Gikomba Fire

A bucket of water slips from his hand as Michael Gitonga stretches his hand to put out a flame of fire. Dejected, he rises and stares ahead in anger and hopelessness.

“This is a crude tactic used here to evict us, believe it or not in the next few weeks, we will be out of this place and shiny stalls will be erected and leased to new traders and life will go on,” he says.

“When the owners of the stalls will want to raise the rent they will engineer another fire, and the circle will go on.”

Gitonga is among those whose livelihoods were shattered after a fire swept through the popular Gikomba market and nearby homes early Thursday morning, killing 15 people and injuring 70 others.

According to Nairobi Regional Coordinator Kangethe Thuku, the fire broke out in a timber yard, at around 2.30am and spread through the market shades and nearby apartments before it was contained almost 90 minutes later.

Suspicion was high among the market people that the fire was deliberately planned to force them out.

Located in the densely crowded downtown, Gikomba is the heartbeat of a huge informal market for virtually everything from second-hand clothes to hardware.

Yesterday, witnesses told the Star that the fire began simultaneously at four different locations, an indication that it was coordinated arson.

“I was preparing Githeri to serve my customers today at around 2am or thereabout when the fire broke out. It started from that far end near the bridge, and the other far end and in the middle of this stretch there were two points on fire already,” a victim named Winnie said.

Other traders read mischief, pointing out that this was not the first time that section of the market was going up in flames.

“In October, a section of this market just few metres from here was burnt down, this year it is us, in 2016 too,” said one trader who declined to be named.

“Interestingly all the sections that are burnt down are reconstructed in a week, allocated to other traders who pay more rent. We also read a ploy by certain forces to throw us out so that they can rebuild and have new tenants who will pay more than we do,” he added.

He explained most of the spaces they operate from are owned by well-connected individuals who rent to them at an average of Sh15,000-20,000 monthly.

“The ‘landlords’ let it to us whereas they only pay a monthly rate of Sh5,000 to the county government which leases to them. So when they want to put uprefurbished stalls that will attract higher rents, others resort to burning the existing ones down. We suspect this is the motivation behind this fire,” he said.

Unlike previous fire incidents that saw Mike Sonko, now Nairobi Governor, lead the rescue efforts and console the affected, this time the entire executive did not show up at the scene. By 4pm, nearly 12 hours later, Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja and area MCA Millicent Mugadi were the only notable leaders who had visited the scene.

Area (Starehe) MP Charles Njagua visited affected families at Kenyattta National Hospital.

Francis Maina from the Nairobi City County security department blamed the fire on the night watchmen who guard the buildings and businesses.

He said the watchmen had lit a bonfire and might have accidentally slept, leaving the fire to spread to the timber.

“The same watchmen blocked the residents who wanted to access the residential buildings to save the trapped people,” said Maina.

Sakaja called on the Director of Criminal Investigations, George Kinoti, to apply the same zeal he has used to fight corruption to unearth those behind the frequent fires in Gikomba.

“It happens too many times; you hear high sounding statements of politicians but nothing happens and after few months another fire,” he said.

“We hear many theories that it might be by those interested in the land or those who have insured their goods and now want compensation,” Sakaja said. “We don’t want speculations, let investigative agencies do their work.”

“I woke up my children and dashed out to save our lives,” said Rachel Njoki, a resident in one of the seven blocks of apartments adjacent to the market with ground floor shops.

Njoki, aged 55 and a mother of three, said she saw the inferno across her bedroom window and alerted her neighbours.

She told of how most of the tenants struggled to move out of the building through exits choking with smoke.

“All my life investment is gone. I had timber here which had been ordered and paid for already but it all went up in smoke,” said Michael Gitonga.

Gitonga said it had now become a routine. “Unfortunately all we get from politician is heavy statements of leaving no stone unturned,” he added.

Source: The Star

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