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Breaches


By DENNY MWAURA

The holidays were a time of disembarking the clustered city for the rural pastoral landscape. We lived in Githurai, an estate in Nairobi, Kenya where my parents were renting an apartment. In the backdrop of their lives was a search for a plot of land where they would build a house and practice farming as their ancestors did. For them, the ownership of land implied an abiding value. It was an investment that they would call their own for it guaranteed being rooted to a place, a home that eliminated the nomadic life of dwelling in living quarters across the city. Owning land was an esteemed asset adept at being entrusted across generations. Prospectively, our descendants would call this land theirs unless it was sold accordingly, or, in the worst case, seized from them without consent.

My paternal grandmother resides in Kirangi, a village bordering the Gatamaiyo Forest Nature Reserve where my parents grew up. Unlike Nairobi, which is mostly flat, the terrain in Kirangi is verdant steep hills and carpeted with fig trees, pineapples, tea and coffee farms. Getting to Kirangi from Githurai was an expedition. We rode on matatus, private minibuses, and on our journey, I gazed out into the fleeting landscape. We were packed like sardines inside the rattling matatu incensed with sweat, baby powder, green bananas, pineapples, arrowroots, though among this mix, the scent of the red soil that nurtured the onboard fruits and vegetables prevails.

The scent of the red soil is particular, a rich and fertile aroma. Its dust stains the rim of collars, trouser cuffs, and silk scarves that most elderly women wear. Soaring eucalyptus and macadamia trees, the galvanized steel roof panels, and the wool of sheep are coated by it. Burrowed in the pores of my skin, nostrils hairs, and mucus membranes, this dust, slightly yellow in color, brings to mind the image of an earthly paradise.

Our route passed through Kenyatta Road, which is named after Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Its perimeters are fenced and the V-shaped entrance leads to stone plinths upholding two shields – kin to those on the Kenyan flag. Kenyatta is revered to have liberated Kenyans from British rule, however, he opposed the Mau Mau, the anti-colonial guerilla rebels who operated and sought sanctuary from the British in the forests of Meru district. He described them as a “disease” and banned them under his presidency as did his successor, Daniel Arap Moi. For the Mau Mau, land, freedom, and self-governance were what fueled their spirit for independence.1 I always wondered what the private Kenyatta compound looked like. In my mind, it was manicured gardens, cascading pools, and red bougainvillea canopies.

In 1952, British colonialists arrested and found him guilty under the suspicion of being a Mau Mau leader. They destroyed his house, seized his land, and its proprietary rights were acquired by another. The house he once called home was a ruin and it’s building materials were appropriated to house a senior British officer. Troubled by his dislocation in Isiolo, a town in the middle of the country, all he desired was to return to his Gatundu residence. An intelligence officer was tasked with locating the land’s owner. The officer found the man who’d acquired the land in Ngong Hills and the government transferred property rights to its previous owner. Kenyatta along with his wife and son, Mama Ngina, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president of Kenya, called the house built on the land home. In the coming years, it will be venerated as a museum.

The Kenyatta family owns nearly half a million acres. The family’s wealth is attributed to capitalizing on charcoal and ivory trade, both of which threaten Kenya’s wildlife ecology. When Kenya gained independence, the fertile lands the British settlers had codified as the White Highlands were supposed to be reformed back to the natives. Rather than redressing the lands, the allure of settler colonialism captivated the Kenyatta administration, and instead, the political elite illegally allocated the acres of lands to themselves and privileged ethnic communities.3 

In 2013, The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya planned to publish a report on the economic crimes connected to political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts. Land grabbing was among the key issues. The commission found Jomo Kenyatta grabbed 250 acres of land in the Coastal province thus transforming the locals into squatters who later became landless. When his son married in 1976, Kenyatta bequeathed him government land without legal procedures and approval. Afraid of staining the family name, the office of President Uhuru Kenyatta demanded descriptions regarding the illegal acquisition and distributions of lands by Jomo Kenyatta to his friends, family, and ethnic group be removed.4 During a visit to Kenya last year, my uncle pointed to vast fenced lands alongside the highway. “This land all belongs to the Kenyatta family,” he says. I look out to the land and close to the fence are rows of eucalyptus trees that make it seem as if the land is on the course of being developed. Behind this ruse is vacant land.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 5,000 people were forcefully evicted from the informal settlements of Kariobangi and Ruai in Nairobi. The Nairobi City Council orchestrated the demolition of homes in an effort to reclaim public lands.5 Displacing slum dwellers was essential for building a waste treatment plant funded by the World Bank. Affected families couldn’t retreat to their rural family homes due to restricted movement. During a global pandemic, the vision of transforming Nairobi into an ultra-modern city becomes contingent on compromising the livelihood of the poor.

More displacement is happening within indigenous communities in the Rift Valley. Forest dwellers in the Mau and Embobut forests. Land divestments motivated by political and commercial interests have disrupted their ways of life since the colonial period. Displacement speaks to a loss, a condition generated by violence and theft. Under the yoke of capitalism and settler-colonialism, the displacement of human and non-human life renders their livelihoods expendable for the sake of economic profits. The notion of dispossession denotes the loss of ownership to land and personhood. It is a process related to how a people are deprived of sovereignty and their bodily status. Dispossession is foundational to settler-colonial states. It has shaped the histories of nation-states including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. Weaving across these nation-states is a thread that embroiders the full recognition of indigenous communities the territorial rights through treaties and laws. The systematic theft of land proves vital in producing property.6 We see this today with cases such as the Department of Interior divesting 321 acres from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. In losing the status of their land as a federal trust, the process in which land is acquired and held by the federal government for the prosperity of Native American tribes, the livelihood of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is in jeopardy.7

What also sustains a “loss of possession” are exploitive practices. Theft of land by imperial and corporate elites has ushered in the destruction of ecosystems. We could think of ecosystems as the co-existence between human and non-human life, a matrix of living and decomposing organisms that sustain and rely on each other. Global ecological damage has been fueled by capitalist tendencies. For instance, the destruction of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia has endangered regional and global communities. The peatland forests in Kalimantan regulate the flow and conservation of water along with storing a significant amount of carbon for the globe. Over the past twenty years, the drainage of the peat swamps for a failed mega rice projects initiated by the government and catastrophic fires have displaced both indigenous communities and the native orangutan population. In 2019, acrid smelling smoke blanketed the region’s surrounding countries, causing the sky to turn blood-red with millions of Indonesian’s gasping for air.8

My grandmother’s house sits on top of a hill and at the bottom sits the edge of the Gatamaiyo Forest. Sunrise atop the hill makes visible Mount Kenya’s specter and only when the sun has fully risen does its peaks vanish. The tang of cypress and juniper trees waft wherever I walk. The forest is a labyrinth and I was warned never to go into for fear of getting lost and facing elephants. One night, while sitting around an open fire pit in the kitchen, we heard thuds. It was as if dense tree trunks were falling except the trumpeting of elephants signaled their arrival into the farms. The vibration ran through our feet. Spooked, my uncle rushed out of the house, urging us not to leave. In the company of other men, he’d gone to ward off the elephants with guns. They shot into the air, the aim being intimidating the elephants back into the forest. A couple of years later, the Kenya Wildlife Service installed a lengthy electric fence at the edge of the forest. The separation was to protect the village farms from elephant invasions and unwanted elephant deaths caused during crop raids.

The divisions’ humans have created to separate themselves from nature has maintained a human-nature hierarchy. We deem ourselves as primary and nature as secondary and this dualism is infected with conflict. We’ve organized processes that warrant subjugating the natural environment for our welfare by identifying differences between the human and non-human worlds. Bridging this dichotomy has launched a series of legal concepts intended to protect and preserve ecosystems. In her book, Earth is Our Business, Polly Higgins proposes the Crime of Ecocide as international law. She frames ecocide as, “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes.”9 Establishing the Crime of Ecocide enables the International Criminal Court to hold jurisdiction over individuals, nation-states, and corporations whose actions have caused ecological damage. The proposal acts as a guide for humankind in their journey towards a new world. Our flight to this new world is marked by catastrophe, a disaster that gradually turns semi-arid areas into deserts, a forced migration of millions of people from drought and rising sea levels, unstable seasons. a collapse in the production of staple crops, conflict over natural resources, and the extinction of species.

I visited my grandmother last year and for the first time, I penetrated the Gatamaiyo Forest. With my cousins acting as guides, we accessed the fenced forest through a gate decorated with a steel plate silhouette of a rhinoceros. A warden lives beside the entry and protects the forest from poachers and lumberjacks. Red mud stains my jeans and Nikes. Fire ants crawl on my white shirt, I swat them off knowing well how painful their bites are. I hadn’t ventured in this terrain for nearly a decade. Passing through the vines, headed deep into the forest, I asked my cousins who live with my grandmother how often elephants emerge and what were the chances of us running into wild animals. We didn’t come across any animals, the only one being a cow that a lone farmer was shepherding. No trumpeting elephants’, no hooting monkeys, no tracks, no waste, no rustles in the canopies. Only cow hooves and pellets of sheep dung were visible. The gauzy fantasy of walking in the forest, tracking elephants feet on the wet ground, and tracing the outlines of an unknown feline’s paws was shattered. Onto the landscape, the rich perfumes of the earth and vegetation moor me. From the knotted mass of trees to the Aberdare Mountain Ranges colored blue in the distance, I couldn’t cease to discover this landscape within myself.



1. Wangari Maathai. Unbowed: A Memoir. (New York: Anchor Books, 2007). Epub e-book Chap. 3.

2. Amos Kariethi, “The House ‘Mzungus’ Stole from Kenyatta.” The Standard, October 24, 2009, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/1144026925/the-house-mzungus-stole-from-kenyatta.  

3.  Rasna Warah, “The Sins of The Father: Why Lifestyle Audits Cannot Resolve Land-Related Historical Injustices,” The Elephant, June 28, 2018, https://www.theelephant.info/features/2018/06/28/the-sins-of-the-father-why-lifestyle-audits-cannot-resolve-land-related-historical-injustices/.

4. Thomson Reuters Foundation, “Kenyan President’s Office Censored Report on Land Grabbing,” news.trust.org, July 22, 2020, https://news.trust.org/item/20130603124352-bsiac/.

5.  Nita Bhalla, “Forced Evictions Leave 5,000 Kenyan Slum Dwellers at Risk of Coronavirus,” Reuters, May 6, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-kenya-homelessness-idUSKBN22I1VC.

6.  Robert Nichols, Theft Is Property! Dispossession & Critical Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 6-12.
7.  Carrie Jung, “What’s At Stake In The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Land Bill.” WBUR, August 15, 2020. https://www.wbur.org/news/2019/05/13/edited-whats-at-stake-in-the-mashpee-wampanoag-tribal-land-bill.

8.  Richard C. Paddock, Suhartono Muktita, and Ulet Ifansasti, “A Blood-Red Sky: Fires Leave a Million Indonesians Gasping.” The New York Times, September 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/25/world/asia/indonesia-red-sky-fires.html.

9.  Polly Higgins, Earth Is Our Business Changing the Rules of the Game (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2012.) epub e-book, chap. 1.