Mlolongo, and its evolution from a 'roadside slum' to a 'proper estate'
I first visited Mlolongo in the year 1993. At that time, I was visiting to see an uncle of mine who was working at the nearby Kenchick farm. And in those days, Mlolongo was, effectively, a roadside slum: a few rows of corrugated iron sheet houses (shacks really), on the roadside, hidden from the view of the more 'civilized world' by a mountain of soil that had been excavated during the construction of the new Mombasa road. It must have been tough living in Mlolongo in those days. For one, there were no amenities. Stories of residents fetching water from Kenchick or Marimbet were not unheard of, though the possibility of buying the water from the nearby homes of (British?) settlers was not altogether far. Needless to say, there was no electricity. The local school, which was in its infancy then, was a matter of a few corrugated iron classes, with dirt floors. And even then, most of the students were from adjacent areas like Marimbet, rather than Mlolongo itself. There were also a couple of corrugated iron structures, along the main Mombasa road, one being the Africa Inland Church Kasina, and the other being Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church Mlolongo. Most of the few rows of houses that went in the name of Mlolongo town turned out to house a number of pubs, and other facilities to cater for the needs of truck drivers who had to stop at the nearby weighbridge on their way from Mombasa to other upcountry destinations, and other neighbouring countries. That some of those houses were part-brothels was an oft-mentioned fact, although I had no evidence to that. But KBC, the only broadcaster then, did at least once run a story of Mlolongo commercial sex workers being raided, and forcefully taken for testing… All in all, Mlolongo was nothing to write home about then.
Fast forward to the year 2010, and the area has undergone a complete metamorphosis, from a common roadside slum, to a proper estate, with all amenities one would expect in a properly developed city anywhere in the world. Indeed, the only thing that seems to be missing, to complete the picture, is a sewerage line (although there was talk of plans to put up the same some time back).
Today, the corrugated iron structures have been replaced by proper stone buildings, some towering as high as three floors. In fact, today, a majority of buildings in Mlolongo are proper stone buildings, each worth more than a million shillings (and most being worth several millions in fact). The town is home to at least four proper schools, one of which is a high school, as well as two major colleges (St. Joseph’s vocational and Machakos Technical College’s ‘campus’ at Solomon school), and many other smaller computer and commercial colleges. The last time I checked, there were even a couple of banks (Equity and Postbank), and a multi-vendor ATM at Hotel Connections. In the 1990s, Mlolongo residents had to make do with Athiriver-bound (and other Mombasa road) public transport vehicles. Today, the town has its own route, complete with a bus station. In fact, there even seems to be an internal (intra-town) public transport system, operated by the boda boda bicycles.
What seems not to have changed, however, is the public perception of Mlolongo. In some quarters you mention that you live in Mlolongo, and you see eyebrows go up. This has something to do with the perception that Mlolongo is either a ‘brothel-town’ or a slum. That may have been the case before, but today, Mlolongo is a proper estate. A majority of the people living here today are either workers in the emergent industries all around the town, or people who commute to Nairobi. Due to the land tenure system here, there is also a considerable portion of a ‘land-owning class.’ From a slum of a few hundred people at most, today Mlolongo is a hundred thousand resident town, one where there is increasing anonymity as people are no longer able to keep track of each others faces or names.
Yet, the development of Mlolongo seems not to have reached a peak. All that remains is for someone to build a bridge across the river at the end of the town, which will open another proper phase across the river. There are already developments taking place there, but a bridge across could make a difference.
All in all, Mlolongo’s development is a sign of what land parcels, allocated to motivated individual owners, can do. Noteworthy is the fact that most of the development that has taken place in Mlolongo has been by private developers, with the government mostly serving a facilitative model. As Kenya embraces a new constitutional dispensation, it is sincerely hoped that this is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, to bring about similar development.