Kericho, Kenya: Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony has set his sights on what the Kipsigis call kibulgeny – the promised land. To get there, however, he must negotiate a legal minefield.
“Historical injustices perpetuated by the British led to the displacement of hundreds of families all across this region, including in Chagaik, Cheymen, Chemosit and Mau,” Chepkwony says.
Almost a century after the first batch of indigenous communities were forcefully evicted from their homes, those who were affected by the expansion of the tea estates believe the time has come for them to get what they say is theirs. They say, for them, the tea has been nothing but a curse that evokes painful memories of disenfranchisement and a constant reminder that they do not belong.
“I will never forget the day I made my father cry. I had never seen his tears. But on this day, a simple question made him sob in front of me, his grown up son,” Daniel Rono says.
For the better part of his childhood, Rono grew up on Saosa Tea Estate. His grandfather was a cook for one of the many white masters within the estate. When his grandfather became too old to make the perfect English breakfast or make biscuits for the afternoon tea, his son, Arap Kiprono, took over.
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Before Rono inherited his predestined place in the kitchen, independence came. So he went to school instead.
On the day his father cried, he had asked him what he thought was the simplest of questions: “I asked him where our ancestral home was.”
The family of his grandfather, Joseph Kiprogo arap Kiget, was evicted from what is now Saosa Tea Estate, along with other members of their clan, the Kapsaos. In the move to a reserve in Kipkelion, he lost all his uncles and all but one aunt.
“Seven of the eight who were moved did not survive the translocation,” Rono says.
After the death of his father, he says he has no more family left, but is the sole bearer of a proud family name. He is one of those who want the tea estates owned by British multinationals to own up and pay for their past misdeeds.
“If they had a conscience, they would do the right thing. Do you know how it feels not to know your home, yet you are among your people?” he asks.
For others though, one’s ancestral home should remain a footnote in the past. A necessary memory not attached to the present.
On his days off, Joseph Kibiator, a driver, likes to catch up with childhood friends. To do this, he walks to the town’s main bus terminus, where he was a tout before he was hired as a matatu driver. He does not need to call in advance.
Kibiator’s closest friend, Mathew Kibet, is just about to retire his white Toyota Probox, which plies the Kericho-Chepkembe route, for the day. It is some minutes past 7pm on a Friday.
The terminus is buzzing. All around, speakers from music vendors are blaring songs by the local musician of the moment, Sweet Star.
The mood is set for a night out. The destination is the nearby Whistles Bar and Restaurant.
I ask the two young men what they think of the compensation demands.
“Hiyo ni mambo ya wazee. Sisi hatujui hiyo maneno,” Kibet says as he sips his beer.
His chatter is a mixture of Kipsigis and Kiswahili. The most important points of his argument, it seems, are made in his native tongue. His argument is quite simple.
“Some of us were born and raised in town, though our parents and grandparents told us where we were evicted from. To me, Kericho Town is home. If you were to take me, say, to Chepalungu, I would not fit there,” he says, the emotion seemingly lost in translation.
The Motion of compensation was passed by the county assemblies of Kericho and Bomet. The main tea estates cut across these counties and part of Nandi.
Kibet says the multinationals should just be forced to do more for the community. “These compensation issues and telling the companies to leave Kericho will just bring us trouble. We know the history the country has had over such things.
“Only a handful of people will benefit from this. Mismanagement will kill the tea industry. What will happen to the thousands employed there? Some of these things need to be separated from the politics of emotion.”
Kibiator is not as detached though. He says after all these years of multinationals ‘milking profits’ from their land, it is their turn to ‘eat’.
“The money these people have made from our land cannot even be counted using one calculator. Are they not satisfied? They should give us back our land, and if they want to stay behind, we will interview them and employ them. We want to be the landlords,” he says.
By now, the music inside Whistles has gone up a notch. Conversations are becoming strained. It is cold and raining outside, and hot and smoky inside.
The bass guitar on one of the songs reaches fever pitch and goes out on a solo. At the end of the song, Kibiator leans over and shouts to both of us: “Pesa mashinani,” and breaks off into a dance.
More of their friends walk in, drenched from the rain, but hugs and hearty handshakes go around. In Kericho, wetness is an accepted accessory.
On those occasions, when the sun fights off the grayness and comes out, it is a glorious sight. Bright, but not too hot. Just the right temperature to remind a visitor of home, but still distant enough to allow one keep his jacket on.
If you want to go to the Kericho headquarters of Finlays Tea Estate, you go to the main bus stage and take a matatu to Chepkembe or take a taxi.
If you decide on matatus, you will have two choices; a Probox or a 14-seater van. If you take the Probox, it will make no difference whether you pay for the front seat or one of the five slots on the back seat; you will be squeezed for the duration of the 30-minute journey.
The same is true if you decide on the 14-seater. The only difference is that a Probox will get you there faster.
The trip is like an odyssey into a jungle of midget trees. Black tarmac roads snake their way through hills and valleys with nothing but tea bushes and trees.
Once in a while, a school pops up on the landscape. Often, a village is seen. If you do not take a wrong turn, you will get to a manned barrier, where a search of your vehicle will be done, and all electronic devices examined and registered.
The head office is a few kilometres away; a collection of single-storey white buildings with green roofs arranged in an L-pattern.
Protocol demands that I fill out a small sheet of paper that requires my name, occupation, reason for visit and the time I will have my appointment honoured. After I fill it out, the receptionist shuffles across the polished wooden floor and through a door that requires an access code to open.
“He will see you shortly,” the receptionist says.
Other than her voice, the only other sound is the chirping of birds.
“It is very quiet here,” I say.
“Yes, on a good day, you can hear your thoughts,” she says, then goes back to work.
Directly opposite her is a wide photo of Finlays’ first factory in the area. She does not know when it was taken.
Sammy Kirui’s office is a modest one - large, airy and simple. A desk and two visitors’ chairs make up the furniture. Maps and pictures hang on the white walls. From behind this desk, Kirui is in charge of corporate communications of the giant tea firm.
He has heard about the Motions in county assemblies and the clamour for compensation over past injustices.
“That is all in order, but as far as we are concerned, we have nothing to worry about. Our land lease is nowhere near expiry. Plus… we bought the land legally,” he says.
Kirui says the slightly under 10,000 hectares currently occupied by Finlays was bought from individuals.
“We were not given this land. We bought it from officers to whom it had been allocated by the Government, so we have nothing to worry about.”
He says fact should be separated from fiction in the compensation debate.
“We are not outsiders. We are and will remain an integral part of this community. We support more than 16,000 outgrower families. We have built schools and health centres and continue to educate students at all levels from this community,” he says, pointing towards a hanging on his office wall with a detailed list of scholarship recipients.
For Finlays, founded in 1750, Kirui says, the Kericho highlands are home. Just like they are home for Mzee Elly Sigilai, an elder in the Talai Clan of the Kalenjin, Rono and the many others claiming compensation.
Finlays’ estates in Kenya cover more than 6,300 hectares, with a further slightly under 3,500 hectares of trees.
It is part of this land that Rono says needs to be reverted to the people.
“They should show us proof that they bought the land. They could not have bought it from any individual since back then, land was communally owned. There was no capitalism,” Rono argues.
But there is no clear line showing what the compensation will be about. Mzee Sigilai says they want the land back; nothing short of returning what he says is rightfully theirs and an apology from the Queen and the British government over atrocities committed in the early years.
“We need our ancestors to rest easy knowing that their home has been restored,” he says.
Rono says it will be difficult to trace lineages and hand over land. His argument is that even back then, the land did not belong to an individual.
“We just want them to give more back to the community,” he says.
As processed tea leaves Kericho, to Kaisugu, St Paul’s ACK Church, Makutano then eventually onto the great A104 road and into Nairobi for destinations far and wide, divided hearts are left behind. A past generation pledging its allegiance to injustices meted out on forefathers, and a current generation that somehow believes in the status quo.