David Watene is a man of few words. This is expected of an economist mostly proficient in the language of numbers.
In his heydays, he travelled around the world to negotiate with various financial institutions on behalf of the Government, his long-time employer, and where he rose to the level of an undersecretary at the National Treasury.
Upon retirement, Watene would have happily settled in his Gatundu home were it not for the collapse of a textile industry that he and his wife had started and that would have guaranteed a smooth ride into their sunset years.
As a result, he chose to invest his pension and personal savings on a small piece of land in what is now Langata Sunvalley 1 Estate. Here, he built a retirement home for himself and Esther, his wife of 53 years. That was in 2005. Their house is still a work in progress, but the couple is happy to have a roof over their head.
Then this little world they had built around themselves was shaken to the core. One evening, they received the news that the land on which their house - and 200 others in this estate – stands was part of a 6,000-acre parcel hived off from Ngong Forest. They were numb.
Two weeks ago, Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko threatened to demolish several estates in Lang’ata that he said sat on Ngong Forest land.
They include Sunvalley Phases One, Two and Three, KMA, Royal Park, Forest View and a number of apartments in the area.
The CS said the land on which some government institutions, including Police Dog Unit and Langata Women’s Prison, are built belongs to the forest as well. Included too is the St Mary’s Mission Hospital.
And in what some felt was a callous edict, Tobiko threatened to release wild animals from Nairobi National Park and into the estates while fencing in the residents.
But Watene and his wife do not believe that a government they had served diligently would make it its mission to destroy their life’s work.
“We were baffled when we heard the minister say he will release the animals on people of our age. We live on pension and assistance from our grown-up children,” Esther Watene says.
“We built this home with our blood, sweat and tears. Look at us. We are now being branded as corrupt individuals who grabbed forest land. Do we look like that?” she poses.
The tag that they can be that corrupt as to grab public property pains Esther the most. She used to work in the NGO world, helping the vulnerable in society. She was their voice whenever some injustice would be meted on them, especially those in the informal sector.
“I have been a fighter for the oppressed and would speak up if their homes were under threat. Little did I know that I would one day face similar fears,” she says. Then she speaks for the husband. “He worked with government finances and could have amassed ill-gotten wealth. He didn’t. Why do that at his age now?”
The residents are quick to deny the adage that they are rich individuals who encroached on forest land. Some, as we learnt, could not even afford to build their homes after paying for their plots.
In Royal Park Estate where 730 homes stand, we meet Omar Mohamed, a former estate chairman. He used to do business in Somalia “when things worked”. As the situation in that country deteriorated, his business faltered and has been out of work since 2017.
“Things got so bad financially that I had to sell off my camels. That is the last resort for a man from my community. Fortunately, I had a place to lay my head,” he says.
Inside the estate, we come across a mabati house, ravaged by the vagaries of inclement weather. It looks out of place in the midst of the well-built maisonettes and town houses that share a fence with Lang’ata Cemetery. A big padlock on the gate announces the absence of the owner. A flimsy wire fence that can hardly keep an intruder away is what the owner has for security.
“Look at this home. If he was a rich man as it is alleged of those who live here, he would have completed building by now,” says Omar. “But he opted to move his family into an incomplete house and avoid paying rent. These are the sacrifices we have made.”
In the same estate lives Kullow Ibrahim Haji, a government administrative officer. He is a father of seven, five of whom were born here. He moved here in 2012 and is still servicing a loan balance of Sh3 million.
He can’t comprehend how the Government he serves would evict him from a house that still has an outstanding loan. He has a message for CS Tobiko:
“I am a civil servant who is paying a loan from my salary. Let the government know that I used the proper procedures to acquire the property. Ten years later, we are told we grabbed forest land. If they decide to bring our houses down many families will be in distress,” Haji says.
The residents insist the land on which they have built was acquired legally and that all government protocols were followed. They say no deal was done under the table.
For instance, documents presented to The Standard show that Sunvalley Phase I estate has been in existence since 1998 after the degazettement of where it sits, following the issuance of Legal Notice No 44, the Forests Act, CAP 385 for Block of Land LR No 23256 duly signed by then Minister for Natural Resources, Francis Lotodo. Relevant survey maps were deposited at Survey of Kenya offices.
“A number of the residents acquired the plots through employee purchase programmes, borrowing from saccos, public mortgage schemes, Parliamentary Service Commission, Public Service Commission, through pension funds and others from lifetime savings,” reads a petition by the residents to the National Assembly’s Committee on Environment.
Benda Kithaka, a resident of Forest View Estate, says every resident in the earmarked estates is part of an intertwined ecosystem that supports the greater good. Should Tobiko make true his threats to bring down the homes, the financial cost would be enormous. A typical home here is valued at Sh20 million to Sh25 million. With close to 10 estates under Tobiko’s radar, the bulldozers would be wiping off close to Sh50 billion of real estate investments.
In the meantime, residents here wait for the outcome of several legal and legislative processes they hope will resolve the impasse. And as helicopters from the Ministry of Environment overfly their houses several times a day in aerial patrols, all they can hope for is that they will be heard. The National Assembly Committee on Environment and Natural Resources has summoned Tobiko to appear before it today to explain the Government’s stand on the demolitions.