A Long Road from Makindu


This long dirt road leads from Kenya’s Nairobi-Mombasa Highway to the National Range Research Station at Kiboko, about 100 miles south of Nairobi. The Range Station is a colonial relic, which (if I remember correctly) took over the land of a failed white settler sisal plantation. In more recent times, Kenyan scientists, both at the Range Station and the nearby Kenya Agricultural Research Institute field station, have been continuing the work begun there by British agricultural officers in the early 20th century. The emphasis, as then, has been on trialling crop varieties and developing livestock husbandry techniques to improve the lot of the people who live in this drought-prone region  – the Maasai pastoralists to the west, and the Akamba agro-pastoralists to the east and north.

The Range Station has been monitoring rainfall patterns for over 90 years. When it does rain, it occurs in two seasons – the long rains from March to May, and the short rains from October to December. But the fact is Kenya’s climate is  becoming drier, and it is  marginal regions such as these that are hardest hit. In the ‘90s when we were living in Kenya and Graham was regularly working in this area, it hardly seemed to rain at all. One Christmas I remember driving past roadside stands of maize that were blowing away to dust.

In pre-colonial times, and for several hundred years before the British arrived in East Africa, the indigenous peoples had their own methods of dealing with disaster: they simply moved somewhere else. This was usually to other quarters in their large clan territories, or to places where they extended kinship ties. They would then stay with better off relatives until the hazard had passed. Those who had been ‘taken in’ would be expected to reciprocate should the need arise. This was how things worked. It was pragmatic, and flexible. The migrants would then return to their own homes when they could.

The colonising British,  indoctrinated as they were with feudal-capitalist notions of land ownership, could not cope with such fluid community practices. Once the colonial administration had begun to encourage large-scale farming by European settlers, they felt obliged to establish fixed boundaries around tribal territories so that native land could not be sold to, or settled by the European incomers. It was seen as protecting “native interests.” The only problem was these officially designated boundaries did not take into account local emergency refuge strategies, or indeed many other traditional coping measures that involved moving somewhere else.

Today, and this is perhaps surprising to many outsiders, much of Kenya’s rural population still lives on ancestral land within these former tribal reserves. With little hope of acquiring new land, people’s clan and family holdings have been sub-divided, fathers to sons, down the generations,  often leaving the ground depleted, eroded, and/or wholly insufficient to support family needs.

This in turn has created a situation of migrant labour, where village men travel to the city to work. They rent a room in one of the slums, and live away from home for most of the year while their wives remain in their homeland, cultivating the farm plot as best they can, and rearing the children. The social issues that arise from this kind of fragmented family living do not need to be spelled out.

Now, on top of everything else, there are the effects of climate change to deal with, both globally and locally created. Competition for fertile land and water sources is critical in many places. In this context, then, the British system of land ownership remains one of the toxic legacies of colonialism.  At independence Crown Land became State Land, and so nothing much changed in the title deed/ownership department, apart from much grabbing of state-owned land by officials. It is hard to know how to unpick it all. We have all heard about Robert Mugabe’s attempts to do so in Zimbabwe.

As for the ordinary small holder farmer, they might not be physically confined to their reserves as they were under British rule, but if their land there can no longer support their families, then there is little choice but to trek up the highway to Nairobi and join the swelling millions of slum dwellers who eke out a living there.

However you look at it, this is a long, hard road .


The Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, Makindu District, in the 1990s, looking north towards Nairobi. It has been much improved since our day, but plans to turn this  major trans-African route into a dual carriageway appear to have stalled.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell


You can read more about what we were doing in Kenya here:

Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms


For more long and winding roads travel over to Ed’s place at Sunday Stills.

29 thoughts on “A Long Road from Makindu

  1. Everything you have said here is true. Colonialism was (and is) the worst thing to ever happen to Sub-Saharan Africa. Even the Maasai’s these days have nowhere to graze their cattle. The Luos seem to have depleted Lake Victoria of fish. And elsewhere, I heard that the Bushmen of Kalahari are required to go to school to make a living like everyone else–acquire salaried employment and transform into frenzied dependent consumers, in other words–in this egocentric, family-less capitalist world. I found this appalling. In most parts of Kenya, there is still a sense of communal ownership of property. Relatives expect kind consideration. One of my colleagues at work recently remarked that his aunts think they have say in his salary. I have read some books and articles that made me conclude that the Europeans had no clue whatsoever that Africans had their own way of life, richer, more human, and more satisfying than this pretentiousness with a fancy name of civilization. Nowadays Africa is used to justify all manner of lunacy.

    1. Yes, the industrialised world does not much understand the idea of community, and capitalists definitely do not want to know because sharing reduces profits. But then aunties wanting a say in the expenditure of a nephew/niece’s hard-earned city salary is a hard ask too. The two systems really do not work together, do they Peter..

  2. What a sad and distressing story….Maybe, just maybe we are at last learning that indigenous peoples know so much more about the lands they inhabit, than us – but I fear that our ‘enlightenment’ is way too late for many people.

    I am reminded of the film ‘Emerald Forest’ which showed how greedy developers in S. American having, torn down the jungle and habitats of human and animal tribes alike, then introduced the ‘survivor’s’ of this horror to all of our horrors – drugs, prostitution, etc.
    And now we want to go and destroy other planets!!! You can see this hits a nerve with me.
    Thank you so much, Tish once again for a superb post. Janet.

    1. It is a sad story, it’s true, Janet. What is amazing is how resilient people are, this despite having all the cards stacked against them. On the other hand, we don’t see much sign of developers respecting anything but their profit margins, and all for short term gain. Yet it is possible to have sustainable development; it just means smaller short-term profits, and it means engaging with the communities concerned.

    1. Yes, Robin, roads like these were still being used for safari rallies when we were there, and they are doubtless still going strong. I’m not sure what the Maasai would think about such things, but in general, I think they’re pretty popular. A bit of excitement for one thing.

    1. Hm. I rather imagined it was something of the sort. It’s a pity that the expiry date of these people is not as short as their own short-termism i.e. when it comes to robbing the nation.

      1. Sometimes one wonders why they don’t get dispatched so soon but then the fear is they get replaced by more greedy ones. It’s a real pity.

    1. Thanks, Ark. Mm. The migrant labour business is a bummer in so very many ways. On the other hand it gets houses roofed, and children through school. One just wishes it wasn’t such a BIG struggle to achieve the basics in life.

  3. All of northern New England has roads that look just like this, but have a LOT more traffic. I know. We just spent many hour driving on them from Maine to Massachusetts and everywhere in between.

  4. It’s a very sad story, but unfortunately, this is just a small part of the general changes faced by the young generation today in all places in the world. The opportunities of past generations are fading away, and the young have no choice but to try new occupations and locations in order to survive. Many species of living creatures faced this… or extinction before us. Now it’s our turn. And of course, I worry that things may get still worse.

    1. I do agree with you, Shimon, about the huge problems that the upcoming generations will have to face. The fact is though that much of the earth’s devastation – whether through destruction of the natural environment or geo-political conflict, none of it needs to happen. So much is down to the motivations of a very small portion of the world’s population. It is true, too, that the problems in countries like Kenya could be reversed if only there were the political will. You know of course all that has been done in your own country to produce crops from the desert. It was also our experience in Africa that people need very little in terms of money to turn their communities around, but they do often need some advice and new ideas; or better still for someone to facilitate their own ideas and solutions. All is not lost for us, dear Shimon.

    2. Here you can see what Kenya’s Green Africa Foundation is doing to grow Jatropha bio-fuel on increasingly unusable farm land. It is one means to lift people out of poverty, and reduce pressure on the environment from charcoal making for cooking fuel.

  5. A fascinating article Tish and some very interesting comments too. It’s easy to feel despair over the changes capitalism and colonialism have wrought on indigenous peoples everywhere and the on the planet itself. Speaking of what is really going on is an important step towards making us all aware of the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves.

  6. Thought provoking post Tish. I am inclined to agree with Shimon. Migrant labour clogging cities while their families eke out a living from diminished land hodings is a huge problem across developing countries.

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