'Bring in the angel of death': Kenyan elders issue curse to fight land loss

Kong’ot clan elders explaining how their grazing land was fenced off by unknown people pushing then to perform a curse. Kerio Valley, Kenya, July 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kevin Mwanza

"What we've decided is to go to our god by cursing them. That is our court"

By Kevin Mwanza

KERIO VALLEY, Kenya - After a fence mysteriously appeared blocking the Kong'ot clan from their grazing fields, elders performed a curse to punish the people who put it up, skeptical of getting government help.

The 10,000-strong clan is one of several ethnic Kalenjin communities who have lost some 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of land in western Kenya's Kerio Valley since oil was discovered there in 2016, according to the National Land Commission (NLC).

Nicholas Kiplagat, secretary of the Kong'ot council of elders, said naked old men slaughtered a white goat and recited incantations at dawn, instead of seeking justice through Kenya's courts, which are widely regarded as slow and corrupt.

"What we've decided is to go to our god by cursing them. That is our court," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation standing next to a fenced off piece of land.

"We are asking God to bring in the angel of death the way He did in Egypt," he added, referring to the biblical story of God's curse on Egyptian animals and families.

A flurry of new infrastructure projects across Kenya has driven up prices, attracted speculators and exacerbating long-simmering tensions over untitled land.

Britain's Tullow Oil discovered commercial oil reserves in 2012 in the Lokichar basin, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of the Kerio Valley, where it made a second find in 2016. Production is expected to start in 2021.

The government hopes oil exports will reduce poverty in marginalised, arid lands and help Kenya attain middle-income status by 2030. But the projects have sparked several disputes over land ownership.

OIL

The discovery of oil in the Kerio Valley sparked off a rush for land with "powerful individuals" irregularly transferring community land into their names, said Joel Kiptunoi, an elder of the Kong'ot clan, who are mainly herders and farmers.

About two-thirds of land in the east African nation is customarily and communally owned. It is largely untitled, making it easy for individuals to sell or lease it without the communities' knowledge.

By law, community land can only be sold or transferred with the approval of elders and government land officials.

"After Tullow discovered oil, we woke up to chain-link fences all over our grazing land," said 80-year-old Kiptunoi. "We have lived here for eight generations since our ancestors came from Sudan. We didn't come here because there was oil."

A spokesman for Tullow Oil, which sold its Kerio Valley block earlier this year to British firm Delonex Energy, declined to comment on land speculation in the area. Delonex Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

Huddled around a black and white map titled "Kong'ot clan land" which they found at the ministry of lands office in the nearby town of Iten in 1998, the elders explained how they lost their ancestral soils.

Like many Kalenjin clans, the Kong'ot moved up the Kerio Valley in the 1960s to buy fertile land vacated by white farmers at independence, leaving their original land behind for communal herding, said Kiptunoi.

Clan elders were approached by government officials in the 1970s who were adjudicating community land nationwide to determine people's rights and resolve disputes, Kiptunoi said.

While neighbouring clans agreed to have their land subdivided, the Kong'ot requested that theirs remain communal so that elders could continue to share it out among families in the traditional way, he added.

When the elders finally decided to apply for titles in 2016 at the local lands office, they found that more than 400 acres (162 hectares) had been subdivided and allocated to outsiders, including former government officials, Kiptunoi said.

A view of the Kerio Valley in Kenya, July 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kevin Mwanza

INJUSTICE

Samuel Tororei, a commissioner at the NLC, an independent government body that arbitrates land disputes, led a fact finding mission to the area in July and met with clan elders. He said he will present a report on his findings later this month.

"The clans brought us complaints of them being dispossessed (of their land) by the elite," he said, adding that, by law, land adjudication must be a public exercise.

"They don't know who were given titles to their land ... If there was injustice then we shall recommend that they be revoked."

Despite a 2016 law allowing communities to apply for title deeds, after registering and agreeing their boundaries with the government, little progress has been made in issuing them.

Kenya is considering a law to curb speculation ahead of major government or private projects, said Augustine Masinde, director of physical planning at the lands ministry.

"It's a very big problem because land speculators have actually disenfranchised many communities and inflated the cost of projects," Masinde said. "A law will mitigate these by fixing land prices and limiting on who can be compensated."

New legislation is likely to come too late for the Kong'ot, who only have about 60 acres left, with many community members living as squatters on their former land.

"My father used to plough this land with an ox," Kiplagat said, gesturing at a harvested maize field. "Now if we try to access the land, they call police on us and we are chased away."

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