It is not littered on the paths cutting through the teenage town but the smell of cash is clear: The number of cars and motorbikes hooting as they move, mitura orders taken every Wednesday, the town’s market day and even the dozens number of goats slaughtered and sold are all illustrative.
“Come on a market day and you will feel what we mean when we say this town has cash these day, “says Mutugi, our guide after we settled for a small meal of matumbo, tripe, that Tuesday
“We cannot describe it to you aptly.” We came back the following day. It’s on a market day in February. Women in multiple colored dresses, plain dresses, head gears, weaved hairs and other styles were in town.
The men shouting, some listening; It’s a splash of colors and sights; bag of variety. In the same mix are little college girls too carrying lap top bags and other educational paraphernalia.
Most of these are not as conservative as the majority Tharaka girls, who still dress with their fathers and uncles in mind. The college boys, speaking in foreign languages, even hold hands of the girls and show some affection in front of crowds, and why not, this is an increasingly cosmopolitan town where the village meets the urbanised. We also spotted a few commercial buildings spouting lazily.
“The prospects here are very bright,” says Peter Njagi Mugwika, the Curriculum Support Office in Charge of Gatunga Zone. “Facilities where the area’s growing middle class need are here; it is increasingly becoming a cosmopolitan town.”
In the sixties, local estimates indicate, was a trader from Mikinduri, Tigania, who would bring his bananas to Gatunga, and place them under a tree to sell to local population. His name was Nto’Itunga. At the time, bananas were foreign in the area as they had not been introduced in the farms. Later, the place was christened Gatunga, sort of acknowledging Itunga’s role in identifying the place that was later to be a big regional market that is Gatunga today.
Years later, Gatunga become the meeting point for traders from Imenti, Tigania, Kinna, Ukambani and even Chuka and the rest of the country. Here, cereals like ndengu, cow peas, millet and sorghum are available in wholesale quantities and fair prices. The same for cows, goats, sheep and even organic chicken and eggs. With attractive products, Gatunga is easily Tharaka Nithi’s best revenue generator from markets. This is ahead of Kathwana, Kaanwa, Magutuni, Itugururu and other reputable markets in the county.
“The town has also grown to be a big educational centre lately,” says Mr Mugwika. Apart from the Tharaka Technical Institute and Tharaka University College, two institutions that have just started operations in the area, several well performing Primary schools occupy Gatunga, making it the Cairo of Tharaka Nithi. Cairo in Egypt has been an incredible intellectual community centre for years stretching back to pre-civilisation age. The schools include: Gatunga Academy that was ranked 39 nationally this year, with a mean score of 391. The boarding school has 520 pupils from across the country.
Others are Rwatha Primary ( Day and Boarding with 600 pupils; mean of 271); Gatunga Primary ( Day and Boarding with 550 pupils; mean 309); Karethani Pry ( Day and Baording with 300 pupils; mean of 346).
“A visiting day in Gatunga turns this place into a huge city,” says Mr Mugwika. coming from across the country, parents and guardians in these schools make a financial contribution to the town when they visit, with some even seeking boarding facilities. At Tharaka Technical, the number of students is growing. Currently, there are 59, a growth from the September last year when the first cohort joined.
“We are expecting a large group in September from The Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, Kupps, and the Youth Service,” says Mr Elias Nyaga, the institute’s principal. Kupps is the body that centrally admits and places all technical institution’s students in asystem similar to that of the public universities.
“We are appealing to the community to start developing facilities to serve as hostels around. I have not seen any efforts of people preparing to take advantage. This institution will have a big impact to the growth of this area,” says Mr Nyagah. Currently, land prices around the institution, Karungaru, has started going up. A 50 by 100 feet plot that was selling at Ksh 180,000 a year ago has now shot to around Ksh 300,000. Currently, the institution built at a cost of Ksh 88 million stands on a 22.5- acre land.
It doesn’t have own hostels but has an arrangement with Chogoria Hospital owned facility to provide temporary shelter to students who come from far. It also operates a pay-as-you eat system, which offers local entrepreneurs an opportunity to serve and charge. Urging investors to stop the waitand- see approach they had adopted, the principal hopes to see more development activity.
A few kilometres from here is the Tharaka Univesity College under Prof Muriungi who was recently confirmed as the institution’s substantive principal. Already with over 317 students out of whom 36 are graduate students, the college tat admitted the first class in May 2016 seems to have started on a very high note. When we visited, lorries were crisscrossing the campus on construction mission.
Lectures were on, with two flags fluttering infront of the administration block, suggesting vibrancy and enthusiasm. Like the technical institution, this is another pool of economic drivers with money that Gatunga hasn’t seen in its years.
The optic cable has passed through the town. Road tarmacking to link it to Chuka, Embu and the rest of the world is ongoing. Gautue and Gatunga Dispensaries are on standby in case of medical need.
“We have even witnessed several people moving from their homes into the town, something hitherto not common here; increased population and hence the new money that is circulating.” To net the new inflows, Homelodge Hotel that stands in Marimanti has set up at the Gatunga-Marimanti and Nkondi Junction as Marimanti Junction Inn-Homelodge Annex.