BY PASCAL MWANDAMBO
A young girl stands sullenly outside their mud walled, grass thatched structure. She sucks her fingers absentmindedly, eyes darting from one corner to the other.
The girl bolts on hearing the sound of an approaching vehicle. After a short while, she realizes that the visitors are not police officers, and with fear and suspicion written all over her face, she returns to their hut.
“My mother has gone to the market and warned me to run away because the police might come to demolish our house”, she says.
This is the scenario at Singila and Majengo villages in Mwatate, Taita-Taveta County.
Like birds of the air whose nests are being swayed by strong winds, the residents of these two villages live one day at a time.
Though they claim the land is their ancestral property, history seem to be judging them harshly as they have been rendered squatters after the giant sisal farm took over their land and planted sisal.
“The other day the sisal estate management confiscated my four goats and detained them .When I went to get them back, I was also detained till 8 pm when I was released. This is inhuman treatment to a woman of my age. After all, goats don’t feed on sisal,” says 77 year old Elnora Mkala.
The situation is also grave for 56 year old Rophus Mbunga who is now faced with eviction despite the fact that he has lived in Singila all his life and his parents were both buried there.
The local communities are living in poverty and destitution as they do not know their fate as the sisal management continues to intimidate them with threats of eviction.
The major bone of contention has been the location of a Kenya police and administration police camps in the private farm, despite these being public offices. An assistant chief’s office is also inside the vast farm as well as a public school, Mwandisha Primary.
Another issue that has raised concern is the hosting of a national flag at the gate of the farm despite the fact that this is private property.
Despite earlier attempts to throw them out, together with their livestock, the residents have vowed to resist eviction and want the government to intervene to save them from the endless suffering they have endured since 1991 when the sisal farm management extended its boundaries and moved into their settlement areas.
“We have been living as destitute for the last twenty years as we cannot put up permanent homes or develop our ancestral land. The government machinery seems to be siding with the rich farm management while we seem to be forgotten” said a Singila resident Damaris Wanjala.
Matters have further been complicated by revelations that the sisal farm management has been planning to sell off part of the land to the government to put up county headquarters despite the fact that the area in question is having intense disputes between locals and the sisal farm management.
The secretary of Mwasima Mbuwa Welfare Association ( which has been fighting for the rights of squatters in Singila and Majengo village) Mr Mwaluma Mnjala says the government must step in and save the residents from the squatter problem.
“We have fought for far too long to get our land back. And we shall not relent. Our ancestral lands must be returned to us” Mnjala vowed.
Mr Mnjala wants the National Land Commission(NLC) to move with speed and address the explosive land problems in Mwatate to avert likely confrontations between the over 3,000 squatters and the farm management.
Light at the end of the tunnel
According to Mwasima Mbuwa secretary Mnjala Mwaluma Teita Sisal estate should keep its hands of Sembe hill(pictured) which is both a Taita shrine and a water catchment.
He says destruction of trees on the picturesque hill will have long term environmental consequences for Mwatate people.
“Every day we are witnessing drastic and erratic climatic conditions and the main reason is environmental degradation. If the sisal farm cares about environmental conservation they should restore the hill to its former glory” says Mwaluma.
Mwaluma also asked the Government to act with speed and liberate public institutions inside the vast farm which he said were barely accessible due to their location inside the private farm.
These include Mwandisha Primary school, a chief’s office and a police post.
He pointed out that Mwasima was working on a major plan for the land survey including mapping the whole area under dispute so that when the land reverts back to the people, developments can be undertaken without any hiccups.
Among these includes geological surveys to determine the value and quantity of minerals in the area as well as determining the locations for underground water.
“We have to determine areas with potential for underground water so that boreholes can be sunk to provide water to the settlers,” he said.
Mwaluma, while waxing support for the Jubilee government, called upon locals to ditch the opposition and join the current government saying it had shown willingness to address the thorny land issues in Mwatate.
Land problems are a ticking time bomb in Taita-Taveta County especially in Mwatate,Voi and Taveta where huge tracts of land are under sisal crop while other areas are occupied by private ranches