By LUKOYE ATWOLI
Sunday Nation 03 January 2010
The ongoing debate on a new constitution as well as events such as the Mau forest reclamation saga have revealed a part of the Kenyan psyche that is often ignored despite its crucial significance for the future of this country. The focus on land ownership as the most important determinant of individual worth seems to be a defining feature of many Kenyans’ thinking.
A colleague of mine recently intimated to me that “landlessness” in this country is considered a good reason to seek sympathy from the state or fellow citizens in all sorts of ways. Once a Kenyan has been declared “landless”, they have a licence to invade public land and forests to acquire a piece for themselves.
A commonly repeated adage statement in this country is that “every Kenyan deserves a piece of land for himself and his family”. This wisdom is stated solemnly, often as justification for some crass act involving public property that would be unforgivable under any other circumstances.
Since independence, we have been wrangling over all sorts of land – ancestral land, public land, trust lands and so on and so forth. Violent evictions from land have been common and, indeed, even political violence around election time has been linked to “landlessness” and the perception that “foreigners” have taken up land meant for indigenous people.
Hearing this kind of stuff from elderly Kenyans born mostly before independence is understandable, given that the land narrative informs most of our pre-independence discourse.
It is, however, quite disconcerting to hear relatively young Kenyans, some barely out of their twenties, carrying on about how everyone needs to have land in their “ancestral homes” or wherever else land is available. The expectation is often that if one does not have land, then it is the government’s responsibility to provide it.
A huge segment of the Harmonised Draft Constitution that has been the subject of robust debate is dedicated to the land tenure system and correcting perceived “historical injustices” in the land management regime. Contentions have been raised about the fairness or otherwise of certain provisions in this chapter, but all are agreed that land is probably the most important resource in this country.
That is the point at which I would beg to differ. To hold land as the most important possession an individual can have is to lock ourselves up in the past and to refuse to open our eyes to the emerging realities of a globalising world. It is akin to emulating the proverbial ostrich and burying our heads in the sand, hoping that developments in the rest of the world will just pass us by and leave us untouched.
The truth is that the most important postmodern economy resource is knowledge and information. This is not being hailed as the information age or a knowledge economy for nothing. In the information age, owning large tracts of personal land may even be considered an unnecessary encumbrance.
It ties one down to a specific location in this era that has been christened a “flat world” by thinkers such as Thomas L. Friedman. Most people just need adequate living space, and with sufficient amounts of money most of the other needs surrounding land can be freely purchased.
As for agriculture, science has informed us repeatedly that small scale subsistence farming is unsustainable in the long term. It is even destructive in the sense that it often depletes the soil due to repeated use by untrained “farmers” to grow the same crops every season.
Societies that take food production seriously do this on a large scale, with professionally enabled farmers supported by the State to feed the rest of the population. It makes little sense, in my opinion, for doctors, teachers, engineers and lawyers to dabble in farming when they could use the resources at their disposal to enrich their respective professions.
By combining farming with other pursuits, they are often unable to give their maximum attention to any of them, resulting in mediocrity both on the farm and in their professions. It is time the young people of Kenya used the virtually unlimited “land” available in cyber space to improve their lives and enrich the Kenyan economy in the process. Instead of waiting to be given land by their parents or the government, they should strive to establish themselves as the new “landlords” in the knowledge economy by gaining knowledge and using it for profit.
With the rapidly expanding Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in Kenya, land is no longer that important. ICT is the new “land”!
Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine: www.lukoyeatwoli.com