Childhood memories: How expensive is the cheapest holiday

The buses to our village in Homa Bay have raised fares to between Kes1,400 to Kes1,600. With the history of fare hikes during the festive season, it could peak at Kes2,000 by December if demand picks up.

When I made the journey as a child, the fare was only Kes500, and I cannot imagine how parents considering whether to send their children to the village, now that they are on holidays, would make of this.

Kenyans have been enduring months of rising inflation driven by global energy prices, a declining shilling, and increased government taxation, pushing up the costs of necessities.

General increase in prices

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Inflation reached 6.9 percent in October, nearing the upper limit set by the Central Bank of Kenya, as all sectors experienced a general increase in prices.

The transport sector has seen one of the highest jumps in prices following an increase in petrol prices from Kes178 in January this year to Kes217.9. Diesel, used by most public transport, has also increased from Kes162.9 to Kes206.2.

When I try to find out how parents are coping, I find Transline Bus station busy but not as packed as I remember it. The stop inside a petrol station is filled with more touts than passengers, and luggage is overflowing without their owners.

From the bustling Transline Bus station, I’ve discovered that many parents prefer to allow their young ones to play in the concrete jungle of Nairobi rather than sending their children to their grandparents, primarily due to the costs involved.

Willy Ondara, the Transline manager, mentions that travel has been slow throughout the entire year. While movement is picking up due to the closure of schools, traveling upcountry remains problematic. This has left the company with an overcapacity of vehicles and struggling with costs.

“We have around 100 shuttles, 14-seater Nissans. Normally, they are parked for just one day, or at most two days. Lately, they have been parked for up to three or four days,” Mr Ondara explained.

This essentially means that Kenyan parents will be breaking one of the oldest traditions of taking their children to visit their ancestral homes, given that the children have one of the longest holidays, lasting almost two and a half months until January 7th, 2024.

On the road for days

One of my earliest memories of Rangwa, my father’s home upcountry, was formed when I was around six years old, circa 2003. We had traveled there for my grandfather’s burial. I don’t remember much from the trip, but it felt like we were on the road for days.

It wasn’t just a childhood exaggeration; the journey was exceptionally long, and the roads were nearly impassable. It took us 14 hours to cover just 306 kilometers.

However, it was not the most pleasant memory of a holiday. All I remember was that it was pitch dark. The night would fall upon us, with only a few fires lighting up the boma, and the blackness of the night would surround us, intensifying my anxiety about the darkness.

I was born and raised in the capital, Nairobi. My parents, hoping to reconnect us with our ancestral home, culture, and people, aimed to establish a family tradition of traveling upcountry for the December holidays.

However, it was not my ideal holiday trip, and the next time we made that journey, though I was older, I had numerous reasons against it.

During the December break, we boarded a bus from Nairobi to Homabay. My mother, younger brother, and I preceded my father, who would join us later when he eventually got time off work.

From Homabay, we had to continue on to Sindo. The bus ride was fine, and I slept most of the way. However, the journey to Sindo was a different story.

If you’ve been to those parts, you’ve probably heard of ‘Olwenda.’ It translates to “cockroach” in English, and it is the nickname given to Toyota Proboxes used to transport people from Homabay to the interior, in our case, Sindo.


If there’s one thing Olwenda vehicles are known for, it’s their ability to maximize space. The two-hour drive from Homabay to Sindo meant that the vehicles were filled to full capacity to maximize profits.

The five-seater car carried ten passengers, including the driver, as well as luggage and goods from traders. The driver’s seat accommodated two people, the driver and a passenger, the co-driver’s seat had two more, and the backseat held four passengers, occasionally five if they could fit. There were two extra passengers in the boot, mostly children, or adults if the luggage was not too much.

The fare was Kes200 per person, with an exception for boot passengers who were charged Kes150. On this particular trip, my brother and I were in the boot with Omena and other luggage. It was raining heavily, and the poor roads made the journey even longer, but we eventually arrived safely.

Despite my complaints and cursing beneath my breath, the challenging journey was truly rewarding and eye-opening for a city girl.

Rangwa has to be one of the most beautiful corners of this country. The air is fresh, the vegetation is lush and hilly, surrounded by a freshwater lake, Lake Victoria. Here, the hills converge to form a valley, and between them is a view of the grand lake.

My parents’ home is atop the hill, so every morning, the clouds would form beneath them, and the chirping of a thousand birds, along with the distant sounds of cows and chickens, is the only noise you can hear. At night, in the pitch-black darkness, the lake resembles the night sky, with the lanterns of fishermen shining like stars. It’s a slice of heaven.

Language barrier

Even with all this beauty, my younger brother and I soon realized that some of the conveniences we enjoyed back in the city did not exist here. There was no electricity, no cooking gas, no running tap water, and no WC toilet with a seat. Instead, we had to aim into a dark pit that echoed the experience from beneath.

It had been a while since we had seen some of our cousins, and the language barrier also made it harder to bond with the local kids or play with them.

There were also stories of witchcraft and wild animals, which fueled my imaginative mind. So every time December came around, I would have mixed feelings. Being off from school was great, as it meant more time to sleep and play games like ‘kati’ or ‘kalongo longo.’ But it also meant a month away from convenience and television, and as a child, it was a real consideration.

For my parents, however, apart from reconnecting us to our roots, it must have been a way to keep us occupied for the entire month.

Today, as an adult considering a holiday for my family, I realize that cost was also a consideration that makes an awful lot of sense. Even with bus fare of about Kes500 to Kes700, my brother and I would occasionally share a seat, so they would only have to pay for one seat. My mother would buy us yogurt and cake for the road, and we were set.

Unlike in hotels, where you would have to pay for the room per night, and pay for food or activities, a trip to the village meant nights were free, and food was available in the shamba (farmland). The only cost to be incurred was transport, which was relatively affordable.

Cost of food

Today, though a trip to the village is cheaper than a hotel visit, it is not nearly as affordable as it once was. Even Olwenda, our very local means of transport, has also raised its prices. Currently, they charge Kes350 per person from Homabay, after a failed attempt to charge Kes400, which locals greatly protested, choosing to walk or wait a day for Kisumu shuttles to make their rounds.

The cost of food has also increased for village folks, just as much as it has for city folks. Now, a trip to the village is just transferring costs upcountry.

Therefore, inflation is significantly changing how we live our lives and the connections we get to make as extended families that have always held our communities together.

As for businesses, they are hoping the lure of grandparents will charm enough people to keep businesses afloat.

Mr Ondara, the manager at Transline Bus Service, says the company is having a difficult time managing its fleet profitably. Unlike before, there are some buses that would have to leave half empty as not enough passengers have booked.

“Occasionally, some buses would depart when full, and others when half full, the turnout is not the same, there’s a very big difference,” he said.

He mentioned that the cost of travel has even altered the way businesses in upcountry operate. Where merchants would come to Nairobi to buy goods in bulk for sale back in the village, they are now making orders via mobile phones and letting buses act as couriers.

Read also: The man who brought East Africa’s roadside chapatis

Parcels to save money

According to Mr Ondara, businesspeople who would formerly travel to and from Nairobi to buy products for sale now prefer to send them as parcels to save money.

They prefer to place orders via phone calls and arrange for someone to send them via a bus parcel as it is more cost-effective. He explains that the cost of parcel transport has increased while the number of travelers has significantly decreased.

As the business shrinks due to reduced passenger numbers, the high cost of living and widespread unemployment mean that more Kenyans are turning their personal cars into matatus (public minivans) and carpooling, further intensifying the competition.

Mr Ondara said that many people, out of work and seeking an alternative source of income to sustain themselves, have transformed their personal vehicles into public transport, offering transit services from Nairobi to the western parts of the country.

He pointed out that they have a competitive advantage in that they only need about seven passengers to start the journey, unlike shuttles and buses that require 14 to 56 passengers. This means that more passengers will opt for smaller vehicles as they take less time to fill.

While buses and shuttles have speed governors and are manual, personal vehicles can move faster. For those looking to arrive more quickly, personal vehicles are a more suitable option.

“Biashara imekuwa na competition. Tukona ma Wish na Noah zinafanya matatu. We are not alone. Tunahandwa na mafuta na bado tunahandwa na gari za private. Zimeingia kwa biashara ya matatu (This business has a lot of competition. Toyota Wish and Toyota Noah are also carrying passengers. We are harassed by fuel prices and private vehicles at the same time),” he said.

Fares on the rise

And it is not only in the western parts of the country that fare prices have been raised; it is happening all across the country. SGR (Standard Gauge Railway) prices are also set to increase from January 2024.

With the long holiday in place and fare prices only getting higher, most parents may be unable to afford a trip to the village, let alone a hotel with their children.

How do we now keep our children occupied in this era of mobile phones and television sets that may do more harm than good to our mental health?

With apartment buildings clustered next to each other or along the main road, where will they ‘go out to play’?

The sense of community that comes to life every Christmas when families come together, and the support system that has been built over the years that our children can return to, is bound to suffer.

From my perspective as a child at the time, traveling to the village was boring if it took more than a week, and I tried, in vain, to convince our parents of the same. But every December, without fail, we were there for the entire month. Looking back now, with the eyes of a parent myself, I understand how important those trips were.

They helped build our character and shape the way we view life and people. They strengthened our ties with family, and as a bonus, I can speak the local language fluently (let no one tell you otherwise), and I know the area well.

What’s more, they also provided us with material to write about in English compositions describing how we spent our December holidays.

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