How Kiambu land scams started about 150 years ago

Part of a six-acre piece of land at Karibu centre Makongeni, Thika where the aloe vera is grown. [Fidelis Kabunyi, Standard]

Poor millionaires. This oxymoron applies to most residents in Kiambu and around Nairobi who live in squalor in shacks constructed on pieces of earth worth millions.

Land in Kenya’s capital is not cheap. It has never been cheap. Ironically the cosmopolitan nature of Kiambu has always complicated land ownership, giving rise to complex land deals where bulls, sheep, goats, honey and maidens have been used as currency. 

One of the most memorable land deals was chalked about one and a half-century ago in the 1880s and involved a member of the Dorobo (a community that is now extinct) whose game pit had snared and killed one of his in-laws. The hunter was forced to cede over three hundred square miles in reparation, including the Yatta plateau.

This scenario of a willing buyer and the distressed seller was exposed by Senior Chief Koinange Mbiyu when he testified before the Kenya Land Commission in 1929 in support of a land claim by Mbari Ya Chiri.

In another deal, which would later be lodged at the Kiambu local Native Court, Mbari ya Kihara and Marigwa bought the land from Muthogini, the brother of Marimbe and Muinami, for 47,424 goats, 4,742 rams, and 20 pots of honey.

As Muiruri Muinami and Wangugu Marimbe testified, their fathers, Marimbe and Muinami, sought adoption by Kihara because one of their brothers had been killed by the Kikuyu. Once adopted, they were given 10 goats each and had to surrender much land. According to government records, this deal happened long before the whites came.

It was this dispute that senior chief Waruhiu Kungu was trying to arbitrate in court on October 7, 1952, plunging the country into a decade-long blood-letting and chaos as the government hunted Mau Mau freedom fighters who were blamed for the death. Some of the claimants of the disputed land were bitter with Waruhiu and could have played a role in his death.

As way back as 1897, land speculation had taken root in and around Nairobi as a missionary, FM Watson lamented. In a letter he penned on November 30, 1897, Watson observed: "Unlike Ukambani, all the land here is privately owned by one or more of the natives, and now they have learned to demand high land prices compared with what they thought of two years ago."

His letter indicated that the prices the Africans fixed for Europeans demonstrated that they, too, had purchased the land from the Dorobo.