A Forest And A Hard Place

The decline of the Mau Forest has been a heavily contentious issue for Kenya and East African states at large. For decades now, the country’s largest indigenous forest that lies in the Rift Valley bed has been facing complete extinction after its existence for thousands of years.

It is estimated that over 5 million people in western Kenya and 10 million people in Uganda and Tanzania are directly affected by the effects of the Mau excisions and settlements. The forest, a major water catchment area, has been the root cause for the dwindling Lake Victoria flow that is fast negatively affecting the livelihoods of people who depend on farming, tourism, and electricity for their daily needs. Additionally, the effects on climate change have been adverse on food security, water resources, natural resources productivity, biodiversity, human health, desertification, and coastal zones.

The unending story of this vast canopy that was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1954 has since seen the civil society speak out vehemently concerning the illegal acquisition and sale of the Mau forest land. Title deeds have nevertheless been issued by the government to some select few that were deemed fit to be land-owners in the forest.

Even with that, some settlers like fifteen-year-old Chumba have only known the Mau environs as home. Her father had been awarded his title deed for their 50 by 90 parcel of land that has been their homestead since sometime in 1999. As direct descendants of the Mau Mau fighters, Chumba’s father had been one of the initial five-group members who owned the ranches initially partitioned in the forest. Chumba’s father had even memorized that momentous occasion when he had received his deed by framing a browning newspaper cutout that had documented the ceremony of issuing of the deeds.

Consequently, with each passing year, the communities residing in the forest continued to grow in leaps and bounds. And courtesy of the existing Nyumba Kumi initiative, all the inhabitants knew of each other through council meetings and social gatherings. It was because of this that it always fairly easy to distinguish when a new face showed up in the vicinity.

Chumba had recently begun noticing some unknown faces that had started showing and hovering about while she was on her way to the neighboring school. These new folks were always draped in powerful suits. The kind of suits that she thought only existed on TV. She called them the city men because she concluded they must be from Nairobi. Where else would men oozing power come from anyway?

They came with monstrous machines that were labeled SANY. Chumba had doubted their literacy levels because she felt that they had spelled ‘sunny’ wrong but that did not hinder her from admiring the spick and span men in their suits and ties. However, much as she yearned to, she knew never to approach the city men without an adult present, thanks to her traditional upbringing.

The first time she had noticed them she hadn’t been able to contain her growing excitement and she had asked her father.

“Daddy, I think I saw some city men today. Do you think we should offer our salutation in kind?”

Her father’s eyes had lit up at her inquiry, “Eh my child, I shall have to go see and introduce myself. They may be needing some help to know the area around.”

And that’s exactly what he did. The following day, Chumba had risen before sunrise as she always did on school days, and so did her father. He had donned the special pants that he pressed underneath his mattress overnight for the purposes of straightening. On top of his wrinkled shirt, he added on his Sunday-best grey coat that was patched on the elbows to finish off his ensemble. He even wore socks on his cracked feet, a feat that Chumba had only witnessed a couple of times in her fifteen years of existence.

Off they left, hand in hand, both basking in the early sun’s rays on a pathway formed between thorny thickets while whistling a local folk song. When they had the city men in sight, their steps unconsciously quickened. They then approached them with hearty greetings, and Chumba had to grudgingly leave the grownups to chat it up.

Chumba did not get to listen to her father’s winding stories at the fireplace as she always did on that fateful day. That night had been capped off with a hushed argument between her parents. Chumba could strenuously make out their muffled voices. Mother was saying, “Why not just go and start off elsewhere? The children are still young.”

To which Baba Chumba had replied heatedly, “This is my ancestral home. They will have to physically move me out. Besides, Chumba is about to sit for her national examinations. We can’t just uproot ourselves!”

Chumba did not really fully understand what had transpired to lead to this passionate exchange but she knew her father never again went to see the city men, and no mention of them was made in their homestead whatsoever.

Chumba didn’t think much of the incident until the city men had shown up in her school – with their machines that were feeling more like monstrosities by the minute – unannounced less than one week later, and caused a lot of disquiet by marking in red markers, X, on the one permanent school building that housed the class 8 candidates.

Speculation was rife among the students and staff alike concerning these intruders in powerful suits that showed up unexpectedly in the morning hours. Chumba and her classmates had been busy in class preparing for their monumental KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) examinations that were supposed to mark the end of their primary school life.

The city men had been arrogantly aloof and didn’t much mingle with the members of Olkira Primary School. Their city noses were stuck up in the air like they were being forced to breathe the same air with these ‘common folk’. The air was pent with muted conversations among the students who were getting to skip class, meanwhile, the staff members were getting all riled up in the locked staffroom in a meeting punctuated by growls and yelps with the city men.

By the time the scheduled lunch hours were due, the rumor that the school was coming down had taken heed for the most part. The rest of the school had received this news in jest and most were looking forward to not reporting to school. But the handful of class 8 candidates who were scheduled to sit for their KCPE exams in less than three months had furrowed brows in worry. What would happen to them? Why was the school being demolished? Would they sit for their exams with the rest of the candidates nationwide? Where would they sit for their exams if their school came down? The unanswered questions left them troubled.

The bell rang and all the students were assembled in the school parade for a proclamation by the headteacher. An announcement that confirmed their worst suspicions. The city men introduced themselves and made it clear that they were a representation of the ruling government. They took over the assembly and went ahead to proclaim, “The demolition of this catchment area is critical to key economic sectors including power generation, tea sector, tourism, and wildlife of Kenya’s heritage. Hence, this school will be taken down and forthwith no longer exist.”

There was neither mention of any compensation nor relocation of the students. The proclamation had landed with a finality that was undoubted and left the people no choice but to scatter away lest they became casualties of the demolitions. It was clear that word from the government was not to be questioned.

Chumba had plodded her weary feet home hopeless, wondering if she would make it to secondary school. It was not enough that she made top grades and was qualified for bursaries from the county’s education funds. Who could dispute the government? The same body that had allowed the existence of the school in the first place?

After taking longer than necessary getting to her homestead while lost in her solitary thoughts, she didn’t realize there were unwanted guests until she knocked her pinky toe against one of those treacherous SANY machines. She then came to realize that her village had succumbed into a state of hullabaloo and the city men that she thought she didn’t have to contend with at her home were seemingly waiting for her in anticipation, just to make sure they didn’t leave any stone unturned.

Women’s screams punctuated the air while trying to redeem as much as they could from their homes that were meant to be taken down. The city men had taken to loudspeakers to get their messages across, “You natives have settled in the midst of the tree life and have taken to the felling of trees to see to agriculture, farming, logging among others. These activities have been of dire consequences. We are taking over as directed by the government. You need to move out immediately!”

The city men had evidently multiplied in numbers and were forcefully throwing out the natives with no remorse. Some grass-thatched mudhouses were being set on fire while some were simply being run over by the SANY machines. Chumba could only wail as she zealously tried to make her way to her parents in the midst of the chaos

One common thought was prevalent though; How come a common man who was lawfully settled by the head of state is suddenly branded ‘villain’ as if the president was just playing political games then? This “We don’t care, kick them out” attitude did not do much for the purportedly now homeless victims with nowhere to turn to.

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