Friday, December 08, 2006

Struggling to survive amidst complex land policies

EDGAR R. BATTE






The Benet’s situation is not helped by the biting poverty that the area faces. With poorly constructed houses, food shortage, frequent cattle raids and hardly any social services in the area, life only gets harder.Perched on a stone, this man seems deeply lost in thought. It is time to make a meal and despite the centuries passed since the Stone Age era, Kogeni makes his fire through the stone-age practice of rubbing two splinters and dry grass. He succeeds and the orange glow is evidence of that.It is just unfortunate that this Benet tribesman lives in the cold zones of Mountain Elgon in Kapchorwa District where dry grass is not that easy to come by. Minutes after a cup of sugarless tea, he makes for the garden but for a little while, he’s hesitant to start tilling. Dew is forming on almost everything from his hands and feet to the entire surrounding.His face tells it all. He just cannot seem to understand why after being a settler in an area his ancestors have occupied for over 200 years, he continues to be subjected to tilling land in order to earn a living. He is one of the other Benet natives that have been pushed off the bigger part of their homeland and restricted to staying in a small area between the two rivers of Kere and Kaptukoi. The rest of the land has been reserved for game.Restrictive land policiesAccording to the woman Member of Parliament for Kapchorwa, honourable Gertrude Kulany, there are actually some families that still don’t have definite areas to stay. “It is true that parliament gazetted the 6,000 hectares of the game park to resettle the Benet but still, there are some families that were left homeless,” the MP points out. She has also consequently made her pleas to government to come to their rescue and gazette more land to accommodate these people.The process of gazetting the land took place back in 1983 when government confined them to 6,000 hectares. In the same year, the red-line mark (a demarcation line between the game park and the Benet’s residential area) was put in place. The population back then were still low. At the time, the Benet were only 1,000 but currently, the figures have increased to approximately 7,000 people. Hon. Kulany adds that they have as well made an outcry to the district council to pass a resolution to enable the extension of the boundary beyond the currently designated area of occupation.Another leader and chairman of the Benet lobby group, Moses Muanga can hardly make any sense out of government’s decision towards them. “We have lived on the slopes of mountain Elgon for over 200 years. It is puzzling that we are forced to vacate. This is all due to government’s unclear land tenure policy in the area. How can you sideline human life for the case for mere animals?” he questions. Unanswered requests The chairman adds that the Benet have made various outcries and pleas to the government but all the efforts seem not to yield any results. He adds that they continue to be landless and marginalized in decision-making. He points out the resettlement process where the tribe was resettled without any compensation package. Hon Kulany attests to this, adding that the locals can hardly embark on any long-term plans within the area since they are not quite sure of their stay on the land. At times, conflicts between the locals and game rangers ensue, a situation Hon. Kulany blames on the failure of the locals and rangers to come to terms. The other reason is poverty, which has also frustrated their efforts to develop themselves. Poverty in the area is physical and their houses tell it all. They are made of a few reeds, leaves and mud. A matchbox is shared between seven families, each of them about half a kilometre apart. All Kogeni owns is a blanket, which he moves with during the day because of the cold and for bedding to warm him up at night. Despite the hard situation, he tries his best to impress his visitors; he slaughters a goat, which he prepares along with potatoes (locally known as sipatisi). On many occasions, food is obtained from the neighbouring Sabiny community in return for manual labour. In this community, women’s rights are highly respected. The Benet women are the pride of the land. Like the men, they are tall, dark and beautiful.They contribute a good share to the community. They barter the nicely woven baskets they make to the Sabiny who live eight kilometres away. This is across two streams, which, on a bad rainy day will get flooded to the extent that nobody can cross. That is when many will go hungry. The floods will also hinder the few school-going children from attending school. There hardly any social services in the area as Muanga explained: “There is nothing like Universal Primary Education in this place. Well, we would have constructed our own schools but we are a poor lot,” he pointed out.And before an NGO constructed the only health centre, the expectant mothers had an uphill task, especially when it came to labour. Today, many depend on handouts from Action aid and a few other NGOs operating in the area. Another problem Hon. Kulany highlights is that of the Karimajong cattle rustlers from the low lands of Ngenge. She explains that the raiders have caused unrest to the Benet, sometimes causing loss of lives in the course of the raids since some of them (the cattle-rustlers) are armed.MarginalizationIn addition, the Sabiny dominated the whole resettlement process accounting for the inclusion of the internally displaced and needy in the resettlement process, at the expense of the target historical inhabitants, the Benet. The population of the non-Benet has so far out-numbered the Benet in the area and during elections, the former take up all the leadership positions. At the sub-county for instance, none of the Benet is an executive member. On the whole, the Benet’s situation remains a hanging mystery. They need permanent structures to call homes, social services to compliment their hard work and recognition of their existence as well.

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