By Kagondu Njagi
CHERA, Kenya - Two years ago, Alice Ciamati was living comfortably in a house on a plot of land she had recently inherited from her husband.
Now, she can be found roaming the shopping centre in the small village of Chera in Tharaka Nithi County, central Kenya, hunched over a walking frame and begging for food. At night, she sleeps on the streets.
Ciamati, 62, blames her nephew for her destitution, saying he travelled from the capital Nairobi to trick her into giving away the title deed to her two acres (0.8 hectares) of land, then secretly sold the land and disappeared back into the city.
"He told me the title deeds were being checked (by the government). So I gave them to him. I was very happy when he returned them to me," Ciamati told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sipping tea at a kiosk in the shopping centre.
But when the new owner came to evict her from her land wielding a copy of the deed, she showed her title deed to the area chief who had accompanied him. The chief confirmed hers was fake.
"It was the worst day of my life. I could not believe that my nephew had secretly sold my land," she said.
"I will never forgive him, even in my grave."
Cases like Ciamati's are becoming more common in rural Kenya, said local assistant police chief Lawrence Micheni.
Records at the county criminal registry show there have been about 11 cases of land fraud in Tharaka Nithi since January, almost double the amount for each of the past four years.
Although the registry data does not distinguish which land fraud cases involve elderly widows, there has been a noticeable increase in "homeless grannies", who say their land was stolen by family members, said Micheni.
Usually the familial fraud is committed by young, jobless relatives pretending to be visiting, only to trick widows into giving up their land deeds, he explained during an interview at his office.
"They use the original documents to forge new ones and give (the fakes) back to the widows. Then they sell the land secretly and disappear."
Catching the perpetrators and bringing justice to the victims can be a struggle, Micheni noted, as his office does not have the power to settle land fraud cases, which are under the purview of the county courts.
The best the local police can do for widows who have been evicted from their land, he said, is offer them three kilogrammes of maize each month, which is donated by the county government.
Josephine Muriuki, director of social development at the labour ministry, said the Kenyan government is trying to find a nationwide solution for growing land fraud against rural widows.
In 2017, the state established the Inua Jamii cash transfer programme, which acts as a general welfare fund for all Kenyans aged 70 and above and supports many widows financially, he said.
But, land rights activists say more needs to be done to protect victims.
"(Inua Jamii) is only a short-term solution," said Kamau Ngugi, executive director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, a Nairobi-based land advocacy group.
"What Kenya needs is proper land reforms to make it cheaper and faster for justice to be served to the poor."
While Kenya's census data says there are close to 900,000 widows in the country, a report by the Loomba Foundation, a global widows' rights group, puts the number higher, at more than 1.4 million.
Kenya's constitution states that all women have equal rights to own property, but this often does not trickle down to social norms, with most land in Kenya still held by men.
Only about 1% of ancestral land title deeds in Kenya are held by women, according to charity HelpAge International.
"Destitution of the elderly is a big problem, not only in rural villages but also among urban populations," said Erastus Maina, country programme manager at HelpAge in Kenya.
"In most cases, it is relatives who are worsening it by exploiting the ignorance of the elderly to take their property for themselves."
For victims of land fraud, emergency relief and food donations can only provide temporary solutions, said Joyce Wanjiku Kairu, head of Purity Elderly Care Foundation, a Kenyan charity.
There is a need to seriously address the longer-term effects of widows losing land and, in some cases, becoming homeless, such as the increasing rates of mental illness and even suicide among victims in rural Kenya, she added.
"Society expects the elderly in the villages to be taken care of by the young, but (the elderly) have been neglected by their kin, who comfortably live in the city. This is why they have become vulnerable to land fraud," Wanjiku said.
Ciamati, wearing a patched brown dress with a basket slung over her shoulder for collecting food scraps, said her advanced age has weakened her ability to pursue justice for her land.
Her only wish now is that her nephew does something to benefit the community with the money he got from selling her land.
"In my heart I know I cannot forgive him. But I pray that he will use the money to do good things that help other people," she said.