Age old injustices at the heart of coast land problems
Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on October 23rd.
Joseph Baya Mketa remembers an incident that happened in his village when he was a small boy. And when he speaks about it, even in adult hood, his eyes tear up and veins pop out of his neck. One morning, friends and neighbours woke up to a gruesome scene.
A woman in their village had in the still of the night been stabbed severally in the back. She lay face first onto the loamy clay soil of her village. She was a new mother and the villagers immediately embarked on looking for her infant child as they waited for policemen to come and get the woman’s body from the crime scene.
After an hour of looking and with the whole village seemingly giving up on ever finding the baby, a cry pierced through the hot sun. It seemed to be coming from where the body lay. Curious, bystanders flipped the body over. The woman’s child, dusty, and sweating had latched on to her mother’s right breast. The left one had been chopped off.
“The fight for our land is represented in this death. Our ancestors, just like the dead mother did, will not forsake us and will keep us safe at the most difficult of times,” he says.
The difficult times for Baya and his Mijikenda clansmen have lasted longer than they had anticipated. For them, home continues to be elusive more 50 years after independence.
“Rais wetu Uhuru Kenyatta akizaliwa sisi tayari tulikua IDPs. Na mpaka leo hatujaruhusiwa kwenda nyumbani,” Baya says.
But theirs isn’t a unique plight. In fact, displacement of whole communities from large tracts of land within the former coast province goes back further than the most recent dislodgement of populations as a result of the Mpeketoni massacres. Further back than the 2012 violent evictions following clashes between the Pokomo and Orma. It goes back further to just after independence, when whole communities such as Baya’s were evicted from their ancestral homes again, as a result of violence. Bloody violence from what is officially known as the Shifta War.
Between 1963 and 1967, a secessionist conflict in Northern Kenya broke out. AT the heart of it was a desire by the inhabitants of Northern Kenya to secede to Somalia. This move was met by brutal force by law enforcement. Leading to the deaths of thousands and the uprooting of whole communities from their ancestral lands to concentration camps for what they termed as ‘safety reasons.’
The insecurity trickled south from Northern Kenya to parts of the coast and eventually to Baya’s village.
“We were moved to Witu from our village in Nyongoro. The policemen told us that that was the only place that they could keep us safe,” Baya says.
That was in 1964. They haven’t been back since.
For Baya and many others, the war was merely a smokescreen. A smokescreen to get them off their land and push them away.
“And this is what we will not accept,” Baya says. “We are known to be peaceful. But when pushed to the wall we will push back. But through legal ways.”
Now, quickly fading headstones of the graves of his forefathers lie within a private ranch. He and his people have become trespassers on what they say is rightfully theirs.
“All my people are here. Why do they want me to move out? Move away from the graves of my fathers and mothers,” Mketa says. Next to him, teenage girls pound maize using a motar and pestle.
Large tracts of land in Kenya’s coast are occupied by squatters and even larger ones are held by group or individually owned ranches. Ranches that indigenous populations blame for almost all the land wrongs in Lamu county. Wrongs they say the political class is unwilling to right.
Issa Timamy is a tall man. He walks upright but his shoulders are beginning to hunch around the edges. As the first governor of Lamu county, he has been tasked with the delicate matter of getting his people land. And at the same time balance the needs of the private sector amidst a flurry of big money infrastructure investment. His in tray contains part of the Lamu Port South Sudan Transport corridor project (LAPSET), a controversial coal plant, insecurity fears, a struggling tourism industry and a squatter problem.
“I asked for it. So I have to deal with all these things,” Governor Timamy says. “Our land issues may be historical but we have modern day grabbers who have taken advantage of our people to steal their land from them,” he says.
Since 2013, the Lamu county government has revoked illegal titles that covered over half a million acres of land.
“All these belonged to individuals with connections in Nairobi. Speculators would even without setting foot in the county hive off parts of government land and process title deeds for themselves. Then send law enforcement to evict the populations living on the land who for generations had not sought ownership documents,” Timammy says.
Fatuma Mzee Ali doesn’t know her true age. But she knows she has been in this world for ‘far too long.’
Severally, her home in Pangani Old Town, almost 20 kilometres from Witu town has been razed to the ground.
“Sasa tumekua kama kuku ndani ya maji,” she says. “Hatujui kuogelea na hatuna wakutuokoa.” She has seen successive evictions on the basis of insecurity and just like Baya, she was first evicted on the basis of the Shifta War.
Now history is repeating itself and her 35 year old granddaughter Asma Salim is living it.
“Pangani Old Town is an ancient town. Our forefathers came here from Tanzania. How is it that suddenly we are squatters? Where were the ranchers when our people came from Tanzania,” she asks.
Nothing about Pangani Old Town can speak of its illustrious past. In cact it looks like a new settlement. Bushes have just been cleared. Thickets burnt to create space for houses. But upon closer inspection, exposed concrete floors from an age past creep up from the ground.
“Every six months or so, they come and chase us away and burn our houses and all our belongings,” Asma says. “And every so often we return to our land.”
Area Chief Yahya Abaraba says 305 families have been living in the area since before independence.
Now, the land is claimed by Amu Ranch.
In the early 70s, Francis Njeru Chege and his family sighed in relief as a Kenya Army truck sputtered to a stop in the middle of nowhere. The journey had been treacherous, and as the party jumped off and beat the brown dust off themselves, he looked around and wondered how they could even call the bush next to him home.
More than 40 years after his arrival in Mpeketoni to settle in one of the first settlement schemes in the region, he has become a land owner. With several other individuals, he is a shareholder of Amu Ranch, that claims ownership of the areas around Pangani Old Town.
“We paid the government for that land,” Chege says. “The trouble is that at the time of the sales and leases, very few people were enlightened thus many were left out of the ownership schemes.”
He says many of those claiming ownership to various lands have already been given alternative areas to settle in.
“Families have been allocated land. But there seems to be a delay in processing the title deeds,” he says.
Governor Timamy has an explanation for this.
“There are too many competing interests on land matters in Lamu. Even the residents are listening to too many people. Now, almost every community with a claim to land here is in court. Effectively our hands are tied because even matters that would have been resolved amicable are now before court,” he says.
Nyongoro and Pangani residents, where Baya and Asmaa live respectively have pending matters before court.
“How do you now bring the ranch owners and the residents to the table? Because truth be told, some of these ranches have existed for a very long time. Longer than any of us have been alive,” Timammy says.
His official sea front residence is on a serene stretch of the Island between Lamu town and the exquisite tourist attractions of Shela beach. Further across, sits Manda Island. Also affected by land issues.
“Huku kumenyakuliwa tu na watu. Hatuna vyeti vya umiliki,” Swaleh Athman Guyo says. His father was part of the original 363 families settled on the island as IDPs also during the Shifta War.
“To date, we are squatters yet we have seen people come here recently and have their title deeds,” he adds.
The residents from Nyongoro, Pangani, Mokowe and even Lamu think they know why they are not getting what they say is rightfully theirs.
“Hii yote ni kwa sababu ya LAPSET. Kila mtu sasa atazama Lamu,” Twahir Khalif Aman or Kamanda wa Manda says. He says speculators are grabbing anything and everything on the county.
“Wananyakua mpaka kaburi za mama zetu,” he says.
The country is heading into an election year. For large parts of the coast, land ownership remains a thorny issue that will dominate campaign rhetoric and, according to others, an issue that has led to the loss of lives.
“Our young men have been killed agitating for their land rights. In 2014 four of our young men were killed. The murders were blamed on Al Shabab. But we keep asking ourselves how terrorists would call out their names one by one, cut their throats open and leave,” Baya says of the 2014 Poromoko and Majembeni attacks on 17 June 2014, a day after the Mpeketoni massacres.
Baya says those killed were key witnesses in ongoing land cases between his community and privately owned ranches.
For Lamu, competing interests from private developers, the national government and local communities will have to strike a balance.
A balance that will enable future generations live out of the shadow of bitterness as a result of landlessness. A bitterness passed down from generation to generation. A bitterness of displacement. A bitterness so personal to Baya, Asma and Twahir. A bitterness they hope will end with their generation.