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Land clashes sweep Kenya

Hundreds of thousands of hectares belonging to the elite lie fallow and unused, while impoverished Kenyans kill one another for access to tiny parcels of overworked land and muddy trickles that were once rivers.

A government-commissioned report by lawyer Paul Ndungu alleges that Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and state companies are ”illegally occupying” much of the ”prime” property.

Since the Maasai community invaded white-owned farms last August, the land hunger crisis in Kenya has intensified. The flames of rebellion have been fanned by a bitter drought, failed harvests and intense competition between crop farmers and cattle keepers for increasingly scarce resources.

In a statement Catholic bishops Patrick Harrington and Maurice Crowley, who work in districts wracked with violence, described the situation as ”serious trouble” and pleaded with the warring communities to ”pull back from the brink”.

Armed with spears, axes, knives and clubs, Kikuyu crop cultivators are battling Maasai pastoralists in southern Kenya; in the west, cattle herders of the Pokot ethnic group are fighting Luyha farmers; and the Samburu and Turkana peoples have clashed in the northern desert, the fire from their burning torches razing entire villages and filling informal refugee camps with the terrified and injured.

Across Kenya, groups who previously lived together in peaceful cooperation, such as the Garre and Murule clans who keep thousands of camels in the arid wasteland that borders Somalia, are making war over the land and the little water it holds.

In the face of Ndungu’s scathing tome, some Kenyan politicians have repeatedly emphasised that the country’s best land remains the domain of the descendants of English colonialists. But the lawyer’s investigations tell a different story — one that Joshua Waweru, a small-scale farmer who sells vegetables alongside a road leading into Nakuru town, agrees with.

”All the time these political people, they blame the whites. But look here,” he said, gesturing towards a sun-baked landscape. ”This ground behind me is owned by [Lord Thomas] Delamere. He is a rich mzungu [white man]. But he helps the people. The politicians do nothing for us.

”I saw on the TV how the rulers own most of the land, but they do nothing with it. They give us no jobs; they do not even offer us a single bit [of land] to help us survive this time of no water and hot sun.”

With 26 000ha in the Great Rift Valley, the Delameres are among the biggest landowners in Kenya. Their estate employs 500 people; it has built two hospitals; it pays the equivalent of R8-million yearly in land taxes.

In contrast, vast tracts owned by Kenya’s high flyers lie untaxed, unoccupied, unproductive. ”Useless, in fact,” Waweru muttered.

On his Soysambu farm, Tom Cholmondeley, Lord Delamere’s son, said his family’s recipe to avoid conflict was ”to tie local people into whatever enterprise is based in and around your property, so there are opportunities for everyone and people can survive without having to illegally occupy land or to fight … There’s a guy here who owns three lodges and he’s become one of the biggest players in the tourism industry — he used to work here with our horses.

”There’s another man who used to come here on a bicycle and say: ‘Please, can I buy some sheep?’ He’s a major butcher — just based upon the fact that he’s been trading our sheep and cattle.”

The farmer said he understood the view held by some black Kenyans that said: ”’Let’s get rid of the few pale faces’ … because it’s easy to target a small group. Then when you’ve finished with them, you aim at another group and when they’re gone, who do you start on next?”

Waweru gave insight into the ongoing spiral of ethnic animosity in Kenya. ”Our leaders tell us to fight the cattle owners because they give all the water to their animals while our plants die. Then the cattle owners are told by their leaders to fight us, because they say we use all the water for our plants. Then the politicians tell us to take the white people’s land because the whites are rich and have everything. It seems to me that we will always be fighting. Because we are different,” he reasoned.

The 42 (43 including the small band of white people remaining) ethnic groups in Kenya are indeed different. Yet they’re all the same in their desire for a piece of Earth to call their own. But the title deeds remain in the names of the privileged few, who choose to neglect the land in whose name they rule.

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Darren Taylor
Darren Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He is a regular contributor to several African and international news organisations.

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