Celebrating East African Writing!

Uwezo By Muthoni Garland


Everyone takes advantage of Giriamas. Even an Indian will ask, are you Charo or Katana? He doesn’t want to employ people like me of another tribe because he knows Giriamas will work like donkeys and not complain about money. This was said to me by the Taita man who works in our house in Watamu. The genesis of his heartfelt tirade was the discovery that his Giriama colleague’s plot had been sold without his knowledge through the seeming machinations of a Kikuyu man.  It surprised my (naive) PC self that he could speak so disdainfully of Giriamas right in front of one who looked, dare I say, as though he concurred.

It turned out that the Kikuyu man was the chairman of the committee in charge of plot allocations. He had lived in Watamu for many years and owned a retail business as well as various bits of real estate, including the large plot that had been allocated to him in the same area. The Kikuyu man had met our Giriama employee, Julius, a few days before and confirmed the sale but promised to call and explain the matter. So far he had not called and Julius now felt the man was avoiding him.

What proof do you have that you own it, I asked Julius, do you have a title deed?

It’s not like that here, Julius said. In 1998, we were squatters on this plot and the Chief came and told us to jiandikishe. They wrote down our names and formed a committee in charge of allocations who showed us each our boundaries. They told us the land now belonged to us. I was lucky.

It turns out that if you happened to squat on a particular piece of land, or knew the plot allocations exercise was about to happen and planted yourself in the right place on the chosen day, you’d get a shot at being ‘listed’ for government allocation of that land. But that ownership was not backed by a single piece of paper in your hands, say with your name, size of allocation, date and plot reference number.

Did you see this list of names, I asked him. Do you know the others allocated?

In 1999, some people sold plots that did not belong to them, Julius said, so they cancelled the allocations and said they would start again. I was working so I sent my wife with my ID aniandikishe. I have not seen the list but my relative and I got plots side by side. In 2007 when we asked for title deeds, the committee said they were still following that matter.

Have you done any work to develop the plot, or to mark your boundaries, I asked.

The land is not suitable for farming, he said, but I planted the line of makonde on the far side.

The 100 sq metre plot turned out to be rocky ground on a large fenced off piece of land on which building work was going on. It was longish plot with a narrow white stretch of beach and a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean. On either side of the plot were newly built hotels and tourist cottages owned by Italians and local politicians. The plot was guarded by a Masai man in a red shuka who stood outside a corrugated iron-sheet shed built on the very section of land in contention. With his rungu-cum-walking stick, he pointed out the foreman and allowed us to pass.

After hearing our tale, the elderly Giriama foreman confirmed that indeed an Italian and his Mswahili wife had bought the whole plot and as we could see, they were now building many cottages on it. In fact, he added, this couple are building more cottages in Malindi so it is the wife who mostly comes to supervise. But the truth is what matters, he said, kama ni haki yako, ni haki yako.  If it is your right, it is your right.

We’d just finished talking to him when the lady in question drove into the plot. She was tiny and wore a black headscarf that she constantly fiddled with. Her Swahili was of the poetic ilk quite rightly shown-off by newsman Salim Mdoe, and which to my Bantu ears sounded Arabic. Needless to say, my fascination was as boundless as my ignorance and much of what she said needed translation.

The land we bought is four acres and the sale was arranged by this Kikuyu man, she said. He brought us seven squatters who all got their share and signed. But afterwards, the Kikuyu man tried to cheat us by claiming that the land ended over there. She pointed to where Julius’ plot boundary was supposed to be. Our surveyor came and mapped out the four acres. After we fenced it, we called the Kikuyu man to bring his own surveyor but he never did so we finalised the title deed. Since then, she said, you are not the only ones who’ve come here with such a tale. But we have a title deed, she reiterated, so nobody can touch us. She offered us the same advice she’d given them. Go and talk to the chief, tell him your problem because it was he who cleared us to buy this land the way it is. We sat in front of him with the Kikuyu man and the squatters and our lawyer.  The Chief said, alright this is clean so go ahead.

It was gratifyingly easy to see the Chief. He is a big amiable fellow, with the kind of mobile face beloved of photographers.  Call the sub-chief sitting outside, he said as soon as we began our tale of woe, as he was also burned in this deal. The young man who came in was dressed more like the proverbial tout with a shaved head, large un-tucked Bart Simpson shirt and a thick gold chain. 

This woman is a liar, the Chief declared, raising his eyebrows until they almost touched his hairline. Has she ever sat with me face to face? Could she or her husband point to me and say, this is the chief who gave us clearance? You should have brought that woman with you to my office to explain how she knows me. In this vein, the chief rambled on and on, proving once again that human beings are chiefly self-centred.   

I asked him whether there were others who had come to him for assistance in regards to the same matter.  Three men from Matsongani were here last week, and here the Chief shrugged. I told them to go their own way.  Matsongani is about thirty kilometres from Watamu, and outside this Chief’s jurisdiction. People in Watamu, are usually polite in front of you so it was possible that the Chief’s summary of what had transpired sounded more dismissive than the reality at the time. Still, I wondered if he’d later speak the same way about us. Justice was such an arbitrary game here, it seemed, the fact that you were allocated meant nothing if the Chief did not think you should have been allocated.

The sub chief with the gold chain said the matter was more complicated than it seemed. That when the Kikuyu man first offered the buyers a four acre plot, he hadn’t realised that the rough road that ran down one end to the beach would not be considered part of the plot for sale. Only when the deal was agreed had the buyer’s surveyor come and clarified that four acres starting from the beach reached up to the current boundary. In other words, those squatters whose land lay outside the area the Kikuyu man originally envisioned but inside four acres minus the road, were inadvertently swallowed. That the chief back then had allocated land reserved for a road was swiftly swept under the carpet. It might have happened because the chief wanted to please as many of his constituents as possible. It might have happened because he was not aware of the road reserve – the land was one large piece of equally rocky ground. It might have happened because the chief was later bribed to add names to the list. These things happen.

I asked the Chief what he’d advice us to do next to resolve this matter. He said that we should go and see this Kikuyu man and ask for a share of the money that had been paid. That it would be useless to fight for the land back as it was gone and the Italians had the title deed. He added that when it came to matters of land, the country was full of thieves. Of course it is, I thought, the current lands regime practically begs to be screwed.

Do you have the original list of squatters allocated the land, I asked. The sub chief answered that it was in his office in Jimba, near the plot in contention. He agreed to bring the list to the Chief’s office the next morning for us to review. Before we left, the Chief mentioned that perhaps the Italian couple had met with his assistant Chief who was currently on leave, and that was whom they had meant, not him. He seemed much relieved to have solved this puzzle.

I suggested to Julius that he write the Kikuyu man a letter confirming what they’d discussed, particularly the fact that he had not denied that Julius owned a section of that plot. Julius ended the very polite Swahili letter with a hope that they would soon reach an understanding of how much he was owed and when it would be paid. The Kikuyu man was apparently on a trip to Nairobi and Julius left the letter with a neighbour and retained a copy for himself, and another for the Chief.

When we arrived at the Chief’s office the next morning, the chief was dealing with the case of an elderly couple whose drunken son had beaten the father the previous day over money for mnazi. The chief wrote a letter with a Bic biro on rough-grade foolscap paper, beginning with the hand-written header – From the Office of the President, ordering the young man in question to come and see him in the office the following day.  I later found out that the chief had the authority to lock up the man for two days and could then refer him to the police to lock him up for a further three days. The chief stapled shut the letter and wrote the man’s name on top and asked the elderly man to deliver it. I noticed as he left that the elderly man shook as though he suffered from Parkingson’s disease but it may have been an effect of the beating.

The Chief explained that the Sub-chief would be tied up in Jimba all day because the MP was visiting the area.  We asked him for directions to Jimba. On the way, I asked Julius how much of the chief’s time was taken with personal issues like the elderly couple’s. He seemed surprised by the question and said, emphatically, the Chief handles everything. For example, Julius said, if I went to the police station to complain about my husband not giving me money, they would send us to the chief to arbitrate. That unless the issue was burglary of a mzungu house by strangers, everyone first went to the chief to determine whether the matter should then proceed to the police. In any case, Julius said, it was easier to deal with the Chief, because he spoke Giriama and since he came from there, he knew them well. It reminded me of a powerful documentary I’d seen on Nigeria’s Sharia courts that made the case that they were more effective because they spoke the language of the people, the judges were from the local area and respected the customs, witnesses were directly questioned by both the judge and the complainant, and justice was dispensed immediately and openly. Further, everyone knew the punishments for each type of crime in advance. Of course, the rub was that secular courts were ‘higher’ on the constitutional totem pole and could overturn the verdict. Like in Kenya, those with uwezo could still prevail even if they lost in the poor man’s court of communal co-operation.

We drove for what turned out to be an hour’s journey into the heartland of ‘another’ steamy Watamu of mud-hut villages, palm plantations and rutted roads, and a makuti mansion with a flowery garden – The Bull Dog Ranch – that apparently belonged to a German eccentric who never wore shoes. A logger had felled a giant baobab right across the road and was busy hacking out the shell of a canoe. I counted six other canoe shells as I revved the car to get through the temporary diversion he hacked for us. Julius told me that the logger would have bought the tree from the owner of the shamba for about Ksh 10,000 and he’d sell each canoe for about Ksh 6000 so he’d make good money.

The Sub-chief was leading a meeting under another giant baobab tree next to a small trading centre of five or so small shops. He was still wearing the gold chain but his clothing was more subdued – a grey shirt tucked into dark, pleated trousers, perhaps in honour of the MP who was yet to show.  About twenty men and women sat on stools and benches listening and asking him questions.  When we joined them, the Sub-chief brought the meeting to a close so that he could tend to his ‘important’ visitors.

While he led us to his small office nearby, he explained that the barasa had been about seeds that the government was distributing to farmers in the area. Government seeds, he added and hit the side of his head, must be carefully followed because these people here! The implication was that they were either foolish or not to be trusted. 

Without much ado, the Sub-chief brought out a sheaf of about 30 closely typed (Olivetti!) pages listing squatters allocated land in the area since the mid 1990s. It should not have come as a surprise that Julius’ name was nowhere to be found. It took time to verify this as the list contained hundreds of names and many of the plots had been sub-divided and assigned multiple numbers. The only person whose name we found listed against the plot in question was the Kikuyu man’s, and apparently only he had actually received a government letter of offer on this plot. When I asked why that was, Julius answered, the Kikuyu man went to Nairobi to chase these things. Mimi sina uwezo. From this I gathered that Julius’ I do not have the ability, was really saying, I do not have the resources or the knowledge or the language or networks or the kind of cultural history that has valued such processes enough to communicate their importance. 

Have no fear, the sub-chief reassured us. Even those other squatters were only paid because we have a common understanding about the ownership of that plot. And, he told Julius, I know you were one of those allocated because several of those squatters mentioned your name and showed me the section that belonged to you. We have to be careful because there are commercial squatters who jiandikishe here and there for money. It occurred to me that this might explain his boss’ dismissive attitude towards the Matsongani trio. Further, since those allocated received no written proof, those in authority at the time of list-making could easily manipulate the list as no-one could see it without their permission and even if they did, the numbering was so helter skelter that even I with my expensive education could barely make sense of it. Justice, it seemed, depended almost wholly on the calibre of the Chief.

On a fullscap paper, the Sub-chief mapped out the plot, showing a clear understanding of who was allocated exactly what and how the ‘mistake’ had happened. In fact, it was me who found the buyer for this plot, he revealed, on behalf of the Kikuyu man. He and I agreed that I would get a commission of 10% but now when I call, the phone cuts off. When I go there, I am told he is in Nairobi. The other squatters say they don’t know about the deal. The land was sold for Ksh 10 million, but soon they will spend all the money and then ask me ‘what can we do even if we want to pay you?’ These things happen.

The Sub-chief’s demeanour denied this to be a conflict of interest, and in fact, his boss had drawn our attention to the fact that the man had been burned in this deal. Yet, the Sub-chief’s strange willingness to accept that he might not get paid for his endeavours seemed to acknowledge that his legal case was not strong enough. Perhaps he knew that it would not look good for him to be seen to be pushing his own agenda.  I wondered how many other such deals he had done. No wonder he could afford such a thick gold chain!

Now that I knew where his self-interest lay, I plunged in more forcefully. Why don’t you arrange an official meeting in the Chief’s office with the Kikuyu man and all the squatters allocated this land to discuss how Julius can get his rightful share? That can be done, he said. It would be useful, I added, if you carried that map you’ve drawn and actually agreed with everyone during the meeting on the exact dimensions of their section of the plot so that new calculations can be made to divide the money according to the percentage of each person’s land. That will be done, he said, and if I am not satisfied, you should know the chief has the authority to request that a title be revoked. Aha, I thought, we’ve given you what you wanted – a ‘legal’ stick with which to flog those who wronged you and incidentally wronged Julius in the process.

On that firm understanding we parted, and sure enough, before coming to work the next day, Julius collected the stapled letters headed From the Office of the President. He seemed so ready for battle that I cautioned him that the Kikuyu man had not actually denied that Julius was entitled to his share, and suggested he therefore refrain from a pre-emptive full frontal attack. Julius gave me a wary look, as though he was not surprised that even after what we had been through, I would defend a fellow Kikuyu. My real worry was that Julius’ name was not in the legal system. If the Sub-chief came to a private agreement with the Kikuyu man, Julius had no legal recourse. Circumstances had reduced him to a beggar relying on the ambivalent goodwill of his fellow man. Perhaps I am too sceptical. Perhaps Julius would be lucky. Perhaps it was just as well I left for Nairobi the next day, albeit in a bothered state of mind.

Even where he now lives with his wife and family, Julius has no title. And his father in the next compound has no title. And his neighbours have no title. But, according to Julius, everybody there knows who owns what where. That in any case, nobody was interested in their tiny bits of inland land. But over the past ten years, I’ve seen rampaging developments of second, third and fourth row plots (from the sea). How long, I wondered, before a speculator somewhere was allocated the Julius family land. 

No wonder tribalism thrives – it is the way people explain to themselves the inexplicable system failures that disadvantage them. And no wonder our courts choke with land cases galore. Our arbitrary, easy to manipulate system disenfranchises the majority of people it is meant to serve – particularly at the coast where title deeds are as rare as a Sub-chief’s gold. They can only watch as local and international ‘foreigners’ with more uwezo legally buy up their ‘allocated’ land. In today’s Kenya, there is no room for the innocent.

Muthoni is the author of Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori, and Tracking the Scent of My Mother.


One comment on “Uwezo By Muthoni Garland

  1. Tabitha
    July 29, 2009

    So painfully true! What can be done before the coast politicians decide to do what their rift valley brothers are doing and turn it to something to kill ‘foreigners’ about? Great to bring it out


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