It’s 6.45 pm along Bata Street in Voi town in Taita-Taveta County. Evening gloom is rapidly thickening into darkness as night approaches. The cloudy skies overhead cast a funereal air over the town. Street lights flutter to life.
All over, shops are hastily closing down; windows are shuttering. A palpable sense of panicky urgency is in all these actions. Crowds are hurrying home as if fleeing from a coming plague. Taxis and tuk-tuks hoot frantically, calling out to passengers. Boda boda riders add to the bedlam as they dart in and out of the streets, hunting for last-minute passengers before the 7 pm curfew falls.
A green police car, carrying a dozen grim-faced officers, cruises lazily past the street. The presence of armed officers reinforces the overwhelming feeling of wrongness hanging heavily over the town.
“Wamefika!”(They have arrived!) One boda boda rider yells out to another. The word rapidly spreads. Moments later, a town famous for its bustling life is hauntingly dead.
This is the new reality for Voi town. Historically famed for its vibrant night life, the government imposed 7pm-5am curfew that started on Friday has wrecked night activities in this highway town. Over the years, Voi had earned a reputation of being one of the most active night hubs in Coast region.
That is no more.
“The curfew has hit us so hard we still don’t know what is happening,” admits Kennedy Mwazala, a night passenger attendant working for Chania Genesis Bus Company at Voi main stage.
He is not alone. All night workers share his predicament. From Miraa sellers, Kahawa Chungu brewers, boda boda and taxi operators, the curfew is nothing short of an unfolding nightmare.
When night falls, Voi town instantly transforms into a ghost town. The deserted streets are hauntingly empty. In the darkness of stalls lining the stage, dozens of mentally-challenged people can be seen as they hide from the police.
From time to time, footfalls of armed officers patrolling dead corridors echo hollowly through the empty air. Occasionally, the deathly silence is shattered by the roar of patrol vehicles with dimmed lights crisscrossing the town.
Mwazala points out that while most businesses have been affected by the curfew, night operations are the hardest hit. While most towns across Kenya are feeling the heat of the curfew, Voi town is arguably one of most affected.
Located along the busy Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, Voi town has over the years carved a niche for herself as a ‘town that never sleeps’. The town had an informal 24-hour economy courtesy of the non-ending streams of passenger and cargo vehicles that pass through it. The night activities supported several night clubs, lodgings, hotels, bars, coffee sellers, miraa hawkers and taxi drivers who provided support services for these vehicles.
The town is also strategically located at the junction of Voi-Taveta-Holili Highway which is used by hundreds of trucks every week to transport goods to Tanzania and beyond.
Mwazala says the effects of the curfew are beginning to bite. Having worked as a night attendant for over six years, he says night and day workers are congregating at the stage during day time before the curfew hours.
“We had people for day and night shifts. Now, all of us are rushing here at dawn. If you miss to get some money, you wait until the following morning to try your luck,” he explains.
Before the curfew, one could opt to work throughout the night to compensate for lack of money during the daytime shift.
The situation has also been compounded by a sharp drop in passengers using the route. He points out that transport companies were struggling to break even.
“Our biggest fears is if they decide to suspend transport because there is no profit. We will have nowhere else to go,” he said.
Boda boda sector has not been spared. Mr. Silas Manza, a rider, says he earned his living from a friend’s motorbike to operate at night. With the curfew in place, his source of livelihood has been cut off.
“We shared his bike. He operated during the day and I did at night. Right now, I am jobless,” he said.
Mohammed Dudu, Chairperson of Taita-Taveta Riders Association, says over 1,000 riders who used to share bikes have been affected by the curfew.
“Across the county, we have around 1,000 riders who used to share bikes with those who operate during the day,” he said.
To mitigate against loss of jobs, Mr. Dudu said his association was engaging the county government through department of Health to use the jobless riders as a workforce to fumigate towns and homes against the corona virus.
He points out that such an initiative would provide some relief for the youth, create some employment and prevent the riders from engaging in crimes.
“This can work to keep them engaged until corona menace is contained,” he said. So far, the riders have acquired thirty knapsack sprayers but require at least a hundred to effectively cover the most vulnerable places.
The Taita-Taveta Deputy Governor, Majala Mlaghui says the county is making contingency plans to cushion the residents in the county should there be more severe restrictive measures by the government to combat the spread of Corona virus.
The worst case scenario is total lockdown where thousands would be in urgent need of food, water and other essential commodities.
However, Ms. Mlaghui did not disclose the plans and only said they would be revealed later.
“We are working on it and will let you know once they are ready,” she said.
The Taita-Taveta County Commissioner, Rhoda Onyancha said the curfew was being implemented as per the government directives.
She stated that chiefs, their assistants, police and other security agencies were coordinating to ensure all measures to prevent spread of Corona virus.
“We have had no incidences and the security directives are being complied with,” said the county commissioner.
By Wagema Mwangi