Kathwana, a heat-soaked market centre ensconced between two rivers on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya, first came to prominence in 1984 when retired President Daniel arap Moi constructed gabions there in the first such national exercise. Rivers Maara and Mutonga, both tributaries of the mighty Tana, flow five kilometres just apart, yet Kathwana is still without a reliable water supply.
The historic gabions are no more, thanks to neglect and unchecked vandalism in an area where the government was virtually absent before devolution.
But the torrid market centre where dust and heat reign supreme in the dearth of public utilities like toilets has shown signs of growth, more so after it became the Tharaka Nithi County headquarters because of its central location. A government prison today straddles the presidential gabions site that was a tourist attraction until they disappeared.
Not far from the prison (the facility is about 100 metres away) is the newly tarmacked Mate Road to Meru and Marimanti running past the market centre as though avoiding it for its remoteness.
The most conspicuous sign of modernity is the three-floor Summerton Hotel owned by the Governor Samuel Ragwa. A room there goes for Sh2,500 per night inclusive of breakfast, a cost well beyond the reach of ordinary folks. Rooms elsewhere in Kathwana where butcheries dot every corner are in the range of Sh500 with water provided in jerricans.
“It was no easy decision building the hotel at Kathwana, but my wife and I settled for the general good and not economic because as you can see, there is no economy to talk about. We had initially toyed with the idea of building the hotel in Meru Town where we own a plot and the economic atmosphere is healthier,” said Ragwa.
He said the hotel offers quality accommodation for visitors to Kathwana and tourists on transit to the Meru National Park yonder: “I built it early in 2013 to forestall speculation that I had used public funds and to have it double up as my office where decent accommodation for hire was a pipe dream. It comes in handy as my accommodation whenever I decide to stay around instead of commuting home 30 kilometres away.”
Ragwa said infrastructure in Kathwana has improved since 2013 with tarmac road connection, three phase electricity from the national grid and reliable mobile phone network, making the area conducive for investment.
“Kathwana would be more vibrant with more job opportunities if government officers, including those of county and police commissioners moved here from Chuka where they have stuck to this day,” he said.
He said the government seems to have a hand in it for being slow in its recognition of the new county headquarters as demonstrated by the Deputy President William Ruto last November when he publicly referred to Chuka as Tharaka Nithi County headquarters while announcing that the national government had allocated Sh300 million for the tarmacking of roads in the town, a remark that provoked demonstrations in Kathwana.
“Even with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s acknowledgement three months ago that Kathwana was the official headquarters of Tharaka Nithi County, money for the construction of the headquarters is yet to be released,” he said.
If built to completion, the new county headquarters in its rudimentary stages will be the most imposing building in Kathwana, a centre that draws its name from the hardwood Muthwana tree once ubiquitous in the area.
An artist’s impression of the struggling project estimated to cost Sh350 million exhibits a magnificent five-floor edifice in the jungle with provisions for conference halls, banking facilities and other services besides offices for most county government departments.
Also on the blocks, according to Ragwa, is an assembly complex to cost about Sh90 million.
The lofty projects that have stunted in growth due to a lethargic flow of funds from the national government, according to the governor, are unfolding against a backdrop defined by the absence of basic provisions that attract investment.
Kathwana is probably the only county headquarters without a police station and in an area nudging bandit territory. Security is in the hands of four bored administration police officers stationed at a chief’s camp and to some degree, prison warders.
There is no residential estate and a dire shortage of residential houses prompts most county workers to seek accommodation in Chuka, 23 kilometres away.
The county headquarters has no health facility and people seeking medical attention have to travel all the way to Chuka or Ishiara in neighbouring Embu County.
Even with the prison that ironically carries the name Chuka, offenders are tried at Chuka where a law court was built after former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga granted it.
“The same happened with Huduma Centre and county stadium that were built in Chuka after we allocated land for them in Kathwana,” said Ragwa.