I have been following a series of articles by Bitange Ndemo on what he describes as “dead capital”, with interest. He defines dead capital as investment in non-productive assets such as shanties, rural shopping centres and ostentatious mansions on ancestral land. For avoidance of doubt, I have the highest regard for Prof Ndemo but, I would like to offer an alternate view.
Recently, I inherited a piece of land in my ancestral home in Kibichoi, Kiambu County. This land is part of a large swathe of which the clan purchased in the early 1900s from the Kabucho family after we were forcefully evicted by the colonial administration from our earlier settlement at Tiiri Mutune, further downstream. Details of this misfortune are contained in my 2015 article under the heading “Scorched Earth Policy”.
I was surprised to note the piece of land and its environs looks the same, if not worse than when we used to live there almost 60 years ago, overgrown with trees and vegetation.
The clan land has been passed on from one generation to the next and no one has had the means or interest to develop it.
Beneficiaries are either living and working elsewhere with no desire to return to their ancestral roots or are living in penury on the land, lacking the capital and the will to develop the same. This state of affairs is repeated almost everywhere in the village of Kibichoi.
But there was one development I noticed that struck me across the hedge from my piece of land. I am told that about five years ago one of my cousins sold three acres of his inherited land to an investor from Kirinyaga. Since then the new owner from outside our clan and county has built a three-bedroom house in which he lives, sunk a borehole and is now cultivating vegetables commercially for his livelihood. This development stands out among our clan land and is viewed with awe and admiration by neighbours.
By looking beyond the clan, my cousin has unlocked the capital in his rural piece of land and by so doing found someone with the money to buy part of his land who also had the capital and was prepared to take the risk of developing it.
Those that just sit and wait to inherit ancestral land and are not prepared to take the risk to develop it, thus creating a livelihood, are bound to end up with dead capital.
My view is that as we evolve into a more cosmopolitan society, we need to look at ancestral land with less sentimental attachment so that we can realise its capital value.
During the 1970s I was working as a real estate valuer and one of the areas I covered was what was then known as Kisii District, which even by then had one of the highest population densities in Kenya.
Land in the district had been subdivided into small parcels to accommodate the growing population. Due to pressure on the land, families started looking further afield and many purchased land in Ngong towards Kiserian and Isinya, which they developed armed with the necessary capital and entrepreneurial spirit.
Today, Ngong is a sprawling metropolis developed largely by “outsiders” and the dead capital held in ancestral property has been unleashed. Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for what the original owners have done with that money, but the fact is, it has been released.
Elsewhere in Narok, again we find that many of those Kisii families, amongst others, have bought ancestral land from Maasai clans and developed it, releasing that dead capital there.
In 1998, my wife Joyce and I started the only private school in Narok District. I must in all honesty admit it was her idea, to give credit where it is due. The political class had given education a back seat and were busy promoting cultural practices, some of which were retrogressive.
We had an uphill task creating awareness about the value of education particularly as concerned the girl-child but within four years we began to see progress with the community embracing quality education. Today, there are more than three hundred private schools in Narok County, thanks to our pioneering work.
What I am saying is, that sometimes it takes the innovation of outsiders or one who has experienced the outside world to bring about change and development because residents cannot see the forest for the trees. We have a Kikuyu saying “Wa giikaro kimwe ndamenyaga kwi thii ingi” which means if you stay in one place you will never realise there are other worlds.
Last year I discussed how we should review our burial practices to be more in tandem with the changes in our lifestyle. Burying our dead on ancestral land diminishes the value of the land and is likely to frustrate attempts to release dead capital. Creating public cemeteries and promoting the idea of cremation are ideas that should be pursued in rural areas.
Needless to say, there are those inheritors of ancestral land who have the interest, means and the entrepreneurial spirit to develop it and create a livelihood thereby acting as role models in the village. Sadly, this group is in the minority. I have purposed to be part of this small group of people.