Painting red crosses: Who is protesting to Africa’s urbanization and land speculation?

blog Marcel April 2017 3
This picture and below: red crosses on land-for-sale billboards in Nairobi’s suburbs. February 2017 (© M. Rutten)

Urbanization in Africa is picking up. A significant natural population growth and an influx of, notably, youngsters seeking employment, means that Africa’s major cities are fast becoming multi-million metropoles. Real estate companies are turning low-level (colonial) buildings into high-rise gated apartments for the lucky middle class. Those less fortunate are in search of a place to stay with relatives or friends, mostly in poor housing conditions. Peri-urban zones, notably those near industrial areas, or smaller towns in the outskirts, have become popular destinations. Increasingly, these nuclei are incorporated into the Larger Metropole, often administratively as well as physically. Residential plots become a competitive form of land use, often outpricing land set aside for grazing or small-scale farming. Land prices are skyrocketing to international levels. These profits are mostly ending up in the pockets of the speculators, who bought land from the original owners many years ago. They also sell happily to real estate firms, (international) universities seeking land for new compounds or (agro)industries. The resulting landscape is a complicated mixture of gated housing estates, greenhouses belonging to high-value export-oriented agro companies, noisy and smelly air-polluting factories, dotted with fast-growing shantytowns housing immigrant labourers.

This process raises urgent questions about land-use planning, governance, speculation and administrative responsibility and law enforcement in the outskirts of Africa’s major cities. The policymakers must balance opportunities and risks, ultimately often favouring the financially powerful and letting down the local population, accordingly. The barely controlled market forces at play create new winners and losers. The expanding African city is a golden opportunity for service providers such as the retail, transport and house rental sector. Besides the environmental challenges, the influx of immigrants from other parts of the country into these peri-urban zones brings with it tensions between the newcomers and the original inhabitants.

blog Marcel April 2017 2In the Nairobi periphery the original inhabitants, Maasai nomadic pastoralists, are driving their herds along the main roads and the newly erected fences seeking some fresh grass. Beneath the surface, another competition takes place as many water tables are fast being depleted due to the uncontrolled sinking of new boreholes owned by well-to-do newcomers, drying the shallow wells of the less fortunate, both immigrant small farmers and Maasai pastoralists. Moreover, the air pollution (bad smells and black fumes) is irritating people’s respiratory organs and eyes. Locals have protested by going to court, writing petitions to the administration and, more recently, by invading bars and blocking roads. The latest form of protest, so it seems, has been the painting of billboards advertising land for sale or for selling housing schemes. But reality on the ground differs. The red crosses have been painted by the local authorities, whose highest representative, the Kajiado County Governor, has promised to stop the indiscriminate sell out of land. To that end a moratorium was put in place. It has made him popular among the ordinary Maasai pastoralists and an enemy to some Maasai elite, most of them political rivals who, supported by Lands Ministry officials, have been linked to shady land deals. The red crosses, rumoured to have been put to earmark billboards that have encroached too close to the road, might actually be reminders to vote the Governor back to office come the next election, due in August 2017.

The role of Nairobi-based cartels and local land brokers is crucial in the business of transferring land ownership. Huge chunks of land have been lost at too cheap a price for the last three decades. Young Maasai realize that they will face serious problems accessing land and water for their livestock or for growing crops. They are frustrated that their future is at risk, while enormous financial profits are made by outside cartels assisted by local brokers, among them chiefs and reverends. It has brewed a poisonous cocktail that, for now, consists only of red paint, but which could well turn bloody, unless an inclusive path of development is chosen. All signs, however, indicate that poorly educated livestock keepers, most notably women, have missed that train.

blog Marcel April 2017 3The local authorities and National Land Commission should take heed of these signs serious. For many, access to land remains a crucial precondition to making a living. Although diversification and jobs outside agriculture are also sought after, this is not an option for  a majority of the locals. Over time, education will increase chances for locals, but in the meantime these peaceful protests should be taken seriously and programmes of job creation, preferably livestock related, i.e. in the field of livestock products, livestock upgrading and marketing. A growing urban population will seek those products in rising quantities. But other opportunities, notably for a growing number of educated Maasai youngsters, are needed as well. In addition, the negative effects of the (agro)industrial enterprises must be curbed, especially those operating at the expense of the environment. These companies should comply with existing or better legislation, not just in words but in practice. The alternative will be having to face a growing army of frustrated youths, some of whom are already involved in dubious or illegal practices, wasting time, playing pool, drinking to excess or taking drugs. All efforts are needed to make sure this warning is not a silent one ahead of a devastating storm.

For more information about land brokers and the position of women towards land in relation to the relevant new land and marriage laws in Kenya, please read these background documents.


Africa in the Dutch 2017 Parliamentary Elections

The 15 March election in the Netherlands asked Dutch voters to choose from almost 30 parties, each eyeing one or more of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. It concluded several months of campaigning, primarily on specific issues at stake in Dutch society. But occasionally, the attention drifted to topics of a more transnational or global nature. It was only during debates about international migration or climate change that Africa and its inhabitants were mentioned, if at all. And generally, the wording was negative. Doom scenarios were sketched of an African population that would double within 20 years, reaching 2 billion people. These would most likely join the long queue of youngsters aiming to reach Fortress Europe. Parties that suggested having more ships patrolling the Mediterranean were accused of stimulating human traffickers to upgrade their dubious practices of putting Africans on barely seaworthy vessels or other small boats. Consequently, many more Africans would come and take local jobs and social welfare. In response, some called for keeping Dutch contributions to International Development Co-operation at least at current levels or even increasing it, as it has fallen to the minimal levels of our national income, as Bill Gates once remarked. Other parties repeated the tune of foreign investors creating jobs and helping to build an African middle class.

dode geit

©Marcel Rutten

Linked to the migration discussion, mention was made of global warming causing a growing number of environmental refugees, driven from their homes due to extreme droughts or floods. Interestingly, one of the parties that hammered home this message, Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals), is a party that, over the years, has expanded its focus from a one issue party, i.e. animal rights, to one stressing other topics as well, notably environmental issues. In doing so, it is also taking on globalization, multinationals and all those institutions (EU) and vehicles (Trade treaties) said to promote the interests of multinational companies. It has been questioning bio-industries in the North that use animal feeds grown in the South at the expense of tropical forests. It points to the production in and importation of French beans and roses from Africa to markets in the North. Indeed, already limited and ever decreasing water resources in the African continent are used for these purposes.

The party is also keen to point to the illegal trade in animal products like ivory and horn, and calls for the protection of elephants and other wildlife species. So far so good, but, in my view, double standards are at work when it comes to many of the nomadic pastoralists, the custodians of Africa’s wildlife and occupants of the arid and semi-arid regions of Africa. It is here where a new tragedy is currently unfolding if no immediate action is taken to address the hunger putting millions of people at risk. Severe and lasting droughts

Herders kill themselves after losing livestock

©Marcel Rutten

and, in some countries, civil wars have created an explosive situation. But, it should also be acknowledged that the traditional drought coping strategies applied by the locals have increasingly come under pressure, not just because of climate change, but primarily due to the ever-shrinking space available for safe havens to overcome these droughts. Besides the transformation of dry season grazing areas into large- and small-scale farms, the expansion of land exclusively set aside for wild animals is making nomadic pastoralism less resilient. The ultimate outcome is a higher risk of the collapse of the livestock population and, consequently, hunger for a growing number of dependents.


Keep off ranches in Laikipia

©Marcel Rutten

Thus, in the last year, we have seen violent invasions of private sanctuaries in northern Kenya, with people setting tourist lodges ablaze and even killing (white) owners. Some of the political representatives of the pastoralists are backing these intrusions, claiming people are settling historical injustices as these large ranches, home to many of the country’s wildlife conservancies, were grabbed by colonial settlers over 100 years ago. Certainly, this stance is partly politically motivated as there will be elections in Kenya later this year, but it also illustrates a long and deep frustration among Africans that the rich countries, wildlife organizations and tourists of the world are standing on their shoulders to safeguard the wild game and tourism industry. Indeed, the system is heavily subsidized by foreign organizations and governments, the Netherlands included, and it is increasingly creating an exclusive habitat used by game and luxurious resorts for the world’s happy few, like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, who can afford prices of US$500 pppn.


Debate on Kenyan tv

Prof. H. Manyora (Nairobi University) during a recent TV debate. ©Marcel Rutten

The Dutch are now busy forming a new government, while millions of Africans are hoping the international community will come to their rescue. Ordinary citizens are donating to that end. In an interview last year, David Western, once director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and beneficiary of Dutch development aid for wildlife conservation, told me that the future of wildlife would depend on building the resilience of livestock keepers in Africa’s range lands. No more money should go to wildlife conservation – it should go to the livestock sector instead.


Kenya, BNN-VARA, Coriolis and Bad Science


Tatum Dagelet and Victor Reinier, participants in ‘The most dangerous roads in the world’ in Kenya.

The World’s Most Dangerous Roads is a programme broadcast on BNN-VARA, the self-acclaimed Dutch network for youngsters. In February 2017, a Kenyan episode was broadcast about the “road” linking Loyangalani, south of Lake Turkana, to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city (see The “highway” taken by the drivers diverted frequently to single off-road tracks ending up in a large number of wildlife conservancies and resorts (Laikipia, Aberdares). During the 50-minute programme, viewers were primarily presented with a large number of game, elephants, hippos, gazelles and giraffes. In fact, these areas are currently the scene of invading herders seeking grass for their animals and, in the process, some say settling “historic injustices” by burning these lodges. But that is another, more complicated story.

For now, as a geographer, I want to air my unease about the misleading story shown in this BNN-VARA programme, told by an Equator conman “showing proof” of the claim that sinks drain water in opposite directions in the two hemispheres. Owing to the eastward rotation of the Earth, the direction of water released from a sink will turn counter-clockwise or clockwise depending on whether one is in the northern or southern hemisphere, respectively. This effect certainly exists, but cannot be seen at a distance of 20 metres from the equator or in a hand-held bucket.

In fact, this phenomenon is a very weak force, first described by the French scholar Coriolis in 1835. As a result of the rotation of the Earth, an object that moves longitudinally from the pole towards the equator will deviate from the intended path and arrive at a point to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. The difference in velocity if one is on the pole (zero) or at the equator (highest) is also of importance. The Coriolis force affects the rotation of storms in the atmosphere, and the rotation of oceanic currents in the hydrosphere. If the Earth did not rotate, the air would flow directly towards the low pressure centre; but on a spinning Earth, the Coriolis force causes air to deviate, with the result that it travels around a low pressure centre anti-clockwise in the north and clockwise in the south. To “see” the Coriolis effect on earth requires a scientific setting, fixed sinks of equal shape, and water standing for a week before draining from a perfectly shaped drain that can be released from underneath, etc.

Maybe the conman in the BNN-VARA series was the same one that tricked  the BBC’s Michael Palin, who incorrectly informed him that water drains clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere. The directions that the charlatan presents are, in fact, opposite to what really happens in large weather systems and he wrongly explains that the phenomenon is caused by magnetic fields! The faker makes a living out of this trick, fair enough, but if we want to provide quality education for our youngsters (and anyone of an older age group) let’s get the facts right. For more and correct information about the Coriolis effect and an explanation of how the conman tricks the tourists see:

Joannes Heurnius, Witchcraft, Land and Coastal Kenya

joannes-heurnius-and-witchcraft-black-and-white-paintingOne of my ancestors, Joannes Heurnius, was laid to rest in the St Pieterskerk in Leiden in 1601. Born in Utrecht in 1543, he passed away suffering from gallstones. A text, in Latin, on his grave praises him as “the Sun of all Dutch medical doctors”. Heurnius did his medical training in Belgium, France and Italy. Upon returning to the Low Countries he became the medical doctor to some noblemen, was appointed Schepen (alderman) by the Prince of Orange for the city of Utrecht and, finally, he became professor at the Medical Faculty, University of Leiden in 1581. During this time, he acted as a medical practitioner looking after University colleagues like Lipsius as well as members of the  family of Prince William of Orange. In the period 1583-1601, he served six terms as Rector Magnificus for Leiden University, which was established in 1575.

As a medical expert, Heurnius is known for, among other things, his recommendation to do away with the so-called water test used in the hunt for witches. In the Middle Ages, in particular churches accused witches of communicating with the devil and causing all kind of evils in society. The witches had to be eliminated. People were tortured into confessing. The ultimate test to prove that the accused was a witch was to tie the accused to a rock and to throw the person, usually a woman, into water. Bedevilled witches were thought to be able to fly. If the person stayed afloat, it must be because of the devil and the person would subsequently be burned to death. If the person sank, the “witch” would be cleared of the accusation, but would often still die due to drowning.

In a witchcraft court case of 1593 the judge decided to request scientific advice from Heurnius and other Leiden professors concerning the water test. The group released their report in January 1594. They mentioned several reasons why a person might stay afloat when thrown into the water: pregnancy, air in the stomach, broad shoulders and hips, or if the person was put into the water backwards, etc. They dismissed the water test as sufficient proof to link a human being to the devil.

Over 400 years since my ancestor Heurnius dealt with witchcraft, this practice is also an issue in our Cocoon Initiative Kenya Land Grab and Dwindling Water Resources project that looks into conflicts and cooperation over natural resources in Kenya. In certain parts of Kenya, notably the coastal area, witchcraft is still very much alive and kicking. We have come across a number of cases where elderly people were falsely accused of witchcraft in order to try to take over their land. Local officials usually deny that the people were killed for being  involved in witchcraft and tend to blame close family members who want to inherit their land or property. Police reports state things such as ‘Our investigations have come to reveal that youth plans for the killing of their grandparents and parents so that they can inherit their properties and not that they are witches as they claim’ (Standard, 8 July 2013).

Not only old people are affected by witchcraft. It is applied to mpango wa kando wives (mistresses) accused of trying to snatch a husband (and the land). Husbands moving on with new wives are suspected of having been bewitched into forgetting the legitimate family and moving on with the mpango family. The mpango wife is used to convince the buyer that all relatives agree to the sale. Since 2015, land sales on the Kenyan coast have risen due to land adjudication. Normally, one has to present proof of consent from the family to the buyer and witnesses. The proof of consent is usually having other family member present to sign the agreement as well. If the head of the household fears the family will not approve or he wants to do things behind the family’s back, the mistress is brought in as ‘the wife’ to show the buyer that the whole family is behind the transaction. What has been observed in most cases is that, ultimately, the seller moves in with the mpango wife.

Instead of the water test, the coastal people of Kenya such as the Mijikenda have a number of other tests for catching witches. People accused of conducting witchcraft are taken to a mganga (witchdoctor), who will perform rituals using traditional herbs. A piece of pawpaw is given that has been treated with something. If the person is a “witch”, he will be unable to chew the piece of pawpaw. He is then put through a ritual that involves a blunt shave and some marks are made on the head using a razor. Some magic is then done to ensure that he won’t get involved in witchcraft again and if he does he will die.

The Mijikenda people have yet another process of cleansing witchcraft, using the services of a bebabeba. His singing and dancing will make the witches in the area ‘voluntarily’ come forward, climb on his back and then they are cleansed by various rituals. These rituals include sprinkling some black medicine on the witchdoctor while being carried around in circles on the back of the bebabeba. The bebabeba also rubs his bare buttocks on the face and shoulders of the witchdoctor as part of the cleansing process. The evil powers will be drawn from them.


‘Buttock cleansing’

The process ends with shaving the people caught. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ witchdoctors in the community. Which category the witchdoctor falls into is determined by service seekers. For example, when one needs witchcraft to be done to win a land case or protect land from other peoples’ ill motives, the performer is taken as ‘good’. Of course, the other parties involved might see the witchdoctor as ‘bad’. A bebabeba’s powers do not discriminate between ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather they rid the society of all those who use witchcraft to ‘harm’ others.

The local traditionalists believe that witchcraft is real and plays an important role in influencing day to day activities of the society. To them, peoples’ negligence of the traditions through conversion to Christianity and Islam has led to many misfortunes, such as failed crops or the killing of elderly suspected of witchcraft! But there is evidence that the future of witchcraft in the community is doomed. Education seems to be a key factor, as it was in medieval Europe.

* For more background material about land issues and witchcraft check updates on:


NoirComing week two bands will give live performances in the Netherlands, during which Africa takes more or less centre stage. No, these are not new versions of Band Aid, asking Africans if “they know it is Christmas”. It is not another effort to stop hunger in Africa (well, in Ethiopia at least) but these bands stress the strength and beauty of the “dark” continent.

The American band Toto will play on 30 May at the Ziggo Dome. Known for the song “Africa” in which they “wish the rains down”, they recently released a new album on which the song “Orphan” centres on their admiration for the strength of many African children surviving in extremely challenging circumstances.

Even more pronounced is the attention paid by Fernando Lameirinhas to Africa in his new show “Noir”. This 70 years old Portuguese Dutchman is a fabulous composer and guitar player. When he was only fifteen, his family fled the brutal Salazar regime and found refuge in Charleroi (Belgium) in the late 1950s. With his brother Antonio, Fernando had a few hit songs, but his most interesting work followed when they embraced other cultures and musical traditions adding to their Portuguese roots: jazzy fado.

In the mid 1970s the brothers moved to Amsterdam to join Sail Joia, a fabulous swinging collective. I saw this group as a first year student playing in Nijmegen for a very enthusiastic crowd of fellow students at the opening of the academic year. Since then I have attended several of Fernando’s solo career performances. He has released a whole range of interesting albums featuring many beautiful songs. For these projects he linked up with musicians from the Netherlands and the wider world (Asia, Latin America and Africa). As he explains on his website, he does so because he dislikes boundaries, which act as cages.

His latest project “Noir” focuses on the African continent and brings on board two African musicians, Zoumana Diarra from Mali and Mola Sylla from Senegal, who both have stayed in the Netherlands for a long time, enriching Dutch culture and showing the musical strength of Africa. And this is what the show is all about: the beauty of the African landscape, its music, its poetry, its people. This strikes a welcome chord amidst the cacophony of negative reports on terrorism, boat refugees, political riots and ebola.

Last performance before summer: Bergeijk, 6 June, see:

Joris Luyendijk & Garrett Hardin: Can’t be true – Africa misunderstood once again

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey).

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)

On 1 March, Joris Luyendijk, an investigative journalist from the Netherlands, appeared on Dutch television (NPO 2, VPRO Tegenlicht) in a 45 minutes tv documentary explaining the way bankers in The City of London conduct business. His interest for the financial sector arose after the financial crisis of 2008 which plunged the world economy in turmoil.

As a columnist for The Guardian, Joris Luyendijk embarked on a project for which he interviewed many City-based bankers in order to grasp the world of banking. The interviews he collected over a two year period appeared in a “banking blog”, anonymized, in the British quality newspaper. Subsequently, he published a book “Dit kan niet waar zijn” (English: “This cannot be true”) sharing his findings with a wider audience.

In the tv documentary, Luyendijk explains that he initially did not understand globalization, in which the financial world is a key player. He postulates that bankers are much more powerful players than politicians, the former easily crossing borders where the latter are more restricted, putting limitations to their ability to control. So far so good, as indeed understanding financial flows and morale will help putting issues of wealth creation and poverty into perspective.

The City of London. Photo: Marcel Rutten.

The City of London. (Photo: Marcel Rutten)

Luyendijk should be applauded for practising investigative journalism, which unfortunately seems to be an expertise less available nowadays. However, despite his enthusiasm for explaining the ins and outs of global capital in the documentary, he loses his way somewhat by making a comparison that can be called ‘bad science’.

And this is unfortunate because, as Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530) explained a very, very long time ago: “Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.”

Apparently, that happens to Luyendijk when he brings up an analogy explaining the behaviour of an evil banker: “The Tragedy of the Commons” theory of American ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) as published in Science in 1968 is presented, without Luyendijk realizing he does so.

More than the theory it is the example Luyendijk uses that is faulty. Like Hardin he presents an example from Africa. While Hardin spoke of a pastoralist putting extra animals on the common pastures at the expense of fellow pastoralists, Luyendijk takes the example of global warming and the shrinking Kilimanjaro glaciers: “If you are a farmer at the slopes of Kilimanjaro and every year you see the glaciers melt and shrink, you would also point at Westerners and tell them hey folks….! But as an individual, one will say: I know people who pollute more than I do. If I alone would stop emitting carbon dioxide, nothing will change. This has to be regulated at a higher level and for now I just continue my style of living. So for that reason and looking how incentives operate in the financial sector, one can understand why it will be business as usual.”

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Roel Slootweg)

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Roel Slootweg)

The idea that the Kilimanjaro glaciers shrink due to global warming is false, as explained by an Austrian team criticizing colleagues from the Ohio State University, US, who amazingly did and still do hold on to their own theory (see Thompson L, Brecher HH, Mosley-Thompson E, Hardy DR, Mark BG (2009) ‘Glacier loss on Kilimanjaro continues unabated’. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:19770–19775). The Americans predicted the glaciers would be gone between 2015 and 2020. However, the Kilimanjaro glaciers are situated, year round, in a zone that never reaches above 0ºC.

So why do the glaciers retreat? The reason according to the Austrian team is, foremost, direct sunlight radiation turning ice into vapour, and secondly, a reduced precipitation that adds less to the glacier build-up, a process which has been ongoing for over a century, long before humans began pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, climate scientists like Philip Mote and George Kaser have explained (The Seattle Times, 12 June 2007). In addition, some point to the destruction of the forest at the foot slopes of the mountain, affecting wind patterns and humidity resulting in the drying of the local microclimate.

So yes, global warming is around and does affect middle range temperate zone glaciers, but not Africa’s highest stand-alone mountain. The Carbon Dioxide mistake made by Luyendijk was also made by Al Gore in his “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary.

Kilimanjaro is a grossly overused miss-example of the effects of climate change, which is risky as it might be used by Naysayers to global warming. As the motto of Bad Science states: It is better to communicate good information than to offer misinformation in the name of good communication (see

What has the new Marriage Bill in Kenya got to do with socio-economic security?

Selling Wealth to Buy Poverty was the title of my PhD thesis, way back in 1992, and it aptly summarized the then-emerging practice of massive land sales by Maasai pastoralists living in southern Kenya, mostly to outside buyers. This started in the second half of the 1980s following the subdivision of Maasai group ranches. The process of selling off, initially at throwaway prices, their natural inheritance, i.e. land, has resulted in instances of hardship and misery, especially amongst Maasai wives and children. In British colonial times, the Maasai were seen to be the richest people in East Africa. Things have changed and this is no longer the case, although the value of all the (natural) assets in Kajiado County are considered to top the list: wildlife, soda ash, gypsum, marble and possibly soon also oil are some of the plentiful resources that Kajiado offers to interested parties and lots of horticulturalists are extracting the area’s groundwater reserves too. This non-sustainable behaviour is being copied by outsiders who are scooping sand from the dry riverbeds and filling hundreds of lorries destined for the building sites of Nairobi and beyond. And charcoal producers are cutting down alive mature trees bought from the local Maasai men in return for a few bucks, money that is too often only spend on beer, not on the Maasai household’s well-being.

A church marriage in Kenya

A church marriage in Kenya, couple accompanied by bridesmaids

Polygamous marriage arrangements
Last week I was asked to comment on Dutch television on the new Kenyan Marriage Law because the media had picked up on a walkout by women MPs after the Bill was amended. It now allows men to marry as many wives as they want without telling their first wife. This was interpreted to mean that all Kenyan men could now be polygamous but this is not true in fact. The Bill only permits polygamy in Islamic and customary marriage arrangements, and not in Christian, Hindu or civil marriages. The women MPs did not oppose the idea of multiple wives as much as the fact that a clause had been done away with that had, in an earlier version of the Bill, been accepted and stipulated that a husband has to consult his first wife about the idea of marrying a second or third wife and to seek her approval. Failure to do so could result in five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of Ksh 300,000 (€ 2500). One clause was not removed: the age at which people can marry. It stands at 18 but this is contested by some Muslim legislators.

Prosperous households
Lawmakers, through a consultation clause, have tried to bring into statutory law what was the practice under customary law. Especially among nomadic pastoralists, the practice of the wife advising or even asking for a co-wife has been common for a long time. This was sometimes done if the first wife had fertility problems. She would then look for a co-wife and raise the children of the co-wife as her own. But it was above all an economic issue: creating wealth and securing large enough families to provide the labour and social care needed were matters of survival, especially in early 20th century Kenya. The daily tasks of fetching water, collecting firewood, preparing food and building houses simply called for more hands. Two (or more) wives were required to make a household prosperous. Husbands would ridicule ‘one vagina’ men as losers. At the other extreme are people like Akuku Danger who married 130 wives in his lifetime and passed away in 2010, much admired by many, at the age of 94.

A traditional Masaai marriage in Kenya

A traditional Masaai marriage in Kenya

Claiming part of the inheritance
But over the last two decades, women have become better educated, healthcare has improved, there is smaller per capita livestock ownership and Christianity’s appeal has spread. As a result, households with more than one wife are disappearing fast. One still comes across polygamy, particularly in more traditional communities and among wealthy people who can afford to marry more wives. These women, though, fear that they may lose their property in the case of divorce or when their husband dies. Widows have been taken by surprise at funerals when other wives have shown up claiming part of ‘their’ inheritance. Custom did allow the first wife a say in the matter but under this new Bill, this is no longer the case, unless President Uhuru Kenyatta, himself the son of a third wife but also happily married following Catholic traditions for some 35 years, refuses to sign the Bill and it goes back to Parliament for further debate. He did not do this, however, with the related Matrimonial Property Act. This Act, signed in February 2014, replaced the Married Women Property Act, an outdated colonial law dating back to 1882, that automatically transferred all property belonging to the wife to her husband. The new law recognizes equal rights to matrimonial property but the definition of matrimonial property excludes property inherited or acquired before marriage. This will most likely prevent wives and their offspring from claiming (part of) the family land unless it has been clearly specified by the husband before his death.
For now, the registration of marriages, including customary ones, may help women not to lose their access to land. It could stop the practice of hiring wives for land transfers via the Land Control Board. These wives pretend to be legally married to the sellers. However other changes will be needed to fight corruption on the Land Control Boards and the Land Register. This calls for motivated politicians and civil servants who dare to stand up to such practices.

A blog to report bad practices
The newly elected Governor of Kajiado showed his intention to clean up problems with the Land Register when he issued a moratorium on land sales for the time being. There is a way we can help these politicians as academics or as ordinary citizens. Nowadays young Maasai are using Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook. They/we should report bad practices and provide the correct facts on these platforms. This is my main goal behind writing this blog: I want to help create a platform for all those worried about the non-sustainable mining of natural resources as well as the irresponsible reporting of such developments in the media, NGO circles and also academia. Information posted should be factual, balanced and correct.
The ideas discussed in this blog are diverse and will include conflicts over land, conflicts over water, the environmental impact of trade, eco-imperialism by nature conservation groups, political interference in nature conservation, irrigated agriculture, the small- versus large-scale farms debate, youth’s views of agriculture, pastoralism and so on. I am seeking first-hand information from anybody and everybody, but from (East) Africans in particular. I am also specifically requesting those who have been able to overcome conflicts to share their success stories. Tell me about your legal and technological tools. How can we prevent the selling of more wealth (land, water, sand, trees), which comes at the expense of the less well off? Here’s hoping to hear from you soon! Please forward your stories to These stories will be (if necessary anonymously) shared here.