Land, the eternal Gikuyu conversation

I am in Nairobi for a few days from London and just came from a ride to Athi River with my mother who is purchasing some land there. We were accompanied by my uncle, the cliche family rogue, who knows every single trick Nairobi has to part you from your money by means fair or foul. For the hour it took to drive there through heavy traffic and a seriously torn up road, we had the same conversation that we have shared since I can remember: land or to be more specific, how to acquire it and make a profit off it.

Plots were pointed out and owners identified. We had debates on the depth of the water table, the route a new trunk road will take vis-a-vis said plots of land and the provision of electricity. Prices were bandied about and expected returns in the coming years. Both my uncle and mother seem to possess a vast catalogue of information on land and its price. So there were comments like, ‘just behind those shops, an acre used to cost 10,000 shillings in 1983-85 and you can’t get one now for less than a quarter million.’ Followed by exclamations of surprise and frustration at not having spotted such obvious opportunities and pledges to never again allow such profits to slip through the fingers.

The particular land that we were driving out to contemplate is close to Daystar University. I stood admiring its look, the view and suchlike, while my uncle kept muttering that it was fat. Fat, as he explained, refers to land fertility and also suggests potential financial gains from owning it.

We had bypassed many students walking the muddy road to the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and I offered one a ride into town. As is usual when I meet a university student, I wanted to know what she was studying, quality of lectures etc. But my mother and uncle had a quite different take on what to talk about with a stranger. They asked pointed questions about student accommodation, entertainment, health provision and others in a similar vein. By the time we got back into the city, it had become clear that building self-contained hostel space, a pharmacy, a pool hall and a restaurant catering to students were promising business opportunities. The price of her accommodation was revealed in addition to her transport and entertainment costs. After we dropped her off, all mention of the beauty of the views had been replaced by strategies to ‘do some business’ on the land.

In London or New York or wherever else I have lived, I never had these types of conversations with anyone. I am sure that the British can probably relate in regard to home ownership but it struck me that this conversation was different. Perhaps I am being ignorant but I think that it was a typical Gikuyu form of dialogue. Property and its acquisition form the common ground, the public space even. And to own it is a sign of some kind of virtue. How else to explain how few conversations I have overheard since I was a child that were not anchored by some form of financial consideration.

Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that kikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of the way they regard the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect that a majority crave. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time. Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that Gikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of what they regard as the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time.

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About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

4 Responses to Land, the eternal Gikuyu conversation

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love Kikuyu ambitions. They build the nation! I am a Jaluo and wish we would learn a thing or two about noticing needs in the market and strategising on how to get rich stisfying them. Wish all Africans thought like the Kikuyu (pardon the generalisations, but ou get the point). Where are you now?

  2. MMK says:

    Anonymous – Thank you for commenting so generously. I am not sure many people would agree with you that more folks should think like kiuks but I agree with you in most respects. There was something very powerful and positive about the engine my uncle and mother were turning too. There are also costs do not be in doubt. Take a look at my post on THE PAIN MACHINE: The Collapse of the Gikuyu Social Contract.

  3. Keguro says:

    I wonder if your reaction to the land conversation is not generational–and located, as a cosmopolitan traveler–in a way that merits greater scrutiny. My sister, who is your age, and I have spoken on and off about how we view land ownership (or wealth) vs. how our parents view it. As children raised in the city, we tend to be less obsessed with owning land in quite the same way, but similarly obsessed with certain forms of ownership (a house, an apartment, even a car, as opposed to three acres and a hotel).

    But then located as I am, I think about the American dream with its demands of ownership, a house in the suburbs or, for the more cosmopolitan and wealthy, a condo or apartment in a city, and various other forms. Land hunger doesn’t exist as much precisely because it’s virtually impossible to own land–capitalism and its histories and their particular legacies in the industrialized world.

    Put in a more schematic way, I wonder about a younger generation’s strategies for wealth-creation (and 5 minutes with Kenya’s yuppies tells all) and also about the economic necessity for new strategies. And also, I wonder about the class background that allows such conversations–do Gikuyu who live in Kangemi or Kibera or Mathare hold similar conversations? Or should we consider the form of the conversation as inflected by class and history? Land-rich families in rural areas, for example, no matter their urban status, might have a different relationship to ownership than rural squatters–and we have many Gikuyu squatters.

    It’s also, as you know, a form of status in quite powerful ways. It’s always a mark of pride in a family to invite one’s siblings and cousins to one’s own land, to revel in one’s big ugly house built on solid rural soil (my uncles and their monstrosities). I am, I think, more interested in this continual competition, a pernicious one, for sure, especially for the environment and for its role in maintaining the strained owner-squatter relationship that has been a continual feature of Gikuyu land ownership. But I’ll leave such questions for historians of land and labor.

  4. MMK says:

    Keguro – there is surely a generational change in attitudes to land but it is one that is deeply informed by class and the rural-urban divide. Land quite simply remains a major topic for many kiuks – squatters and rich ones included. This is because whether you have been ripped off or have done the ripping off, most kiuks are deeply conscious of land as a status symbol and one of the better classes of assets to invest in during the last half century. In fact the one group of kiuks I have ever met who do not speak about land are about my age – mid thirties – and come from families with huge amounts of land. They are the babis that I like lampooning whenever I get a chance. A few days ago, in Nairobi, I asked some friends of mine why we never discuss money even though we are all pursuing it in one way or the other. Our distaste for such talk, which is similar to a certain refusal to talk about land, has to do with a kind of upper class distaste for money. Viewing it as dirty and grubby. I would actually venture that the leftism that is a feature in almost any youthful westlands/Lavington conversation has more to do with this upper middle class (British?) distatse for money than it does with any kind of genuine egalitarian ideal.

    I like those uncle/auntie monstrosities in the rural areas. They are symbols of hope often (and here I do not include the dudes who have robbed their way to them) and the competition is quite similar to one between any group of human beings.

    As for squatters, most landowners do not have them on their land. The Kenyattas and such dudes do, but most people who own land are not directlt squeezing someone else. We have squatters in our family and I find that it is usually a way station before they come to the city or it is that they are embroiled in some type of inheritance drama that has not yet been settled.

    I want to take on kiuk ‘issues’ straight from the gut, from inside my family.

    There is a long thing – I can call it nothing else – that Binya has put together on this kiuk mambo that I will post on this blog to try and see what folks think about it. The plan is to elicit as many reactions as possible. There is some kind of ground to explore here and I think that you give voice to ideas that have not yet been heard in regard to thic kind of conversation.

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