I write from Naivasha, Kenya, a town I last visited four years ago. My wife and I, together with our friends, are enjoying our stay at the Lake Naivasha Country Club, an 84-year-old hotel that retains an ambiance that would have been familiar to its patrons in the 1930s. One imagines the notoriously decadent Happy Valley lot of the inter-war years repairing to this place for more of their self-indulgent escapades after similar engagements at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.
However, as I savour the sunny shores of Lake Naivasha, the dozens of decades-old yellow acacia trees in the Club’s sprawling gardens, a parade of hippopotami, zebras, waterbuck, monkeys and numerous bird species, my joy is dimmed by what I saw in town centre a few kilometers away. Naivasha, which was impressively clean in 2015, has reverted to its filthy state. Garbage is strewn all over the place, with empty plastic bottles the weapons of choice for the polluters. Shacks and other eyesores have returned. Not a good sight at all.
What may be the explanation for this dramatic regression of a town that had given one reason to smile? There is a very strong possibility that this is a consequence of a change in leadership. Until 2017, Naivasha, which is part of Nakuru County, had benefitted from the strong leadership of Governor Kinuthia Mbugua, a man who was obsessed with cleanliness and provision of health promoting resources.
Under Governor Mbugua, this town and Nakuru had become great examples of Kenya’s urban renewal.
Things appear to have dramatically slackened since Mbugua’s defeat during his party’s primaries leading up to the 2017 elections. It appears that his successor has taken his eye off the ball. This is an example of the truth that leadership matters.
One is reminded of the reverse situation in Kabaare (Kabale), Kigyezi, whose fortunes have dramatically positively changed since 2016 when Emmanuel Sentaro Byamugisha was elected mayor of the town. Whereas Kabaare had endured decades of great filth and chaos, the town is now a pleasure to the eye and nose, with markedly reduced garbage in public places, and other efforts aimed at making the place attractive to live in and visit.
No doubt paving the streets with asphalt has significantly decreased the dust that had enveloped the town. However, the bad roads in town had nothing to do with the piles of garbage that the previous leaders had allowed to become a signature of the town. It is very evident that Mayor Sentaro Byamugisha and his team have given top priority to the town’s visual and olfactory presentation.
Kabale is steadily emerging from the sewers into the sunny club of Uganda’s clean and pleasantly inviting municipalities. A lot of the credit goes to the town’s current leaders, and one hopes that Kabaare’s citizens will continue to embrace the effort by actively keeping their town free from pollution.
Kabaare still has a very long way to go before it becomes the truly pleasant and livable town that it has the potential to become. For example, the congested sidewalks, with merchandise and hundreds of parked boda bodas blocking pedestrians’ walkways, need to be addressed. Merchandise belongs inside stores and markets, not on the pavements.
Creating and enforcing formal boda boda parking lots away from the sidewalks would ease pedestrian life and improve the visual beauty of the town without compromising access to this important mode of transport. Pursuing strict building standards that insist on creating a beautiful skyline and street appeal, as well as properly serviced and zoned neighbourhoods, would put a halt to the architectural anarchy that has ruined our once beautiful town. Greening the central business district with lots of trees and flowers would ease the ugliness of concrete buildings and walls.
Whereas I do not wish to engage in the partisan politics of Kabaare, it is my sincere hope that at the next elections, the voters will ignore the candidates’ party labels and look at the track records of those who will be seeking to lead our town. Such evaluation should include an examination of the state of the individual politicians’ private residences and business premises. Leadership matters, and one cannot give what one does not practice in their lives. For that reason, I congratulate Mayor Sentaro Byamugisha and his team for the work done so far.
The duty to improve the looks of our towns does not belong to the political leaders alone. It is a shared responsibility between the citizens and the leaders, with the former obliged to adopt a cultural mindset that abhors filth and shabbiness, embracing the cleanliness that we took for granted during the colonial and early years of Uganda’s independence.
Filth is not a self-generating phenomenon. Human agency is at the heart of the blocked sewers, the mounds of plastic and other refuse that litter the urban and rural areas, and the insufferable sight of chaotic buildings that have turned our towns and hamlets into concrete jungles punctuated by rickety ugly shacks.
A lot of damage has been done by years of an unplanned and unregulated building boom that some celebrate as progress. Ugliness has assumed a place of honour by those to whom planning, zoning and infrastructure-supported development are irrelevant concepts. Yet these things matter – now and, even more so, in the years ahead. Reversing the damage will not be easy, but the experience of Kabaare encourages optimism. With the right leadership, our towns may yet recover from decades of chaos, unconscionable carelessness and blinding filth.