When Florence Atieno lost her husband in 2011, she pinned her hopes on her in-laws to keep her family standing. But barely a month later, she got a notice to vacate her home. Her mistake? Failing to give birth to a boy. For the past nine years, the mother of five has been shuttling between the village elder, police station and chief’s office, seeking justice. Just recently, she was assaulted by a relative at her home in Udiri village in Ugunja, Siaya County. She reported the matter at the Ugunja police station under OB27/15/06/2020.
She says her five daughters have been called names by relatives who claim they do not deserve to stay in the home after their father’s death. Born in 1977, Ms Atieno got married to Maurice Juma in 1996. She says barely a month after burying her husband, a relative asked her why she was still stuck in that home even after the man who brought her had died.
“He told me I needed to leave since I didn’t have a son to inherit my husband’s land,” says Atieno.
The words, spoken in the presence of her daughters, pierced Atieno’s heart. She told him she would not leave as they had nowhere to go. After a while, the relative started harassing her again. He would come to Atieno’s house at night, insult her, and ask her and her daughters to leave. Today, Atieno is worried following continued verbal and physical attacks from the person she thought would be her defender in the absence of her husband.
“I don’t think my husband is resting in peace wherever he is. This home has become a battlefield and I have to be strong to protect my children. But if nothing is done soon, my children and I might end up following my husband to the grave,” she says, adding the fights have become frequent and sometimes get nasty.
Her case is not isolated. In Siaya County, many widows have been dispossessed of family property by close relatives of their late husbands. The majority only realise that the parcels of land their husbands left behind had been sold off when new owners come by to fence them off. Jane Oonje, 50, is on the brink of losing nearly half of her 6.9 acres at Nyapiedho village in North Sakwa, Bondo sub-county. The land, registered under NorthSakwa/Maranda55, is said to have been inherited from her father-in-law by her late husband, John Mware. Ms Oonje, a mother of four, says she became curious in 2014 when she noticed a relative was leasing part of the land. Soon, the relative had encroached half of the land.
“These issues came up after the death of my husband. I never saw any form of a land dispute between our family and the neighbours while my husband was alive,” she says.
Josephine Atieno, 46, a resident of Alego-Usonga sub-county, has a similar story. Her father-in-law died after subdividing the land to all his children. Later, Atieno’s husband died. Everything appeared fine until early 2017 when the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation wanted to acquire land near River Nzoia for the construction of a canal to boost irrigation in the region.
Earmarked for acquisition
Atieno’s homestead was part of the land the corporation earmarked for acquisition and she was lined up for compensation. But one of her relatives started claiming the land. In her late 60s, Joyce Oyugi envisioned a quiet sunset life. But this was never to be as she is not sure of her safety in her own home in Sirongo village, Ugunja sub-county. A close relative of her late husband, Musa Aketch, is laying claim to her one acre. The relative planted trees on the land without her knowledge.
Before her husband died, the title deed to the land went missing. She later discovered the relative had it, only to return it as her husband was nearing death. When Aketch died in the late 1990s, Ms Oyugi says, the relative started fencing off another parcel and planted trees. When she inquired, the relative promised to compensate her by building her kiosks at Rambula market to rent out.
“I gave in to the idea, but days turned into weeks, and into months and into years and the promise was not fulfilled,” she says.
She continued tilling the land but later discovered it had been sub-divided. Community Initiative Action Group Director Chris Owala, who has been running a land rights activism in the area, says they receive between five and 10 land cases every month.
“Most of those who come to us are helpless and have little knowledge about their land rights... They also don’t have ownership documents. Those are the loopholes unscrupulous people use to dispossess them of their land,” he says.
He says the success rate of the cases his organisation handles is about 20 per cent due to several challenges.
“Most cases involve family members, and the victims often chicken out after being threatened by the perpetrators,” says Mr Owala.
He says corruption among some lands officers also makes it difficult for the victims to get required documentation to help them push the cases. Siaya County Police Commander Francis Kooli says land disputes have increased in the area.
“Many such cases are not reported. We learn about them when a crime occurs, and during investigations we realise the crime emanates from a land-related issue,” he says.
Land registrar in charge of Siaya and Ukwala registries Machora Mogare dismisses claims that such cases are rampant, noting that he has not received many cases.
“Nobody comes to complain. They should come to me instead of complaining out there,” he says.