Hundreds of families still stuck in colonial villages, 60 years after independence

Residents of Munyu and Karkuret colonial villages in Kieni, Nyeri County demonstrate along Narumoru- Nanyuki highway on February 8 2016 to push the government to address their plight. [File, Standard]

In Nyeri County, at least 983 acres are occupied by colonial villages. The process of demarcation has been slow and painful as families grapple with increasing pressure for more space.

Grace Wanjiru is among the thousands who lived in a colonial village. In 1951, she got married. But barely three years into her marriage, her life was turned upside down; her husband, who was working in Nairobi, away from his home in Kiambu, was detained as the colonial government declared a state of emergency in Kenya. This was during the Mau Mau War for independence.

Wanjiru found herself and her son at the mercy of ruthless home guards alongside hundreds of women in her village.

"Now the women were left to fend for themselves as their husbands worked on farms owned by the wealthy. That is how we were left behind. We could not tell if our husbands would come back or not. And as a matter of fact, some men never returned," Wanjiru said.

She was one of the lucky few women whose husbands returned. But before they reunited, Wanjiru experienced unimaginable hardship in raising their son by herself.

Life became a struggle for Wanjiru and the other women as they were forced into hard labour for days with no pay and had little or no food to eat.

"The home guards would come to pick us up from the villages in the morning so we can work in the farms. They would blow a whistle in the morning for us to wake up and go to the farms," she said.

The women would dig the trenches until 1 pm but go home without pay.

"So in the remaining hours, if you had the option of cultivating some sweet potatoes, you would do that so you could, in the process, have something to feed your family with. The forced labour was also accompanied by severe beatings," Wanjiru said.

Margaret Njeri, 82, a resident of Njabini colonial village in Kinangop, could not hide her joy on September 16, 2021, after being handed a certificate of the lease to the piece of land she occupies. [File, Standard]

Six decades after independence, thousands of families are still living in dehumanising colonial villages. They have been demanding that the villages be surveyed so they can be issued with title deeds or be resettled in alternative land but their efforts have not been successful.

Those living in the villages have little to smile about as they do not own the small pieces of land they live in.

At Kirichu Colonial Village in Nyeri County, Muhia Githenji explained that he inherited his home from his parents, and they had lived all their lives in the small space as a family.

"The trouble with living in a colonial village is we cannot build a permanent house because we have no ownership documents. To make matters worse, we have no access to amenities such as water and electricity," he noted.

He noted that efforts to survey the village had been slow as there have been disputes over footpaths and communal areas.

"Due to the limited space, we often use footpaths on each other's property. When the government started surveys, nobody wanted to give up their land to make way for roads or footpaths," he said.

Nyeri County Lands CEC Ndirangu Gachunia explained that they have made progress in addressing the colonial villages' issue. Out of the over 200 colonial villages, he said, only 51 have been surveyed.

According to the Nyeri County Budget estimates for the 2023/2024 financial year, the government is intending to spend Sh3 million to plan and survey colonial villages in Aguthi Gaaki, ward, Tetu constituency.

Close to half a century later, generations of the displaced continue to live on the small pieces of land, whose ownership they cannot prove even as the villages continue to remain a sour remnant of colonization. [Additional reporting by Amos Kiarie]