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Spontaneous settlement problem in Kenya

Mbithi, P.M. & Barnes, C. (1975). Spontaneous settlement problem in Kenya. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.


This book addresses rural squatting and does not really face the issue of urban squatting and shanty towns. Its research sifts the statistics of the 1969-72 years.



The squatter settlements (and shanty towns) in Kenya are shown by the study to be a result of spontaneous movement of potential farmers and unemployed persons to occupy land for which they have no legal title for the purpose of establishing residence and/or cultivation. (p. 1)

Squatting is a real response to rural and urban unemployment as it is an effort to acquire land, a production resource, to generate a living. (p. 3)

...accelerated farm development and migration to urban centers have cut down the potential (rural) potential squatter population to an estimated 1969 population of 300,000 with an estimated annual growth rate of over 15,000. (p. 7)




The sheer numbers of people who are migrating spontaneously to regions where there are very few supportive services pose serious welfare as well as political problems. Our study shows that squatters are politically marginal and economically and technically backward. They have no hospitals, few schools, roads, water sites. They are a serious threat to the environment...The squatter exploits natural resources by cutting down trees and forests for charcoal burning, poaching wild animals, bush burning, and practicing poor farming techniques with no fertilizing or soil conservation.

Squatter migrants into territories of other ethnic groups pose serious security problems as the danger of tribal resentment and localized clashes are very real.

Since most squatters are poor and illiterate, since they are insecure under the law and since they are provided with few protective services, they are a natural environmental risk and programmes for squatter rehabilitation must be undertaken urgently. (pp. 2-3, 10)




Every African in Kenya has an ancestral land base: one’s ancestral spirits haunt regions where the ancestors are buried and controlling the land in these regions establishes continuity in one’s destiny. Under traditional land tenure, tribal elders or tribunals settled disputes over the rights to use land in most districts.

The creation of reserves by the Europeans stabilized what was a fluid land situation among the African people. (p. 41)


Thus, in the African mind, "all land in Kenya (as in most of Africa) had always been occupied subject to exigencies":

  • Fluid or elastic tribal boundaries and buffer zones affected by tribal wars and treaties.
  • Temporary evacuation due to war, drought, disease, etc.
  • Temporary abandonment due to land use patterns.


The Maasai lost large areas: Kaputei Plains, Central Rift Valley, Mau Laikipia, and Uasin Gishu:


Not only was the areas of land available to the Maasai drastically reduced but large communities were forced to move to areas of lower and less reliable rainfall. (p. 41)


Present day "helpers" and critics of the Maasai fail to realize how Maasai relocation at their level of technology caused intensive "land shortage and relative livestock overstocking." In addition, the Maasai Reserve boundaries of 1910 deprived them of Boran bulls previous obtained from the Galla, Samburu, or Somalis people—upsetting a form of selective breeding for dry conditions.

The Kikuyu lost most of their fertile Kenyan highlands to the settlers. Losing 109.5 square miles of their highest potential land by 1933, the Kikuyu were forced to live in "reserves where overcrowding and erosion of land caused many of them to become labour tenants on European farms." (p. 42)

The "insecurity of the Native Reserve boundaries" is evidenced by the fact that the Nandi were restricted to their reserve in 1907, yet still lost another seventeen square miles in 1912 and 130 square miles in 1919. The Kipsigis lost over 800 square miles "essential to their traditional mode of their subsistence...containing most of their salt licks." (p. 42) The Kamba also suffered great loss and dislocation.


The British seized control of Kenya (the East Africa Protectorate) under the East Africa Company in 1897. To support the railroad (completed up to Lake Victoria in 1901) the British had begun issuing land certificates to settlers in the 1890s. Land leases were at first good for 21 years and renewable—very soon extended to 99-year certificates. The land ordinances and homestead rules assumed that all land not occupied, cultivated, or grazed by natives at the time were "waste lands" to be considered "crown land" or "public lands" available for lease. As noted above, Reserve boundaries "significantly altered the ecological balance between man, animals and land." (p. 42)

From 1912 to 1925 labor laws encouraged Africans "already displaced or experiencing population pressure due to European settlement, to settle on European land as labour tenants. This African labour was a critical factor in the success of European estates. So much was this labour needed, that at times the stated policy was to force Africans out of the Reserves to work on European farms.

Before 1918 the situation of squatters was neither harsh nor restrictive. They could cultivate or graze an unlimited amount of land or cattle. They were free to trade and settled most disputes by their own councils of elders according to customary law. Legally they had no recourse to settle grievances, and European settlers were free to administer punishments upon their tenants. In this period, however, settlers tended to be restricted in order to keep the labour force in place:

  • In 1919 Nakuru District: 8,000 of 9,116 Africans were squatters.
  • In 1921 Laikipia District: 58 settlers and 18 squatter families.
  • By 1923 the same district had 166 settlers and 1,481 squatters.

After 1925 squatting became a major problem. As settlers became established, they began to restrict the privileges of tenants. The amount of land and cattle were increasingly limited by force and ordinances. The number of working days was increased from 90 to 180, and all family members over 16 were required to enter into contractual labor agreement or leave the farm.

Under the Resident Native Laborers Ordinance, 1,261 natives went to court in 1927, and 1,050 were convicted. So harsh became the conditions that, after 1927, more Africans returned to the Reserves than left to settle as tenants. In the long run, however, the "movement and settlement of squatters on European farms which continues up to today" continued and should be seen as a major cause of spontaneous human settlements.

Missionary societies established their work and schools almost entirely in the Reserves; thus the educational and spiritual needs of Africans on farms was neglected, and they found their way of life increasingly disparate from those in the Reserves.

"Only in the late 1940s did casual labour become prevalent."


The following comprise the different types of landless:

  • People who lost all their land to European land alienation.
  • Ahoi (labour tenants) who were forced off their land by African landholders.
  • People whose land holdings were insufficient to support their families.


The interviews of this book reveal surprising perceptions of squatters as to their reasons for settling:

  • Landlessness (yet only 9% offered this as the primary cause).
  • Avoidance of military service (in earlier days).
  • Avoidance of compulsory labor in Reserves (in colonial days).
  • Tax evasion.
  • Enticement of labour recruiters and promises of benefits.

"Most made their decisions on the basis of more than one consideration." (p. 46)

The origins of squatting and the legitimization of this mode of living can be traced both to European labor laws and land tenure systems in the 1920s and also to Muslim tenant-at-will with respect to squatting at the Coast. Hitherto, there has never been any specific land tenure policy totally negating historically-based squatting. There are, however, trespass laws that have allowed for the continued harassment of squatters without offering them alternatives.

In the present day, rural unemployment is the major determinant of squatter settlements:


No viable alternatives to squatting exist in the urban areas or in rural employment, especially for the illiterate middle to old aged landless...even for the educated and the young, lack of urban employment, coupled with the fact that 73% of these people are genuinely landless, exposes rural squatting as a logical alternative to them too. (p. 10)



One strategy aims for "Land Consolidation and registration where security in land tenure would lead to increased productive use of land and hence more employment generation."

A few notes on several settlement schemes:

  • The Million Acre Scheme by 1970 had settled 34,000 families or some 200,000 persons.
  • The African Land Development Board (ALDEV) by 1961 had settled 6,297 families on ten small schemes and 6,800 Kipsigis families in Chepalungu.
  • Expense and limited results cast doubts on future of such schemes.
  • Decentralized, rural development, land reclamation programs, and urban and rural employment creation programs have been attempted. For numerous reasons these programs are not keeping up with the problem.


  1. The focus of this problem in the late 1980s and through the 1990s is shifting to the shanty towns of urban areas. Spontaneous human settlements are still growing in rural, urban, and suburban areas.
  2. For reasons of human suffering without adequate services and facilities, because such settlements are a risk in national security, for the damage being done to the environment, and/or the distress such settlements give the rest of society—squatting poses a grave and increasing problem to Kenya and all nations. The conclusion of these authors is, "they are a national environmental risk and programmes for squatter rehabilitation must be undertaken urgently." (p. 10)
  3. Development of this difficult sector of society demands cooperation among government, church, business, missionary, and international relief and development agencies.