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Death by land

The descendants of British colonialists in Kenya are reeling in shock following the arrest of a member of the country’s most prominent white settler dynasty, the Delameres, in an incident that has ignited debate about land reform in East Africa’s largest economy.

Tom Cholmondeley (37), a farmer on the expansive Soysambu estate near Nakuru in the Rift Valley, is expected to be charged in connection with the fatal shooting two weeks ago of Simon ole Sitima (44), a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) game ranger.

A witness, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: ‘Three men arrived at the slaughter house [on the farm] and asked to buy meat. Suddenly they pulled guns and ordered us to lie on the ground. They screamed that they were KWS rangers and that we were under arrest for illegal trade in bush [game] meat. Then we heard shooting. When we went outside, one of the rangers was lying there, dead.”

Cholmondeley’s lawyer, James Muthui, explained that his client had been convinced that the wildlife wardens were ‘robbers”. It was self-defence; the ranger opened fire first.

The farmer’s great-grandfather, Lord Delamere, persuaded the British government to allow whites to settle in Kenya in the early 1900s and developed one of the country’s most lucrative agricultural enterprises.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian prior to the incident, Cholmondeley stated: ‘There’s no excuse for taking the law into your own hands, and this kind of trouble comes from having a redneck farmer mentality. The law in Kenya is clear: unless your life is threatened, you can’t use force, but if someone shoots at me, I will shoot back. And I will shoot to kill, because the law allows me to defend myself.”

The farm’s manager, Stephen Koigi, said the plain-clothes rangers had arrived on the land in an unmarked vehicle and had refused to produce KWS identity cards.

A source at KWS, which has been involved in an increasingly brutal battle against poachers, was adamant that ‘ballistic tests will prove that [the ranger] did not fire his gun”.

Said an angry Joseph Warutere, a senior KWS warden: ‘My colleague was shot while he guarded the slaughter house, which appears to have been an illegal bush meat operation. These kinds of things are threatening wildlife in Kenya.” Two years ago, the government outlawed the shooting of game in Kenya, disappointing many farmers who were earning a substantial income from the sale of game animal products.Warutere said the carcass of a buffalo, as well as the skins of giraffe, antelope and warthog, were found on the farm.

Kenyan ranchers have been pleading for a modification of the law to allow them to shoot some game. They argue that certain species of antelope in particular have become a plague, eating valuable grazing intended for their cattle and infecting their livestock with disease.

Cholmondeley’s forebears have a history of eccentricity and the decadence and hedonism that characterised their lives in Kenya in the 1950s, was depicted in the 1985 Hollywood film, White Mischief.

But today they are regarded as philanthropists, having instituted various projects over the years to improve communities, built hospitals and schools and provided capital for locals to establish businesses. The Soysambu estate, with 500 labourers, is the largest employer in the Nakuru district.

While there’s no suggestion that the fatal shooting of the ranger is linked to the controversy about land ownership, the killing of Ole Sitima — a senior Maasai tribesman — has infuriated Kenya’s Maasai community.

‘This is more proof that these whites should not have our land. We are the rightful owners. The first Lord Delamere stole that land from us! We want it back!” exclaimed John ole Lesirima, a Maasai moran (warrior) at Nakuru.

Koigi wa Wamwere, an MP from the ruling National Rainbow Coalition, told The Standard newspaper: ‘One way of avoiding a revolution is through land reform. We need to dismantle the obscene system that allows 10% of Kenyans to own over 70% of arable land, much like the former apartheid system in South Africa. Just as it was necessary to dismantle apartheid, so do we have to dismantle the social class system we inherited from colonialists.”

But President Mwai Kibaki’s administration has distanced itself from the call for land. It is paranoid about the possibility that Kenya will be compared to Zimbabwe with its controversial seizure of white-owned land.

Last year a report by Nairobi lawyer Paul Ndung’u revealed that the owners of the largest tracts of land in Kenya aren’t white farmers but members of Kibaki’s government and former officials of ex-president Daniel arap Moi’s regime.

So, while various ethnic communities in Kenya are demanding the return of land they assert was stolen from them by white colonialists, Kibaki’s government has cracked down on invasions of farms owned by the descendants of British colonialists and crushed street protests by the Maasai.

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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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