Squatters' joy as state promises 174 hectares of forest land

Shaviringa settlers spokesman Frederick Igunza (center) with other settlers during a press briefing in Mbale town on February 20, 2023. [Brian Kisanji, Standard]

Richard Nyamage has always cursed the day his family agreed to move from their ancestral land in Mbale to a settlement scheme in Shaviringa, Hamisi, Vihiga County. 

His family was among over 300 clans who in 1985 gave out their combined 30-acre piece of land to the government in exchange for government parcels in Hamisi.

But since then they have been embroiled in a land ownership tussle with the state as they were never handed title deeds.

One aspect that led to delay in issuance of the documents is that the land where the government settled them is technically forest land in the custody of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS).

Like many occupants of the controversial Shaviringa-Shiru settlement scheme, Nyamage has lived half of his life there while those under the age of 38 have lived their entire life here.

"I moved here with my late father, he died and left us in this land," said Nyamage.

Mr Nyamage, 80, inherited his land from his late father but has no legal documents to back up the claim.

"We are treated as squatters in our own land, we are chased away when we till the land as they say it is a forest reserve," he said.

The families loathe the day they left their ancestral land 24km away in Mbale town only to be given land that had no title deeds.

"We are worried, it's now 38 years and we have no title deeds, our generation is getting lost yet the government is quiet," said Nyamage. 

The families had last month threatened to march to Mbale and forcefully reclaim the land that currently hosts, among others, the county police headquarters, Vihiga County Referral Hospital, Mbale Rural Hospital, Vihiga Prison, municipal offices, municipal market and houses for civil servants.

Others were moved from Vokoli and Mululu to pave the way for establishment of Moi Girls Vokoli, Wandega Secondary and Mululu Primary.

Their spokesman, Frederick Igunza, however, announced their March 20 walk was halted after they received an undertaking from the Western Regional Commissioner's office assuring them that their grievances were being handled by the government.

"We halted our match to reclaim the land after we embraced talks. Honestly it has been 38 years now and we have not been given title deeds of the land where we were relocated and it makes us squatters with no access to social amenities," said Igunza.

Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo with Western Regional Commissioner Samson Macharia during the Shaviringa settlement scheme meeting in Hamisi on June 23, 2023. [Brian Kisanji, Standard] 

Their push saw a meeting held last week bringing to the table the government officials and the affected families. 

It emerged from the meeting that at least 174.4 hectares of Kakamega forest have been earmarked for degazettement into private holdings towards compensation of the families.

Western Regional Commissioner Samson Macharia who chaired the meeting on June 23, 2023, instructed surveyors contracted to conduct the survey of the Shaviringa-Shiru settlement scheme to resume the exercise that stalled in 2015.

"Surveyors will be on the ground soon. Officials from the National Lands Commission and KFS will also join them," said Mr Macharia during the meeting at Jideleri area.

He said Vihiga County Government has assured of availability of Sh10 million in its budget to fund resumption of the survey.

The directive comes barely over a month after Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi ordered the Ministries of Lands and Environment to restart the exercise.

Title deeds will give the families full ownership of the land parcels within the forest.

The 174.4 hectares to be de-gazetted include 138.4 hectares Shiru settlement scheme and 36 hectares Shaviringa settlement scheme, being parts of the vast Kakamega forest.

The meeting was also attended by Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo. 

Dr Ottichilo noted that the families have gone through agony for many years. "I had written letters and petitions to the government to expedite the process and the survey will be a move in the right direction," he said. 

The directive now offers a ray of hope to the families who have decried delayed compensation nearing four decades, a move they protested has seen them live as squatters.

Nyamage now believes that after decades of suffering, they will be able to call Shaviringa their home.

The families further hope that social amenities lacking in the area will be established by the government to enable them access water, schools, health facilities and roads.

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