So after the embarrassment of teargassing children at Langata Road primary school, pupils who just wanted to play, the government issues a directive to the lands ministry that all public schools should be given their title deeds, supposedly to stop encroachment on their land by “investors.”
Anyone who has been to a decent history class knows that there has never been a time when title deeds have stopped injustice.
Look at the enigma of land and the election violence in hotspots in the Rift Valley and the Coast. Stories are told, for instance, of “foreigners” from Central Province buying land, amassing significant wealth as farmers or rental house owners, and then the previous landowner, baffled by the gap between his own poverty and the wealth of his customer, reclaims the land as ancestral. And is prepared to kill for it. And the clueless settler, who has been diseducated from understanding that the problem is more the structure of the economy than who owns the land, waives around the useless title deed and wonders why people aren’t respecting it. Or reduces it to a problem of tribe.
And this administration also used title deeds to address the perennial problem of marginalization at the Coast where Kenyans indigenous there lived on their own land as squatters. But once the deeds were issued, some new owners sold their small bits of land. There was some initial uneasy talk about the need to educate the title owners on the value of the certificate so that they hold on to them, but in the end, one was left feeling that the title deed was a cynical trick to disenfranchise the people into selling their land cheap. Because who can blame people for wanting to sell their plots? The Kenyan economy is still structured on title deeds. Title deeds are the currency for getting credit from the bank. And one needs money to pay fees.
Farming is the dominant economic activity that exacerbates this inequality because of the historical heritage: the farming areas are within minutes or a few hours of the capital city where there’s the biggest local market, and where there are airports to transport goods to international markets. And so when those communities go elsewhere in Kenya, they already have the exposure and the networks to thrive.
Meanwhile, pastoralists, who hold a lot of wealth in their animals, have to walk for days to get to the slaughter houses. They may get money in their pockets after selling those animals, but that money is not spent in their home areas because there are no social amenities and services there. Some may even sell their grazing land to the next cycle of farmers and landlords, and in a few years be overwhelmed by their powerlessness in the midst of so much economic and political power. And the cycle continues. And the cycle is necessarily ethnic.
What can be done to break this cycle? At independence, Frantz Fanon argues, there should have been a shift in our economic logic. A genuine African bourgeoisie should have shifted the economy from dependence on land ownership to building industries and educating the people, so that the wealth of the country can be built by the “muscles and brains” of the people. Nations could only prosper by developing what people create with their minds and hands, not relying solely on what the good Lord provided.
Unfortunately, as Fanon reluctantly predicted, the African bourgeoisie was a copycat of the Western one, rather than a genuine one emerging from African social conditions. And so they became the biggest land owners, building their wealth on grabbing natural resources and entertaining the rich.
That’s why to this day, politicians’ businesses of choice are hotels and malls, not industries. Even when politicians engage in farming, it is not in line with the country’s food needs but a ticket to control the market. So they grow flowers, cash crops and other things that don’t make our country food secure. Our political elite doesn’t generate wealth or employment or goods for the people; it generates instead comfort for their former colonizers, now called “markets.” That is why Fanon said that this pseudo-bourgeoisie turns their countries into the “brothels of Europe.” And so it is no coincidence that the Langata Road Primary School playground was earmarked for the construction of a mall or a hotel.
No amount of title deeds can prevent people from feeling that such a situation is inherently unjust. However, there is no accepted language to articulate that injustice, because people who do are told to respect the almighty title deed. But, as Lewis Gordon reminded us in his lecture on Fanon, such a situation is already violent, and so the people have no choice but to extend that violence to the foreign or local settlers. And so in the 50s, the Mau Mau struggle declared that justice supersedes the settlers’ title deeds. And in the Rift Valley, that struggle continues. Unfortunately, just like with the homeguards, that resentment is exploited by local politicians who whip up emotions, while behind the scenes they amass wealth through – yes, again – acquiring tracts of land and building hotels and entertainment spots.
The end to this vicious cycle of greed and toxic ethnicity is by asserting what the Mau Mau and other struggles have asserted: that the real title deed is not a piece of paper issued by a registry. The real title deed is social justice. If people can’t eat, relax, live as human beings, it doesn’t matter how many title deeds you throw in our faces. We will still fight for our dignity where it is tied to the land use. Bob Mulusa summarized it well in our facebook discussion of the same: “our greatest land problem is not in whose title it is but what use and how much use we put it to, especially conserving the ecology and rebuilding green.”
And that’s what the struggle for the primary school is about. The right of children to play in a city whose godfathers have failed to created public green spaces to help Nairobians cope with the inevitable urbanization. The right of lovers to take a walk in the park and sit at a bench. The right of parents to play with their children on Saturday afternoons. Whether the school or the grabbers have legit papers is a secondary matter. The children's rights are paramount. They deserve to play now so that they can be creative and we don’t have to build prisons or asylums for them later.
And we Kenyans should be aware – it will not matter whether public schools get their title deeds as long as we have a political class that cannot industrialize our country or grow the economy beyond tourism and farming. Like the colonial settlers, they will manipulate the process and encroach on, if not steal, public land. That’s why we must not be pacified by schools getting title deeds. We must continue the struggle for public facilities and public spaces for the sake of our dignity and sanity. Our humanity, not Mama Ngilu’s papers, is the ultimate title deed by which we measure whether land is being used properly or not. Our constitution affirms as much, that’s why it begins with “We, the people of Kenya,” not “This property called Kenya.”