KILIFI, KENYA - The waves of the Indian Ocean softly lap the idyllic coastline of Kilifi, just north of Mombasa. Edged in golden sand and fringed by palm trees, this is prime Kenyan real estate, ripe for hotels and luxurious homes.
But, it is also the ancestral land of Kenya’s coastal people, most of whom are poor. As more and more of this land finds its way into the hands of the wealthy, hundreds of thousands of natives are being evicted.
Goodluck Washe, a community activist working with the local people, points to a vast stretch of empty land where a town once stood.
“There used to be a big town here called Jeuri. Now Jeuri is no longer there, because all of those people were evicted from that place and they went to Kikambala. All the villages were destroyed and it became somebody’s land,” he said.
The nearby village of Maweni is about to suffer the same fate.
“There are almost 500 families in this village," lamented Felix Karisa, 35, who has lived there his whole life."This village has been here for long.”
In October, Maweni was served with an eviction notice by a Somali woman who held the title deed. Like most coastal natives, the villagers never had deeds to the land they grew up on. Now, Karisa says he is terrified of losing the house he built for his family.
“We live in a panic, we fear," he confided. "So you see, if today this house is brought down, then I feel like it’s better if someone kills me. Because I’ll have nowhere to take my kids.”
It is a common story. No one knows exactly how many people have been evicted, so far, but in November, a local newspaper reported that 120,000 villagers had been declared squatters, and were being thrown off land south of Mombasa.
Boniface Mwingo, a local government official, explains that, when land was divided up by the Kenyan government in the 1980s, those in power claimed huge chunks of it. Meanwhile, local people were allotted tiny plots or nothing at all.
Now, as these title deeds begin to surface, many coastal Kenyans are finding they have no right to the land they live on. Mwingo says this situation has created bitterness in the region.
“People are totally unhappy, because they are not free. They cannot make any developments because they don’t have documents," said Mwingo. "The people who have the documents are the big men who don’t have anything to show on the ground.”
Some people are trying to fight their evictions in court. But others have gone one step further.
The Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is a home-grown movement channeling local frustration into calls for secession. The MRC claims to be peaceful, but its members have recently been accused of attacking election officials and inciting violence.
MRC Treasurer Omar Bambam says the movement’s aim is to call attention to the coastal people’s plight.
Meanwhile, Mombasa has recently been wracked by a spate of grenade attacks and riots, some linked to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s aims are not those of the coastal people, says Washe. But the problem of landlessness has made it easier for the group to infiltrate communities.
“They come and dig wells. They come and provide mosques. They are being welcomed as very good people, because there’s a vacuum that has been left," said Washe. "The real issue is land, but because the government is not addressing the question of land adequately, al-Shabaab comes in.”
For people like 73-year-old Piry Muye, violence is not an option, and he does not even want to talk about the MRC.
Muye, who has 11 children, has already lost most of his land to a man who claims it was a gift from the president. Now, he is squatting on a small corner of his former estate, though he expects to eventually lose that too.
“Because I’m stranded, I don’t know what to do. I have got a large family, and I don’t know how I can live with this,” Muye said.
He can see his own coconut trees on the land he lost, growing tall and strong behind a stone wall. He now has to ask permission to graze his cows there.
“He allowed me, but now I find that he is now building, so I’ll have nowhere where my animals can graze," Muye added. "I’m a poor man, I have no land, so I just want help from any corner.”
Muye has not completely lost faith in the government and hopes that Kenya’s national elections in March will change things for the better. But not many coastal people share his optimism.