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Rural-Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains

Sylvain Racaud
Bob R. Nakileza
François Bart
et al.

Part 3

9. Between dispossession and resilience: peasant strategies and social change in the central highlands of Kenya

Yves Guillermou

Texte intégral

  • 1 Originally, the term “resilience” relates to the field of physical sciences and applies to the resi (...)

1Any attempt to analyse the peasant condition in “Southern” countries bears the risk of building a reductive picture, whatever aspects one aims to highlight: whether it is the fate of the most deprived categories or the performance of “dynamic” farmers, unless one would engage in a reckless search for profiles of “average” peasants. Claims to understand complex situations through so-called “universal” categories face an overwhelming opacity. Our present world is confronting highly contradictory movements: the peasant condition is subject to growing threats, but there is at the same time a widespread process (though still largely hidden) of “repeasantization” (Ploeg 2009). In fact, most of these situations can be rationally explained when peasant logics are taken into account. The survival of the vast majority of rural households throughout the world is based on a permanent struggle against an array of opposing forces, either in violent forms (especially about land issues) or in less visible forms, through a steady effort to innovate and adapt to changing conditions – in which they often prove more efficient than most other social groups. This effort has allowed them to resist the aggressions of colonialism as well as “globalized” capitalism. Such resistance is linked to the control of material means of production and human energy, as well as products’ processing and valuing. That control is always partial and unequal, but its reinforcement or reduction and the identification of key “weak links” are valuable indicators of the social and economic position of a peasantry (or a specific fraction of it) at a given time. In this sense the term “resilience” appears to us relevant, in spite of its rather ambiguous use in current development discourse. In the absence of a formal anthropological definition, we assume that this concept (close to that of resistance) focuses on the ability of a human group to backup and revitalize its autonomous sphere of activity against disrupting factors of ecological or social origin1.

2In such a perspective, Kenya, and especially the Central Highlands, should offer a privileged field of investigation, due to the turbulent history of its population, confronted by harsh land struggles and ruthless repression under colonial rule, and its ability to develop original and efficient systems of production as well as adjustment strategies in a changing economic context.

  • 2 This paper relies primarily on a three-week mission to Kenya in January 2006 on the invitation of I (...)

3All this raises important questions: what scope and what actual sense can be given to these transformations? Do they reflect the emergence of “new peasantries” or are they embedded in the old structures? How to define the main trends: “re-appropriation” of the means of production or reinforcing inequalities? These questions call for different types of answers. We have to examine first the main features of the pre-colonial society, then the impact of colonization and the forms of resistance, and finally try to assess the current transformations of the peasantry through its diversity2.

Natural setting and pre-colonial society

4The Central Highlands (mainly the Aberdares and Mount Kenya) form the agricultural heartland of Kenya. This whole area is characterized by physical conditions globally favourable to human settlement and farming: altitude tropical climate, fertile land, rich pastures, water, forests, etc. Average altitude ranges from 1500 to 2000 metres. The relief is marked essentially by a series of stretched hills which constitute no real barrier to communications. Annual rainfall varies between 1000 and 1100 mm. Such conditions would explain in part the high human densities well before colonization.

5The main population group, namely the Kikuyu (or Gikuyu), has various specific features: a strong cultural identity bound to an original social system, a high capacity to take advantage of a diversified environment and adapt to changing circumstances, a high level of spatial and social mobility and slow but steady territorial expansion among others. The relations between the agro-pastoral Kikuyu and the pastoral Maasai implied some tensions, but no permanent hostility. Complementary livelihood led to intense exchange networks, providing guarantees against natural hazards and even reciprocal practices contributing to the easing of ethnic barriers (Berman and Lonsdale 1992).

  • 3 “An mbari was a collection of households who traced their relationship through a single prominent i (...)

6Tenure of space by the Kikuyu is characterized both by housing dispersion and concentration of homes on the hills, crops being distributed on the slopes and valley bottoms. There are no proper villages but territorial units merging with the hills or portions of these. The Kikuyu social organization, lineage-based, is relatively flexible and decentralized. The Kikuyu know nine basic patrilineal clans, which are divided into many sub-clans (mbari): these are agnatic groups, each of which has a common ancestor, the original owner of a land patrimony (githaka). The mbari is considered as “the critical social unit of the Kikuyu” (Bates 1987: 5), and the social position of its founder appears essential3. Each mbari itself is divided into several nuclear cells, which constitute autonomous housing and production units.

7This society is marked by distinct “horizontal” and “vertical” forms of differentiation. All males (and males only) belong to a specified age group (riika) vested with certain functions and whose members are closely linked. Secondly, the society is divided into two alternating “generations”, each holding authority in turn. Everyone belongs to the same “generation” as his grandfather, while his father belongs to the opposite. This system ensuring close ties between the elderly and youth helps to reduce conflicts within the family; combined with that of age groups, it works as a “regulator of social tensions” (Kuria 1990: 72).

8Status-based inequalities are common, but they are not part of a rigid hierarchical system. Hereditary status is rather difficult to identify and members of lower groups can generally expect a substantial change in their situation if they work hard enough. Major inequalities would be based on ownership or control of the basic means of production: land and herds. But the practice of exchanging land against livestock (and conversely) would tend to alter the overall distribution and foster accumulation strategies benefiting groups other than the best endowed.

9Because of polygamy, every chief of mbari has to proceed in his lifetime to the sharing of land patrimony between his spouses; these should in turn allocate their block grant (outside the plots they till themselves) between their own sons. This system based on an equity principle (each wife usually gets an identical share) may generate strong inequalities due to the variability of the respective number of male children: the higher this number, the smaller the share of each.

10Another form of unequal access to land is reflected in the practice of allocating plots for cultivation to men external to the mbari for “temporary” use in exchange for some volume of labour or a share of the crop, through personal agreement with the holder. These men may thus acquire use rights for unlimited periods and transfer them to their sons. In practice, the actual terms of contracts are extremely diverse, as is the social position of the “tenants” (ahoi): these should not be considered as a homogeneous class of landless or poor peasants.

11In short, the Kikuyu are a segmented, open and differentiated society, with significant inequalities but also internal dynamics favouring permanent change and mobility. Lower groups enjoy at least a minimum access to productive resources and can usually count on the help and protection of the upper groups. All this changed radically with colonial rule.

Impact of colonization

  • 4 99 years concessions at the beginning (term extended to 999 years in a second period!)

12By the late nineteenth century, the British conquest and colonization had already disrupted the living conditions of Africans. Just after building the railway connecting the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria (nearly 1,000 km into the interior), the British government strived to get “return” on this huge investment through installing European settlers, offering them attractive conditions in the matter of land granting4. This call was quickly heard by thousands of Europeans of diverse origins, from small South African farmers to British aristocrats, the latter obtaining very large areas of fertile land.

  • 5 This phenomenon is particularly difficult to quantify, due to the lack of coherence of statistical (...)

13Thus began a long process of land dispossession5. The natives became aware of it very gradually, because of the skilful policy of the British conquerors: distribution of relief to people affected by natural disasters in the 1890s, opening arable areas previously inaccessible due to insecurity, etc. Land seizure is, however, only one aspect of colonial action. The European settlers needed not only fertile land but an abundant and cheap workforce to produce on it. Hence a series of coercive measures to this effect: creation of African “Reserves”, strict movement controls, taxation, heavy regulation of cash crops, etc.

14Faced with this ruthless policy, the Kikuyu resisted for half a century with diverse and original strategies. Their first response consisted in breaking the confinement due to the creation of Reserves through a well-rooted practice: migrations towards new areas, allowing improved livelihood, foundation of new clans or lineage groups and social advancement of their leaders. This logic led the Kikuyu “pioneers” toward high altitude areas originally less populated but attracting most European settlers. This movement, that may appear paradoxical, met in fact the settlers’ chief concern: the need of cheap labour.

15However, the Kikuyu firmly refused the status of temporary migrant workers. They moved with whole families, carrying with them all their goods (including livestock and beehives), since they regarded their establishment in the host areas as final or indeterminate. On the other hand, many settlers were unable to pay significant wage labour. This led to subtle compromises allowing migrants to get what they actually wanted, that is the allocation of land for food crops and grazing land for their livestock in exchange for a rather limited working time on the settlers’ farms. These migrants were also far from a socially homogeneous group: they were not composed only of ahoi (tenants without access to land in their original clan) but also well-off farmers, anxious to increase the size of their herds and strengthen their social and political position (Kanogo 1987). The latter got access to vast tracts of grazing land on the “White Highlands” with only one counterpart: watching over the settlers’ flocks.

16The migrants’ social diversity and their “hybrid” relations with the settlers reflect the absence of an outright “sale of labour power”. These relations were rather based on original forms of sharecropping, such as “Kaffir farming” imported from South Africa, adapted to the necessities of a large proportion of settlers. Such practices “persisted until the settler presence in Kenya drew to a close in the early 1960s” (Kanogo 1987: 15).

17As a result of a favourable balance of power in relationships with the settlers and the colonial administration, Kikuyu “squatters” enjoyed a large autonomy in the matter of choice of host areas and terms of occupancy. Therefore, they appeared as “privileged” in the eyes of people living in overcrowded Reserves, subject to the whim of administration and native (Kikuyu) collaborators– particularly with the institution of forced labour in 1912. All this contributed to the emergence of a myth about the prospects of a new life in the “White Highlands” – a myth that fostered ever increasing inflows of new migrants (Kanogo 1987).

18This “golden age” could not last. From the aftermath of World war I, settlers tried to cultivate their own land themselves, through modernization and intensification, reducing their dependency on African migrants. Moreover, as they invested in stock, they feared the spread of disease by these migrants’ livestock. The administration, meanwhile, sought to reduce squatters’ autonomy through strict enforcement of an ordinance that defined them as labour tenants, compelled to work at least 180 days per year on white settlers’ farms (Stichter 1982). Hence the gradual confinement of squatters to narrow areas fulfilling a specific function: reserves of labour force. Despite a fierce resistance, squatters were seeing the balance of power evolve to their disadvantage. Perceiving their presence as a source of insecurity, the settlers required a strengthened legal control over squatters: that control was finally transferred in 1937 to district councils where the real power of decision-making belonged to the European settlers (Elkins 2005).

19Nevertheless the squatters accounted for a limited fraction of the Kikuyu. The majority struggled for survival in the Reserves through a marginal subsistence agriculture and some off-farm activities Men who spent a long time outside their usual residence area in search of external resources were often deprived of their land rights by the most prominent members of their sub-clan or family circle. In fact, land litigation increased in the early 1940s as landlords (and even church leaders) sought to reclaim land from their dependants and to hinder juniors’ access to land through the redefinition of customary law and imposition of primogeniture. The implications of these growing inequalities, far from being purely “material”, undermined the cohesion of the whole Kikuyu rural society, especially through family conflicts and “gender trouble”. In many poor households, long absences of men resulted in overwork for women and acute debates about the “moral economy of manhood” (Peterson 2001: 473-474).

20The colonial government itself was involved in such a deconstruction process, particularly through the appointment of “native chiefs” who were endowed with privileges unknown in the customary organization and responsible for the most unpopular tasks: recruitment for forced labour, tax collection, etc. The most “efficient” of these chiefs were regularly rewarded with large tracts of fertile land and other benefits: which further aggravated inequalities and local conflicts (Elkins 2005).

21In the Reserves as in the settlement areas, living conditions were worsening for most African rural families, while European settlers and a native minority were reinforcing their hegemony. Urban migration, mainly to Nairobi, was the last resort for impoverished peasants and for squatters evicted from the White Highlands. Hence the spread of slums housing an ever growing population eking out a living with random and underground activities, facing multiple forms of discrimination and repression.

22Kikuyu resistance to colonial coercion started to organize soon after World War I, in various ways. The KCA (Kikuyu Central Association), founded in the early 1920s by young educated people, committed to political struggle through legal means, conveying specific claims to the British authorities, especially about land or forced labour. However, mass mobilization around the land issue proved to be the task of important groups of squatters evicted from the White Highlands and rejecting the conditions set by the authorities for their resettlement in the Olenguruone area in Maasai territory. The size of the allocated plots (8 acres per household), the precarious status of the approved farmers and the rigid rules about cultivation, livestock keeping and collective work generated widespread defiance. Most of all, the whole scheme proved unsustainable: “The area was unsuitable for cultivation and by 1945 the settlement was unable to grow sufficient food.” (Kanogo 1987: 115)

  • 6 “The Olenguruone residents had revived the use of the oath as a tool of unity as early as 1943-44. (...)
  • 7 The exact origin of this term is unclear.

23The resistance of Olenguruone residents raised increasing sympathy among all the squatters as among Reserves residents. In 1949-50, the administration reacted abruptly with the eviction of all untitled occupants from this area. In the midst of a campaign of collective oaths6, the Mau Mau7 movement emerged in the public area. This movement involving large sections of the Kikuyu people around the slogan ithaka na wiyathi ( “land and freedom”) advocated the armed struggle. Its first violent actions in 1951-52 raised an immediate response from the colonial government: the state of emergency. For many years, a blind and disproportionate repression befell the whole Kikuyu population.

24Three types of measures disrupted the living conditions of most rural families: 1) forced “return” to African Reserves; 2) confinement of hundreds of thousands of “suspects” through the Pipeline, namely a complex system of detention camps designed to extort confessions and information; 3) grouping the population into artificial “villages” under military control. This last measure was in fact a new form of detention applied to the whole rural population, deprived of free access to farmland and required to suffer semi-permanent forms of forced labour, not to mention torture and sexual abuse (Elkins 2005).

  • 8 The author of the Plan is particularly clear on this point: “former Government policy will be rever (...)

25Colonial domination in Kikuyuland, marked by land dispossession and the disrupting of the traditional economy, culminated with the ruthless repression of a popular revolt. However, one final element has to be taken into account: the official action of the administration in the matter of “modernization” of native agriculture. By 1953, an expert named R.J.M. Swynnerton drew up an ambitious development plan, designed for the whole country, but that should apply primarily to the Kikuyu Reserves, whose situation was deemed critical because of overpopulation and environmental degradation. Assuming traditional tilling is responsible for this decline, this plan defined a set of measures for the conservation and improvement of soil fertility. The cornerstone of the plan, however, is property reinforcement which appeared necessary for the establishment of farms with a sound land base. This effectively meant the concentration of land in the hands of a minority of dynamic farmers endowed with individual ownership titles and the elimination of most of the micro-farms: the main consequence of it being the emergence of a class of landless peasants living essentially from the sale of their labour-force8. The implementation of this plan was soon confronted with intractable financial limits. But the state of emergency allowed the government to enforce some of its provisions in the most authoritarian and arbitrary way: such was the case for land demarcation which was delegated to committees of “loyalist” notables, who found a new opportunity of increasing their own property at the expense of their community (Elkins 2005).

Socioeconomic change and peasant strategies since Independence

Land issues and struggles

  • 9 “… it is necessary to say that decolonisation occurred in such a way as to ensure that the settlers (...)

26Kenya’s political independence in December 1963 implied no radical break from the colonial system9. For new President Jomo Kenyatta, “reconciliation” with the former colonial ruler was a priority. He dismissed the idea of any restitution of land taken over by the colonists and their collaborators, as well as any form of compensation. In contrast, European settlers’ “rights” were clearly backed up: the young Kenyan government bought the land of those who left the country at market prices (through loans from the British government), while those who stayed kept their properties and privileges intact.

  • 10 The Kalenjin consider they were victims of colonial displacement from, and alienation of “ancestral (...)

27For the large numbers of landless people, there was no more hope of massive free grants of land: “Their high expectations had evaporated overnight” (Kanogo 1987: 175). Their only means of access to land ownership then relied on membership of cooperative societies that bought large tracts of land to sell it back on credit in small plots. From 1965, Settlement Schemes seemed to offer more accessible conditions: over a decade some 581,000 hectares (1,452,000 acres) – of a total of 1,346,000 hectares (3,365,000 acres) – were distributed to about 50,000 beneficiaries; but over a quarter of them, unable to meet the costs of production, sold their plot illegally. In the meantime most of the “recovered” colonial land (nearly two thirds) was sold to constitute large estates (Adam 1994). Ultimately, the actual benefit of such measures is less for poor or landless farmers than for a small number of landlords or businessmen. Bur another consequence is the heightening of ethnic tensions, particularly in the Rift Valley where some groups (especially Kalenjin or Maasai) denounce what they view as a Kikuyu intrusion on their ancestral land10. These tensions take violent forms from the late 1970s, and lead to the emergence of the Mungiki sect (presently considered as a ‘terrorist movement’ by the authorities), which claims to defend all the Kikuyu with particular emphasis on their right to land, although its action is mainly oriented towards the inhabitants of Nairobi’s slums (Kakwanja 2003).

28Contradictions tend to develop under the government of President Moi, who allocates vast tracts of public land (mainly forest) to political allies or speculators – while it strictly prohibits traditional crops in the forest (as a means of evicting the poorest rural families). All this contributes simultaneously to deforestation, acute competition for arable land and increasing precariousness for large sections of the population. Some areas are invaded by ever numerous (but socially heterogeneous) squatter communities, especially around Mount Kenya (Kariuki 2005).

29The increasing acuity of land conflicts would be due (at least in part) to the lack of coherence of the measures set up by successive governments, compromising any global solution to the problem of the landless. The latter, apparently unable to unite and organize themselves to defend their common rights and interests, seem to be manipulated by some groups that try to “ethnicize” the land issues for political aims. The split between big landowners and landless, even though sharply resented locally, gets somehow blurred by the overall feeling of a reciprocal hostility between the Kikuyu as a whole and neighbouring groups who perceive them as privileged or hegemonic. This leads to periodic outbursts of violence, the most recent (and tragic) being the 2007/2008 post-election crisis (Branch and Cheeseman 2009).

Export crops and socioeconomic change

30The highly unequal distribution of land, however, cannot be reduced to a sharp contrast between a handful of landlords and a mass of poor and landless peasants. Large estates are concentrated in the European settlement areas, while in the most densely populated parts of Kikuyuland social differentiation has rather the aspect of a continuum. This could be explained for in part by the dramatic growth of export crops since the eve of independence, growth resulting in a significant increase in cash income and living standards of large sections of the peasantry. While reproducing the inequalities between different categories of producers, this process tends to mitigate their antagonistic character.

  • 11 Unlike that of coffee which, after a maximum of 130,000 tonnes in 1988, declined significantly with (...)

31By the late 1950s, export crops (coffee, tea, and pyrethrum) that were reserved for European settlers were opened to African producers. This new policy was accompanied by an unprecedented effort of technical support including the setting up of a network of autonomous cooperatives. This device, maintained unchanged after independence, contributed to the rapid spread of Arabica coffee growing, reshaping the whole landscape of the Central Highlands. A similar process can be observed for tea growing: the rise of this crop, albeit later, was even faster thanks to the support of KDTA (Kenya Tea Development Authority), a parastatal organization established in 1964, which focused its action on small scale producers. At a national level, the growth of tea production even proved steadier and more sustainable than that of coffee production – which recorded a sharp decline in the 1990s11. But albeit being by far the main cash crop in some regions (especially the Rift Valley and West Nyanza), in the Central Province tea occupied a relatively modest position compared to coffee.

32A positive asset of the Kenyan agricultural policy should be emphasized: the very low rate of export taxes, which makes an important difference with many African countries. The producers are thus allowed to benefit directly from increases in world prices and regularly receive a high proportion (between 85 and 90 %) of the export price (Bevan et al. 1993, Swamy 1994).

33The actual impact of the growth of export crops on the economy and rural society of the Central Highlands is particularly difficult to assess. This has probably contributed both to the emergence of a potent agro-export bourgeoisie and to a deep restructuring of the peasantry – the latter gaining a capacity for autonomous action, albeit at the cost of an exodus of many of its members to the slums of the capital. This would result in a general (and remarkable) resilience to the coffee crisis that has shaken the region since the 1990s.

Systems and relations of production

34The current situation in the deep countryside of Kikuyuland appears complex and contradictory. To understand the main elements and factors, it is necessary to focus attention on the systems of production and the social relations, especially about family organization and intergenerational relationships.

35Meeting peasant farmers of the Central Highlands of Kenya, is to enter a moving world, where everything seems to blur the landmarks of the observer: a social universe in which sharp contrasts are intertwined with subtle nuances, challenging classical techniques of investigation. The legacy of colonial repression finds expression in persistent divisions between local families, a weakening of social links, a climate of suspicion reinforced by the dashed hopes after a period of economic growth and relative prosperity.

  • 12 Except for replacing coffee trees with tea, but this concerns only planters located at the limit of (...)

36The peasant systems of production, beyond their diversity, show some basic features: a combination of a variety of crops or activities, intensiveness and flexibility. Whatever the importance of coffee, the Kikuyu farmers have always integrated it into the logic of their farming systems, with a particular attention to maintaining food crops. And the current decline in coffee growing does not result in the uprooting of trees: these are kept in hope of better times12.

  • 13 KTDA (which was privatized in 2000, A meaning henceforth Agency instead of Authority) has establish (...)

37All the tasks being manual, family farmers have effective control of their process of production through a judicious mobilization of family labour and the use of hired labour at certain times. The needs of tea in maintenance works and inputs are more limited than for coffee; however, the needs in the workforce for picking are significantly higher, since the tea harvest period covers about ten months of the year, against only one or two for coffee. The timing of the tea harvest is viewed as an advantage by many growers because of the regularity of the resulting cash receipts. But in practice the spiral of indebtedness seems to affect small tea growers as much as coffee farmers13. Moreover, in both cases, the producers have no control over the marketing chain and thus on the valorisation of their product. They get only partial and cut off information on the routing of this product when delivered, exert no control on prices – even though they are formally involved in the management of the coffee cooperatives.

38Each coffee cooperative society includes around 600 to 1400 members represented in a Management Committee of nine members elected every three years. It carries on pulping of coffee cherries and packaging of grains before marketing. It sets itself the producer price, but without consulting the former and on unclear criterions: hence the high price differentials within the same area (around fifty per cent in Nyeri in January 2006) and significant fluctuations during a season. As for the participation of producers in some basic operations, it requires some clarification. Visitors are often impressed by the ardour with which working teams (mostly female) carry on manual tasks (washing, sorting, etc.). These tasks were originally accomplished on a “voluntary” base, each member committing to provide the cooperative one or two days per week during the harvest season. But this rule was unequal since the contribution of each was independent of the quantities delivered, thus imposing a transfer of free labour from small producers to big farmers (most of whom even found their way to avoid this obligation!). In 1986, following a large strike, this system was abolished and replaced with a levy proportional to the quantity delivered and providing funds to pay people who perform these tasks (Kuria 1990: 366-9).

39All this illustrates the ambiguity of these cooperative societies. Do they generally respond to the interests of a majority of farmers, or are they tools in the hands of a few big farmers and local politicians? In fact, most of the farmers complain about the way prices are set up and the day-to-day problems of the cooperative system (corruption, conflicts, mismanagement, etc.). On the other hand, the most influential sections of great planters and traders are challenging the whole cooperative system in the name of a full liberalization of the coffee industry. Under their pressure an amendment to the 2005 Finance Act allowing free and direct sale of green coffee has been adopted with the enthusiastic support of the Minister of Agriculture – and fierce opposition of the Minister of Cooperatives (Daily Nation, August 9, 2005). A few months later, a “Kenya Coffee Growers Association” called for an immediate enforcement of this “new law” called “second marketing window”, arguing it would “encourage competitiveness in the market and remove cartels which… had been exploiting farmers for a long time” (Daily Nation, January 24, 2006). However, the reactions of small and average coffee growers would be less clear-cut: while denouncing the rigidity and lack of transparency of cooperatives, many fear an increased vulnerability to market.

  • 14 Especially the setting of a time limit for paying farmers: within 30 days of milk delivery. This ne (...)

40One speculation that tends to occupy today a place comparable to the former place of coffee is dairy cattle. This activity, although not new in itself, currently plays a vital role since increasing receipts from the sale of milk are compensating the declining coffee revenues. The major constraint here is the daily diet of cows, since forage cultivation is severely limited by the narrowness of family land. Given the extreme scarcity of natural pastures, the main solution is feeding the animals in the stable through natural forage: the search for it is the task of women, who are forced to make long and painful trips through steep slopes, carrying heavy loads of grass. Family farmers here have an almost complete mastery of their material means of production, albeit with a heavy female workload – or even a real surplus labour (exploitation) if the product is monopolized by men. On the other hand, the marketing of such a perishable product as milk raises serious problems for farms without any means of preservation and storage. State attempts to organize the dairy industry have long been inconclusive. But the adoption of incentive measures by the Kenya Dairy Board14 and market liberalization have contributed to a very significant increase in the marketed production since the early 2000s in conjunction with the widespread distribution of imported breeds (Kijima et al. 2010). The question is whether this benefits equally most of the family farmers involved in dairy cattle or only a privileged few. Nevertheless, recent experiences of self-help groups, reflecting an autonomous effort of the farmers to protect themselves against market uncertainties and enhance their own product, deserve attention.

41It is necessary to clarify that this status of self-help group includes different types of enterprises with important variations in nature and size. Thus, the Wakulima dairy project (Mukurweini Division), initiated in early 1990 with substantial aid, is similar today to a big private company, with a permanent staff, supervising about 6,000 farmers and collecting approximately 22,000 litres of milk daily (hence the change of status planned by its leaders). Conversely, the Ria Gombe group (Mathira Division), created in 2005 without any external support, works with very limited means (transport by bicycles, etc.) and manages to collect 500 to 600 litres daily, delivered to a dairy plant in the capital which sends a truck, provides cans and ensures a stable price (Survey in Nyeri District, January 2006).

  • 15 The only beekeeper met during our fieldwork has eight cylindrical hives made (by himself) of wood a (...)

42Market gardening also arouses a growing interest, especially on land along rivers where irrigation allows for two or even three campaigns per year. The ever increasing demand from urban markets combined with changing dietary habits in rural areas ensures some vegetables (cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes, for example) a high profitability. The same applies for some fruit trees such as the macadamia with its tasty hazelnut for which demand has increased notably since the 1990s. For some other crops or activities, the trend is less clear, or different. Thus, beekeeping, which has often figured prominently in the past, would take presently a more professionalized form, restricted to a minority15. Finally, we must mention the rapid spread of various products of high commercial value (grafted fruits, vanilla, etc.) but introduced recently through the action of innovative farmers (Mbataru 2008).

  • 16 Their number is very difficult to know, due to the lack of accurate statistical data.
  • 17 According to some observers, this trade sometimes takes the form of an original barter in which the (...)

43These experiences, although initiated by well-off farmers, reflect a logic shared by the majority of peasantry, based both on the search for food safety and risk division. This logic underpins a variety of strategies, mainly oriented towards the diversification of activities and income sources. The implementation of these strategies, however, faces serious constraints, particularly land and labour. Land is the main limiting factor for very large sections of the peasantry16 in crowded mountain areas of Nyeri District. For lack of a local solution, many peasant families have acquired land in the Rift Valley (through settlement schemes or more frequently covert purchase of allotted land). Those distant plots (over 100 km), where they stay seasonally, often produce most of the maize (staple food) for annual consumption. Moreover, substantial maize surpluses of these regions are drained through an “informal” trade controlled by Kikuyu women, bypassing the Kenya Maize Board’s monopoly, contributing to reduce food deficit in Kikuyuland17. These women known as atimia a thoko (women grain traders) are occupying a rising economic position in the coffee crisis context (Mbataru 2008).

44Nevertheless, the main constraint is not in all cases land but family labour. This is going along with increasing youth mobility and with the decline of customary forms of mutual aid based on kinship and neighbourhood. Many households, reduced to an elderly couple and receiving only occasional help from children enrolled or working outside, must rely on hired labour for all heavy tasks. If they cannot recruit day labourers, they cultivate only a portion of their land, and they generally prefer to leave the rest untilled than give it away to rent or sharecropping, for fear of litigation.

45Some field observations, although partial and selective, can give a clearer picture of the daily organization and concrete choices of small family farmers, illustrating in the same way the extreme diversity of situations and the uncertainty of any attempt at classification.

Field observations (Nyeri District)

461. A family farm with a parcel planted in coffee and an irrigated plot on a riverside, is producing cabbage, sweet potato and cassava. Tobacco planted in front of the house, a cow and some sheep complement family resources. The head, aged 65, pays little interest in coffee, planted by his father in 1956. He claims he has been disadvantaged in the sharing of family land (7 acres originally), since his father had three spouses and his mother had too many sons: so he was given only small plots, and this was not conducive to coffee growing. Besides that, he does not trust the local coffee cooperative because of its internal conflicts. So he has focused on tobacco, preparing it himself with a very old mortar and selling it on the local market. But with a production of about 50 kg per year, tobacco certainly provides lower income than the vegetable plot tilled by his wife. In fact he is a multi-active farmer, working as a mason, though he spends less time on it with age. (Othaya Division).

472. A very active young household with a child under 5 combines on-farm and off-farm activities. The man works as a woodcutter and a sawyer on behalf of a forester who entrusted him with mechanical equipment and pays him back 25 % of the revenue. His current project is the purchase of a chainsaw (investment of around Ksh 70,000, or about 840 euros). His wife is devoted to vegetable crops on a plot located on a riverside and irrigated in the dry season: she thus achieves three campaigns a year for tomato, each providing an average return of Ksh 7,000 (about € 84). She would like to acquire a pump for irrigation. (Othaya Division).

483. A coffee growing family farm which participates in the international Utz Kapeh Programme ( “a worldwide initiative for certified responsible coffee”, with strict technical, social and environmental rules). The elderly head of household has been a manager of the local cooperative for more than ten years. His annual production has been meticulously recorded since 1980 in a notebook, as well as the input consumption. In spite of high annual fluctuations, production (which could reach 5000 kg in the 1980s) clearly shows a declining trend in the last decade: after a “peak” of 2000 kg in 2000/2001, it oscillates between 190 and 320 kg for the following years (except for 2003/2004 with 836 kg). Nevertheless, his emotional attachment to coffee remains very strong: “Abandoning coffee is like kicking off an old mother”, he says. The house he now lives in was built recently by his eldest daughter in gratitude for his efforts for her own education (financed through coffee earnings). Since there are no more children at home, his spouse manages to produce enough maize and other staples to meet their annual needs. (Gathuthi, Mathira Division).

494. A family farm run by a woman about fifty years old. Land includes parcels of coffee and lots of tea. Coffee was planted in 1962 and tea in 1998 only – which reflects an effort to adjust to present economic conditions. The main current resources are tea, food crops and vegetable crops. Any surplus of maize, beans, potatoes, etc. is sold on the local market. The landlady owns a single cow, whose milk is used mainly for home consumption. She spends most of her time picking up tea (ten months yearly) with the help of her sons. The sale of tea brings in an average Ksh 1,500 per month (about € 18) – as “initial” KTDA payment. This is an interesting example of a farm reaching an effective and steady balance between food crops, cash crops and basic needs through intense domestic work. (Gathuthi, Tetu Division).

505. A family farm run by a woman about forty years old, engaged mainly in tea growing. She picks up alone on a steep plot of approximately 1 acre, searching patiently through thick bushes to select only the smaller leaves, in accordance with quality requirements. In this period (January) the volume is reduced by drought. In wetter periods, she has to hire workers (for up to Ksh 100 per day). She also owns a piece of land in the Rift Valley, which produces maize for annual consumption, but she can seldom go there and must hire workers for the main tasks. Her chief concern is her growing indebtedness to the SACCO. (Gathuthi, Tetu Division).

516. A very old widow bears alone the burden of eight grandchildren unable to help her with farm work except a girl of 18 who has left school. She has a plot of land (about 5 acres), part of which is planted with coffee. She has no longer been involved in it for five years, although she asserts her wish to get back to it. In fact the problem of labour is her main restraint. She can till herself just a small part of her plot for the family diet, and occasionally must resort to hired work, especially for digging (at a rate varying from Ksh 100 to 250 a day). She has a cow (suckling the calf and leaving little milk for the family), a goat and some kids: selling one of these allows her to cope with unexpected charges. She also receives financial support from a Christian NGO based in Austria that sponsors children (about Ksh 6,000 per year, or € 72). (Othaya Division).

52Family labour organization was never rigid or static. Currently it appears rapidly evolving, with a deep reshaping of the division between “male” and “female” roles and tasks. While women have always taken an important part in production and trade activities, the expansion of export crops has contributed until recently to a substantial reduction of their autonomous sphere of activity and prerogatives. Men got used to confining women to food crops while simultaneously assigning them heavy labour services, especially for coffee (maintenance, harvest, etc.). With the collapse of the coffee economy, women are not only recovering their former positions but taking over new roles, often assuming the basic expenditures of the household, including children’s school fees. In many cases the transformation of farming systems results in a reversal of power relations, especially with the development of dairy farming or market gardening. Women’s expertise in feeding the cows confers on them effective power, which they are quite aware of. This is equally perceived – and bitterly resented – by men, as evidenced by the following: “thirikari niyagarurirwo – there has been a gender coup d’état in the household government” (reported by Mbataru 2008: 224). Moreover, women are increasingly investing in local social networks through ROSCAs or “merry-go-rounds” (itati), micro-credit associations, village or church-based self-help groups, community projects, etc.

  • 18 The proportion of rural women heads of household has steadily increased over at least two decades, (...)

53This process of change in gender relations, which appears as a factor of tension in the short term, is certainly a necessary step to reducing at least the harshest forms of women’s “domestic” exploitation and the setting up of more balanced forms of cooperation. It should be emphasized that this process takes place – here as everywhere in Africa – in an overall context marked by increasing precariousness and reinforcing social inequalities18. The way for rural women invested with new responsibilities and striving for a better life is not an easy one.

54There are other types of change in family organization that may pose serious threats to the future: in particular the increasing reversal of the intergenerational relations resulting (for a large part) from the rush of young rural people to the cities. The classical pattern in which ageing parents rely on their adult children to meet their needs is gradually (or even brutally) questioned or challenged. Nowadays it is often the parents themselves who, far from receiving any type of assistance, must help their children “settled” in the capital or in a big city without steady incomes, and support fully the proper children of the latter (as in case 6)! We can easily understand the distress of these elderly farmers who, beyond this breach in customary practices, legitimately wonder about their fate in the coming years, when they will be no longer able to work the land themselves. This problem is really complex and should not be reduced to a kind of “betrayal” on the part of younger generations. Migrations of young adults to cities are often motivated in part by the difficulty of working as independent farmers since most heads of family refuse to give them their inheritance – which was formerly granted on accession to marriage. We are thus in front of a deep crisis of family structures and values, which could have a serious impact on family farming and the fate of the peasantry.

  • 19 This urban experience may be viewed as “a post-school prior at the beginning of the path leading to (...)

55Migration to the cities is indeed a key issue, since it affects the daily existence of a large part of rural households whose survival or welfare is dependent on off-farm activities. This phenomenon, quite ancient in Central Province, takes varying forms depending on economic conditions and the specific constraints of every family unit. For most young people, the city is a necessary step to achieve the status of independent farmer19. But many family heads make long stays in cities (especially Nairobi) to procure the necessary income, leaving all farming tasks to women – which may have serious effects on home organization. The family structure can be either maintained unchanged (the father returning home regularly) or broken (in case of divorce or separation). But the actual situation in most cases would be rather intermediate: the father’s long absences result in a large transfer of responsibilities to the mother. Besides physical work, the latter assumes the management of the family farm and all child-related tasks (with financial support from the father or not), without being so far openly considered “head of household”.

56At the end of this brief analysis of such complex and shifting realities it is difficult to reach a conclusion. Permanent resistance of the Kenyan peasantry of the Central Highlands to foreign domination, dispossession and pressures of the dominant classes and the world market has been our guiding principle. These elements seem essential to understand its restructuring and current strategies. But many issues are still to be explored and deepened. And forecasts for the future appear all the more uncertain as the tragic events of 2007/2008 ( “post electoral violence”) may have broken for a long time the intense complementary links between the heart of Kikuyuland and the vast “White highlands”, as they inflicted new spoliation on thousands of peasant families (especially those who owned land in the areas most affected by violence). Faced by hardship for centuries, these mountain men and women accustomed to “walk up and down” continue their daily struggle for survival and the education of their children in hope of a better future.



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1 Originally, the term “resilience” relates to the field of physical sciences and applies to the resistance of a metal to shocks; its usual derived senses are elasticity, buoyancy or recuperative power (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 4th edition, 1951-1961). Once transposed in the vocabulary of development, this term refers mainly to the endurance and ability to recover of a human group facing a variety of pressures and hazards. But its current use by the international institutions tends to elude all social and political aspects or issues. For instance, “resilient peasantries” (especially in contexts marked by a lack of public regulation) are supposed to form ‘supportive communities’ able to implement low cost and effective projects. But what about peasants dispossessed from their land or basic resources, or subject to oppression? Are they expected to reassert their rights by all available means, or to rely on a hypothetical government intervention? Should we implicitly admit a boundary between ‘resilience’ and resistance (the latter including recourse to ‘extra-legal’ means)?

2 This paper relies primarily on a three-week mission to Kenya in January 2006 on the invitation of IFRA (French Institute for Research in Africa). It included an exploratory survey throughout the Nyeri district in collaboration with Patrick Mbataru who was just starting fieldwork for his doctoral thesis. This survey, based on open interviews with dozens of peasant households and local development agents, has been particularly fruitful thanks to the personal qualities of our colleague and the positive attitude of all the persons met. The author also wishes to thank Pr. Bernard Charlery de la Masselière, then director of IFRA, for his constant support and generous hospitality.

3 “An mbari was a collection of households who traced their relationship through a single prominent individual, the founder. Sociologically, the mbari was the unit of reputation […]. The genealogical growth of the mbari augmented the fame and standing of its founder and the prospects of a peaceful afterlife.
“The establishment of an mbari required entrepreneurship and wealth. A founder had first to secede from an existing lineage and claim land whereupon to establish his own kin group. Such acts were costly, for in some cases, adjacent land was owned by a neighbouring tribe and had to be acquired.” (Bates 1987: 5-6)

4 99 years concessions at the beginning (term extended to 999 years in a second period!)

5 This phenomenon is particularly difficult to quantify, due to the lack of coherence of statistical data, especially for the early periods. According to M.T. Kuria (1990: 222), colonial land grabbing would hardly reach a few thousand acres in the first years of the twentieth century, but then increased brutally to reach 4.5 million acres in 1915, 6.3 million in 1942 and 7.3 million in 1953.

6 “The Olenguruone residents had revived the use of the oath as a tool of unity as early as 1943-44. Under the threat of imminent eviction, the Olenguruone crisis radicalized the use of the oath as a means of eliciting mass unity against colonial oppression, as in a widespread and non-selective approach thousands of men, women and children took the oath. Olenguruone residents then spread the oath to the surrounding settler farms and to Central province, especially Southern Kiambu.” (Kanogo 1987: 116).

7 The exact origin of this term is unclear.

8 The author of the Plan is particularly clear on this point: “former Government policy will be reversed and able, energetic or rich Africans will be able to acquire more land and bad or poor farmers less, creating a landed and landless class. This is a normal step in the evolution of a country.” (Swynnerton, A Plan to Intensify the Development of Agriculture, quoted by Elkins, 2005: 127). We may notice the amalgam between “bad” and “poor” farmers, which is commonplace in colonial and neo-colonial writings about African agriculture.

9 “… it is necessary to say that decolonisation occurred in such a way as to ensure that the settlers were fully compensated and that British metropolitan interests in Kenya were safeguarded. In other words, what was termed decolonisation was in effect Kenya’s transition from a colonial to a neo-colonial state.” (Kanogo 1987: 164).

10 The Kalenjin consider they were victims of colonial displacement from, and alienation of “ancestral land” in the Rift Valley. This sense of “historic injustice” “… is strengthened by a belief that it was the Kikuyu who benefited disproportionately from settlement schemes initiated in the area in the 1960s and 1970s under president Kenyatta’s tutelage, whilst the Kalenjin have never been adequately compensated for their loss” (Lynch, 2008: 559). In 2005, a majority of the Kalenjin rejected the constitutional referendum, the main motive being supposed to be their suspicion of “… a new central land board and allocation of unutilized land, which was depicted as a way of allowing further Kikuyu incursions into the Rift Valley” (ibid.).

11 Unlike that of coffee which, after a maximum of 130,000 tonnes in 1988, declined significantly with the collapse of world prices and fell to 50,000 tonnes in 1999, Kenyan tea production has been recording a steady increase to present day: from 147,000 tonnes in 1985 (against under 20,000 in 1965) to 345,000 in 2008 (Daily Nation, April 10, 2009). It has reached 377,000 tonnes in 2011.

12 Except for replacing coffee trees with tea, but this concerns only planters located at the limit of the tea area (altitude of 1800 m).

13 KTDA (which was privatized in 2000, A meaning henceforth Agency instead of Authority) has established a rather complex system of payment. Farmers are paid in three stages: 1) initial payment at the end of each month, at a rate representing a fraction of the final price; 2) second instalment after six months, representing about 30 % of the total; and 3) final payment representing the balance (total less the payments already made).
(Interview with the manager of the Gathuthi KTDA plant, January 25, 2006).
The use of a cooperative credit system (SACCOs) through KTDA is stimulated by the narrow gap between the “initial” price paid to producers monthly (Ksh 9 / kg in 2006) and the rate at which pickers are paid for the task (Ksh 6 / kg). For most of the year, it is difficult for small farmers to cover their financial needs if they have to pay the pickers two-thirds of the amount paid by KTDA.

14 Especially the setting of a time limit for paying farmers: within 30 days of milk delivery. This new ruling is supposed to have brought about a steady growth in marketed production since 2002: from 109 million litres to 365 million in 2005 (Daily Nation, January 24, 2006).

15 The only beekeeper met during our fieldwork has eight cylindrical hives made (by himself) of wood and corrugated iron, strategically located in a small forest adjacent to his house. His production reaches at least 200 kg per year; sold for Ksh 200 / kg (€ 2.40), ensuring a significant income (Tetu Division, January 25, 2006).

16 Their number is very difficult to know, due to the lack of accurate statistical data.

17 According to some observers, this trade sometimes takes the form of an original barter in which the economic dimension is coupled with a strong symbolic element: traditional baskets made by Kikuyu rural women are exchanged against maize (generally a basket against three contents) (Adam 1994).

18 The proportion of rural women heads of household has steadily increased over at least two decades, especially in Eastern Africa. But their economic situation is most often far from bright, and their access to land remains a crucial and complex issue in a context marked by deep change in land tenure and the lack of coherence of most public land policies (Englert and Daley 2008).

19 This urban experience may be viewed as “a post-school prior at the beginning of the path leading to self-fulfilment” (Droz 1999: 261 – translation by us).


Dr. and Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University Toulouse 3, LISST-Dynamiques Rurales, Toulouse (France),
His work focuses on agriculture, rural development and especially on farmers’ organizations.

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