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.