John Kamau travels the Thika-Garissa highway in Kenya and finds a collapsed settlement scheme from nearly 50 years ago that showcases of 'the misuse of power, might and money'.
Some 33 kilometers along the Thika-Garissa highway, a small and sleepy shopping centre sticks out like a sore thumb. Apart from the lone signboard that signals to visitors that they have now entered Ngoliba, there is nothing else to suggest how this sun-baked shopping centre - actually a row of Indian-styled Dukas - came into being.
A peep down into the rocky valley, where farmers grow mangoes, reveals very little economic activity. The grass thatched houses, which are mud-walled at best and falling apart at worst, show that the Ngoliba Settlement Scheme, as originally mooted in 1964, collapsed a long time ago. Residents have to rely on relief aid.
The Thika River, which was to have provided water to irrigate the scheme, has turned to a stream. Its banks show small plots of vegetables for domestic use.
New archival documents now shed light into how Ngoliba was used as a dumping ground for squatters who lived and wanted to purchase a farm next to former president Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Kasarani.
They were not only forced to sell all livestock - since settlement scheme policy did not allow livestock to go with them - but were also supposed to plant sisal. When the global sisal industry collapsed in the 1970s, Ngoliba collapsed. Today, it stands out as yet another showcase of the misuse of power, might and money.
In August 1964 when Sasini Tea and Coffee Estates decided to donate some 8,000 acres of their land to accommodate squatters, little did they know that it would spark a political row.
Documents now show that government officials were constantly embarrassed by the presence of squatters on Block’s Farm next to Mama Ngina’s farm in Kasarani (Mama Ngina was Kenyatta’s wife and the first lady). This forced the commissioner of squatters, Zachariah Shimechero, a former police officer, to order their relocation to the 8,000 acre Ngoliba farm, the farm that had earlier been earmarked for a separate group of squatters.
A secret letter written by Mr Shimechero to the permanent secretary of lands and settlement tells him: ‘You may or may not be aware that Block’s Farm is adjacent to Mama Ngina’s farm and Mzee is normally bothered by the presence of 200 squatter families next to his farm…’
One of the conditions given by Sasini when they donated the land was that squatters were to be accommodated in Ngoliba ‘on condition that they base their economy on sisal’.
But it appears that there were no funds available and a way had to be found to use the British funds from the Million Acre Scheme kitty for this purpose. This was an anomaly since Ngoliba was outside the Million Acre Scheme that covered only the White Highland areas.
Ngoliba was outside the scope of the funding but since it was involved in settling squatters who could embarrass Kenyatta, Geofrey Kariithi, who later became a powerful figure in the Kenyatta government, wrote to the first permanent secretary of the new ministry of cooperatives asking him to get money.
Actually, it was then not clear what ministry was to handle the 8,000 acres that had been donated.
‘I still maintain that we are not funded for schemes like this and the under-secretary is fully aware of this position and until the government agrees on the overall question of schemes outside former Scheduled Area (white highlands) there is little that we can do,’ wrote the director of settlements on 22 September 1966.
What perhaps he didn’t know was that Kenyatta had a personal interest in Ngoliba. Even as officials planned on how to settle the 200 people, Kenyatta added a new twist when he demanded that two people he had selected should be given 10 acres each.
The names were given to Jackson Angaine, the lands and settlement minister, who filed them and wrote a small note dated 11 November 1966: ‘The President insists that his two people must be allocated 10 acres each and Mr Shimechero (commissioner of squatters) is not willing.’
Shimechero had told the permanent secretary that: ‘It will be very bad for the overall morale if we are to allocate them with 10 acres when everybody is getting five acres and also when they have not contributed to the communal work carried out by the others.’
When the matter was brought to Kenyatta’s attention by Angaine he was ordered to issue them with a title-deed immediately. The others waited for a two-year period with temporary occupation licenses.
The two special cases were of Njau Gakinya and Gacheru Gatere.
Actually, Kenyatta visited Ngoliba on 26 November 1966, perhaps to make sure that his two settlers had found a place among the 200 who had been relocated from Block’s Farm. But it was not clear why the two had received Kenyatta’s personal attention.
Ngoliba, from the start, was a bay of confusion. In the confusion, farmers were issued with occupation licenses without paying the stamp duty - and it later became a big row within the ministry of lands on how to collect the money.
But it was the dispatch of 200 squatters who were living next to Kenyatta’s farm in Kasarani that brought a huge political row and annoyed Kamba politicians. It was sparked by local MP Gideon Mutiso. The MP was a few years later charged with treason.
On the day the final group was to be taken to Ngoliba on 31 January 1968, Kenyatta happened to be in Eastern Province and the move was postponed.
It was at this time that assistant minister Gideon Mutiso learnt about the exercise and wrote a protest note to lands and settlement minister, Jackson Angaine.
‘I am sure you are no doubt aware that 200 squatters were recently moved from Block’s Estates near Nairobi, all of them of the Kikuyu tribe and were settled at the above scheme, along with some other squatters within the area,’ said the letter, dated 15 February.
‘This means that those people who originally belonged to Ngoliba and who wasted a lot of their energy in clearing bush, putting up houses, and schools will now be moved to a complete new area,’ wrote the MP, who feared that the move could spark a tribal conflict.
Ngoliba was threatening to explode and Angaine wrote a small note dated 3 March to his permanent secretary saying: ‘I am not going to allow politicians to play with my staff. Mr Mutiso is out of date and needs just a slight adjustment to bring him up to date.’
Apparently, the commissioner of squatters had decided to dump the 200 squatters, who had indicated interest in buying Block’s Farm in Yatta.
Perhaps to minimise skirmishes, Ngoliba was shifted from Yatta to Juja constituency that was to be represented by Kenyatta’s eldest son, Peter Muigai.
Today, Ngoliba has turned out to be a ghost settlement with hardly any economic activity. The sisal industry that was meant to support its inhabitants hit rock bottom in 1970s after global prices slumped.
Anytime you hit the Garrissa Road, watch out for Ngoliba; for here is a settlement that is dead in the water.
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* John Kamau is a journalist interested in African politics, history, globalisation and human rights. This article is from his blog
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