Thessalia IDPs of Kisumu remain displaced 20 years after land clashes

In the run up to the multi-party elections in 1992, a village in Muhoroni in then Kericho District was badly affected by inter-ethnic violence which displaced over 1,000 villagers. These were residents of Thessalia, known to the local community as a Centre of Catholic missionary activities.

Today, the land they once occupied is currently called “Thessalia Holding”, but they cannot reclaim it 23 years after. They are huddled together on a small piece of the earth somewhere near Koru where they have access to no land to till for their livelihood.

They have nothing to sell but their labour to nearby farmers at a price they have little say over. Poverty, disease and social deprivation are their uneasy bedfellows. The Kenyan nation building project has marginalised them.

On January 9, 2013, 120 heads of families of the Thessalia IDPs received letters from the Director of Land Adjudication and Settlement in Nairobi informing them they were finally being settled at Kibigori Plantations Settlement Scheme in Muhoroni District.
The new settlers were required to report to the Project Manager Kibigori Plantations so that they could be shown the plot boundaries and be issued with a letter confirming this before final documentation. On further payment of Sh10,407.85 they would purchase the plots outright and be issued with title deeds.

Two years later, notwithstanding the fact that all the 120 heads of the IDP families paid the money as required, they have neither been shown the plots nor have they been given any adequate explanation regarding the delay by the State Department of Lands to honour its obligations.

In the meantime, the land in question is currently under cultivation by individuals who have never paid any money to the government to use this land. To the contrary these illegal settlers seem to enjoy unusual protection from government administrative and security officers.

The Thessalia IDPs have made fruitless attempts to seek intervention from various government offices. They have, in the process, accumulated a bunch of letters and unfulfilled promises of help and action from the following: Nyando Lands and Adjudication Office; Muhoroni Sub-County Commissioner; Kisumu County Commissioner; the Governor of Kisumu County and the Commission on Administrative Justice (OMBUDSMAN).

It is extremely unfortunate that the government of the County of Kisumu has found little urgency in establishing a County Land Management Board to which such cases would have been referred for effective intervention by the National Land Commission.

Without such a Board, a letter written to the Chairman, Thessalia/Jaber CBO by the Secretary, County Land Management Board Kisumu, dated July 23, 2015, does not really have any bearing in law since there is no board in place on whose behalf the secretary is writing.

The absence of the Board is actually hurting several economic activities in the county. Land, in both rural and urban areas, is a vital factor in development. That land matters are now partly devolved to county governments does not mean that they become less important in making investment decisions; in fact they become even more important.

Creating a board to manage land matters creates an atmosphere where management and decision making is institutionalised and not left to the whims of any one individual in a government office.

In this case the Thessalia/Jaber CBO has no institutional reference within the county expressly charged with this issue when the other administrative units they have been seeking help from have failed to perform. But many other IDPs elsewhere are suffering just as much as — if not more than—their Thessalia and Jaber brothers and sisters.

It is in this context that we can understand why the 2007/08 IDPs from the Post-Election Violence spent so much time in the cold. They have been out there for seven years now; the Thessalia ones have been in the cold for over 20 years. What does it really take to deal with the problems of only 120 families? Why should such a decision be so difficult to make?

Stories abound in Western Kenya as a whole where pockets of IDPs from one district to the other languish under circumstances that can only render us Kenyans as very insensitive people. It is always assumed that those who were displaced from the then Central and Rift Valley Provinces were eventually absorbed by family and clan networks in Nyanza, and were therefore not eligible to any resettlement plans by the national government.

It is important to understand such networks were used on an emergency basis. In that regard they saved the government the embarrassment and cost of holding displaced in camps.

But eventually life had to go back to normal. These people, previously catering for themselves in independent families, could not continue
being visitors in other people’s homesteads, even if such people were relatives or clan members. Suffice it to repeat Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s dictum; Mgeni siku moja; siku ya pili mpe jembe.

Just imagine being given a hoe with no land to till. This is the plight of many of the IDPs in Nyanza who found refuge within certain communities they had migrated from many years ago. Today they continue to face the indignity of not being able to work for their own livelihood in their own lands.

At the worst of times they are reminded of the benevolence of their hosts and their lack of full rights in such communities. This is one of the reasons why the Thessalia/Jaber community needs to have their full human rights restored by being settled in a land of their own where they can loudly say with dignity and pride: “This belongs to me; it is
mine.”

Maybe the power of these words, and their meaning to the ear, will not be felt by those of us who take the space we live in for granted, or who assume the land we till has always been there for us to use.

I have seen tears drop from the eyes of Thessalia women when the very mention of the phrase “my land” lingers for some time on their lips. It is an agony that few would wish to bear. Had we gone through with a successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission Kenyans would have experienced these agonies more dramatically from testimonies from fellow citizens. But we did not. And we are the poorer for it.