Namanga is a border town that has taken long to grow. Nevertheless, it is an active transit point for big business between Kenya and Tanzania. Heavy trucks ferrying goods from either country are a key feature here.
The town also receives heavy traffic from foreign tourists crossing to the Serengeti in Tanzania or coming to Kenya’s Amboseli or Maasai Mara or heading to Nairobi. It is an ideal rest point and a good place to restock depleted supplies.
Overlooking Namanga and towering over the immigration offices is the picturesque Oi-Doinyo Orok, or Black Mountain. A sacred mountain, it is sacred to the Maasai and a great site to gaze at as you wait for your travelling colleagues to be processed, in case you are travelling as a group.
Open 24 hours, the border post at Namanga supports a thriving business community dependent, to a large extent, on tourism, judging by the huge presence of fast-moving consumables and handicrafts. Here, you will come across vendors and shops dealing in fast foods, high energy drinks and snacks, bottled water and the like – just the kind of stuff a traveller needs for the road.
As you take all this in, you immediately grow aware of a sudden influx of Maasai women, clad in their signature Maasai shukas and adorned from head to toe in beautiful multi-coloured jewellery – a blend of legendary bead and metal work that is truly a sight to behold.
They have not just emerged out of nowhere for your viewing pleasure – not with babies strapped to their backs – they quickly unleash a collection of elegant Maasai handicrafts which they proceed to dangle in your face as they steal an occasional side glance or two, almost as if they are afraid of something.
Then as suddenly as they arrived, they are soon all gone! You see an immigration officer brandishing a baton hard on their heels and you understand why. The handicraft selling business that happens outside the immigration offices, as travellers process their papers and others take the opportunity to do a bit of souvenir shopping, apparently, is not allowed and sometimes there are epic Tom and Jerry-type battles between the women and the immigration officers.
After a short-while, they are back again and the cycle starts all over. Most of these women merchants never went to school but are at ease conversing in basic but refined English, some even in Italian, French and German.
They have taken the art of marketing to a new level. A woman may approach you with some nice handicraft and offers it to you for sale. If she realises you are not interested, she then pushes the item to you claiming it is a ‘special gift’ for the day.
Woe unto you if you think you have just won the lottery and you can just walk away because as soon as you accept the offer, the lady leaves and then spends the remainder of the time you are there systematically trailing you from a distance but making sure you notice her until you grow tired and pay her away.
This happened to me once. To cut a long story short, I settled my ‘debt’ but could not help wondering whether I had been a recipient of the most ingenious marketing strategy or the victim of pure unadulterated treachery. Whatever it was, I just hope someone can help them set up something more formal because I think they are amazing and deserve a better chance.
Money changers do roaring business here as well but be careful. Not all are well-intentioned. If you are not sure and have never done this before, you are better-off changing your money at the forex bureaus nearby. There is one on the Tanzania side located in the same building where the immigration office is. I have never understood why the Kenyan side does not a similar facility.