Kenyans say British colonisers stole land for tea

AFP

Kibore Cheruiyot Ngasura was just a small boy when his family was violently expelled from their ancestral land in Kenya’s lush tea-growing western highlands by British colonisers.

Eighty-five years later he still bristles at the memory, recalling the fear and confusion as his community was marched to a distant, unfamiliar place, and people around him begged their white overseer for answers.

“They asked him, ‘What wrong did we do? Why are you punishing us like this?” said 94-year-old Ngasura, the only living survivor of a mass deportation in 1934 from Kericho, where rolling green hillsides ripple with Kenya’s world-famous tea.

It is a question those forced off their land over decades in Kericho have been asking ever since.

Fed up with being ignored, the Kipsigis and Talai peoples have urged a UN special investigator to open an inquiry into their plight.

British and Kenyan lawyers representing the victims will make their first visit to Kericho since filing an official complaint with the UN, accusing the UK government of failing to account for this colonial-era injustice.

They allege that the British army and colonial administrators deployed rape, murder and arson to seize swathes of arable land in Kericho from its traditional owners.

The victims want an apology, and reparations for their homeland being usurped and reallocated to white settlers, who turned the fertile soils to cultivating tea.

Kericho boasts some of Kenya’s most profitable agricultural land — but the Kipsigis and Talai say they reap none of the benefit. The land today is largely owned by corporate giants such as Unilever, which sources tea from Kericho for some of its best-selling brands like Lipton.

The alleged expropriation of land began in the early 20th century but accelerated from the 1920s, after Kericho’s exceptional suitability for tea was realised.

Today, many Kipsigis and Talai live as squatters, humiliated and landless, generations after their forebears were exiled from Kericho’s verdant slopes, land known locally as the ‘White Highlands’.

Most possess nothing more of their past than chunks of pottery and other fragments, unearthed surreptitiously from beneath the tea fields: proof that their people once lived there.

“It is very bitter, to see where you used to live, and (know) you were chased away,” said Joel Kimutai Kimetto.

A spokesman for Unilever Kenya Ltd said they would not comment on colonial-era claims against the UK. Williamson Fine Tea, and James Finlay Limited, two other multinationals with major tea estates in Kericho, did not reply to requests for comment.

“They need to acknowledge that it is stolen property,” said Kericho County Governor Paul Chepkwony, who has fought for reparations for years.

In March, they scored a rare victory when Kenya’s National Land Commission ruled that the Kipsigis and Talai did suffer injustices, and recommended the UK to apologise.

But efforts to broker dialogue have not been successful, said Joel Kimutai Bosek, a Kipsigis lawyer representing his people.

The UK has faced a slew of compensation claims from across its former empire, including from Kenya.

In 2013, the government paid reparations to victims of its bloody crackdown on the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule in Kenya. But similar appeals have failed. – AFP

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