19 April 2017

Kenya: Crusading for Squatters' Rights

TEMAKI (Tetu, Mathira and Kieni), an association that represents more than 253 colonial villages in Central Kenya, has been fighting for the rights of the landless since its formation seven years ago.

At the forefront of the struggle is 27-year-old Beatrice Githinji, a Huruma-based social worker who serves as the organisation's coordinator. Her role in TEMAKI involves appealing for help, engaging government agencies in dialogue, and raising awareness about the organisation's activities.

"My grandparents were captured by the colonial government in 1958 and sent to prison on suspicion of being Mau Mau. When they were released after independence, they found that their land had been taken over by the government and they were sent to live in a colonial village, with the promise that they would be resettled. The promise never came to pass," says Ms Githinji, who was born in a family of 11 children in Nyeri.

"Growing up in a colonial village was difficult as other children often mocked us and made fun of our poor background. Many of my peers dropped out school and were easily radicalised and inducted into the Mungiki gang," she reveals.

Due to financial problems, Ms Githinji dropped out of school in Form One and worked as a househelp in Nairobi for four years. She later registered for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams as a private candidate and managed to land a spot at the Technical University of Kenya (then Kenya Polytechnic) to study mass communication and public relations. Two years into her degree course, however, Ms Githinji was forced to drop out for lack of fees. She now runs an adult education programme at the Starehe Community Centre in Huruma.


Ms Githinji says that her organisation has tried getting a lawyer to represent them in their quest to get land, to no avail.

"No lawyer is willing to take up our case because land issues are extremely sensitive in the Central region. Many people who have tried to assert themselves as the voice of squatters have been brutally murdered," she says.

"We have tried to get the attention of the president regarding our plight but none of our efforts have borne fruits," she says, displaying a letter from the Office of the President written in 2014 directing them to refer their problem to the provincial administration authorities.

"Through well-wishers, I am always striving to bring young people who are squatters and residents of colonial villages to Nairobi and equip them with vocational skills in an effort to break the vicious circle of unemployment. However, my efforts have not gone down well with a number of politicians from the Central region," she says.

Ms Githinji reveals that she and other members of TEMAKI have been arrested several times by the police in Nyeri County and Murang'a on suspicion of being Al Shabaab members. Curiously, she has never been charged in court.

"Once, I was even detained at a police post for three days; I was locked up in the one cell with male inmates," she says. "Whenever we plan peaceful demonstrations, the GSU usually break them up, claiming we are terrorists," she adds.

Ms Githinji is no stranger to threats. "People text and call me to stop engaging in land matters all the time," she says. A text sent to her phone and seen by this reporter reads, "Wewe tutakupiga risasi tukuzike 10 metres ndio usinuke." She has since applied for protection from the United States Embassy.

"I'm just interested in seeing justice delivered," she says, adding that her organisation has already set in motion a plan to raise funds to buy 1,000 acres of land to settle some of the squatters. "We are currently looking for donors and well-wishers to support us in this cause."


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