.
However, Kinza does not rule out the possibility of people banking on such fires to demand payments from Insurance companies.
“I know a number of people who became very rich after the fires. A number said they were paid by the insurance companies, but some did not make losses. They had moved their cargo before the inferno, but they still demand for payments,” he said.