The dead and the living compete for space in Kakamega
WESTERN | By Alexander Chagema | October 21st 2021
Inside a one-storey tin shack at Makaburini estate, Kakamega, 10 youth sit with their backs against the wall. Their faces are obscured by a thin veil of smoke that rises from thick rolls of cigarettes.
They look unkempt and dazed, but they are alert and stare at us pensively as we move around the overgrown graveyard, barely five feet from where they sit.
Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya’s desire to elevate the county to city status has caused jitters among the 1,000 residents of Makaburini, who could be evicted should Oparanya’s dream come true. Who wants an informal settlement in the heart of a city, and a new one at that?
“This place is called Al Karim village, alias Makaburini, as most people prefer to call it because of its proximity to the graveyard over there,” Abdallah Bakari, the Secretary of Vibanda Self Help Group, says.
Makaburini is a designated graveyard where the Kakamega Municipal Council used to bury unclaimed bodies in mass graves.
The tragedy is that the graves were shallow, and the soil erosion exposed the skeletons after a few months. Many were times that dogs scattered the bones.
“The graveyard is on a slope, as you can see. It is true that human bones used to be found here. I have personally come across a number of the bones,” says Abdallah Nganyi, a village elder.
Today, the graveyard is overgrown, and the last time the mass burial of unclaimed bodies was done there was in 2015. However, there are signs of fresh graves.
“The people who live here initially occupied the land where Bondeni Primary School currently sits. The local government asked them to relocate to Makaburini to create space for the primary school to be built,” Bakari said.
According to Abton Hamisi Ramadhani, Chairman of the Vibanda Self Help Group, his people were asked to relocate to Makaburini in 1996. “I was a 13-year-old boy at the time, and I have been living here since. We did not grab this land as some people allege. We are here legally.”
Bakari says there was a mutual agreement between the then local government and the residents to relocate to Makaburini temporarily while the government sought to find a more convenient place to settle them.
However, bureaucratic procrastination resulted in one thing leading to another, and what was supposed to serve as a makeshift business centre, evolved into an informal settlement. “A few years down the line, the local government attempted to evict us, but we sought recourse in court. The court ruled we are here legally and that no structure should be demolished unless the local government gave us alternative land,” Bakari said.
“At some point, Local Government Minister Karissa Mathai visited this place to find out why we had occupied land earmarked for a graveyard. On learning about the court order, he left it to the Kakamega local government officials to settle the matter,” he said.
Kakamega Lands executive Robert Khundu Makhanu says he is aware of the Makaburini residents’ dilemma. “There are plans to reclaim and rehabilitate Makaburini in line with the county government’s plans to raise the status of Kakamega to that of a city,” Mr Makhanu says.
“The county government also has plans to re-survey Makaburini, put up beacons to mark its boundaries and fence off the area to stop encroachment on the cemetery. The poor state of the graveyard is because of the earlier haphazard manner of mass burials and poor panning,” he adds.
Makhanu says everything will be done under a negotiated process, and they will explain to Makaburini residents why the county government must take a certain action.
“I am aware of the court order that restrains us from evicting people from Makaburini. All the same, that is government land. The people occupying it have neither title deed nor lease, hence have no legal right to claim it. We shall look at individual cases, and genuine squatters will be compensated once the committee set up to look at what needs to be done to upgrade Kakamega to a city status tables its recommendations,” Makhanu said.
Bakari and Ramadhani are upbeat that evictions are not on the cards. They aver Makaburini is a gazetted informal settlement area, not a cemetery. They are buoyed by the fact that through CDF, they have been able to get piped water and that the World Bank brought electricity to them.
“These projects were done under the slum upgrading project. Surely, the World Bank could not have taken piped water and electricity to a cemetery, could it?” posed Bakari.
“We are tired of being called squatters and land grabbers. We want justice served since we were settled here by the local government, and the county government should respect that fact,” Ramadhani said.
Like any other informal settlement area, challenges abound. Residents interviewed requested anonymity for security reasons.
“There are too many criminals living here because accommodation is cheap. Most of them carry out criminal activities elsewhere but come to hide here. A few years back, weapons were discovered in the house of a young man who used to work as a boda boda rider. A stolen laptop and other items were found in his house.”
Bakari wants the county government to mount security lights in Makaburini and build a bridge to link it to the neighbouring village, where primary schools are located. He says this will make it easy for children to get to school.
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