Dismas Ngoge, 87, sits under a fruiting mango tree in front of his house, enjoying the tranquillity and cool breeze wafting down from the hill behind his home, which he may soon have to leave.
He giggles as he watches his grandchildren play, but he is a troubled man, knowing he might soon have to move from the only place he’s called home all his life, which is ostensibly a forest that needs to be restored and conserved.
The octogenarian says that while his father moved to the now-disputed Macalder land in Nyatike Sub- County, Migori County in Kenya’s lake region, only to work for white settlers over a century ago, he ended up finding a permanent home there and started his family right there.
He knows where his father hailed from, but there is no home for him there. In this place, he schooled, married, and had children, and grandchildren. Even his parents are buried right there.
“If we’re evicted, I’ll have to exhume my parents’ remains and take them with me wherever I’ll go. I don’t know where I’ll go, but being their only surviving son, I can’t leave them here,” Mr Ngoge told The EastAfrican at his home.
His home is almost at the very centre of the 2,490 hectares recently gazetted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry as ‘forest land’, a move which essentially rendered thousands of people residing there homeless, or about to be.
Some 5 kilometres from his home, at Osiri-Matanda trading centre, which is also on the supposed ‘forest land’, Fanuel Adek, 73, also a resident of Macalder, can barely concentrate on his day job of mining, knowing he might soon have to move.
“Where will I go? I was born here, and this is where I have lived all my life. At this age, where will I find the money to buy land somewhere else and move my entire family?” Mr Adek poses.
Unlike Mr Ngoge, Adek’s father was a native of this locality. He was born a stone-throw away from the disputed land, and only settled there after Kenya’s independence in 1963, when the former occupiers of the land – white settlers – left.
According to the two elders, Macalder village, despite being remote and isolated, had attracted white settlers during the colonial period, due to its richness in minerals, mostly gold and copper, which, to date, happen to be the primary source of income in the area.
“When the white men left, they rewarded their most trusted employees, including my father with this land. Although they didn’t give them titles, they gave them ‘passes’ which they said would prove their ownership of the land,” recounts Mr Ngoge.
That is how most of the people residing on that land got it: from the white settlers. Others bought it from the first owners while others might have been settled there by public administration officers, sources told The EastAfrican.
However, none of those living there have titles for the parcels they claim to own. Apart from the ‘passes’ given to the original squatters by the white settlers, most of which were lost, they have nothing to prove their ownership of their homes.
“The MP (member of parliament) told us we’d be given title deeds and we’re still waiting. We never imagined they would want to evict us because we don’t have title deeds,” said Mr Adek.
Indeed, according to the area’s member of national assembly, Tom Odege, who had vowed to ensure the residents here get titles for ‘their land,’ plans are still underway to issue the title deeds, despite the gazettement of the land, which, he says with certainty, will be rescinded.
“What I want to tell the people of Osiri, Macalder, and all those affected by the gazette notice is: Anyone who lives here, who was born here, whose afterbirth was buried here, will not leave their home,” said Mr Odege.
“After allocating us our rightful land, we won’t oppose the conservation of the forest that’s always been there, but the forest shouldn’t take away where people reside, that is a lie.”
Not only is the said land a home to thousands of people here, it is also a source of income for many who work in the mines on that very land and its gazettement has threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of families.
The small trading centre of Osiri-Matanda, which is the headquarters of goldmining in Macalder, is a beehive of activity even on a weekend. Almost all day long, the sound of churning of gears and occasional clattering of falling debris as mined stones are crushed never leaves the small town.
As Rose Akinyi works in the noisy environment, she is worried that soon she might be out of work and a home. A widow, Ms Akinyi relies entirely on the informal gold mining at Osiri to take care of her three children.
“Whatever little I get here is what enables my children to eat and go to school,” Ms Akinyi told The EastAfrican. “I am requesting the government to leave even just this part only, so we widows can help ourselves.”
Like majority of the residents here, the gazettement has left Akinyi averse to anything to do with conservation, because to them, it’s not good news. Should ‘their land’ be forested as planned, it won’t help them in any way, they say.
“The forest won’t help us, this mine helps us much more than the forest ever will,” Ms Akinyi said. “The forest will only help those who went to school, but those of us who didn’t, only this mine can help us.”
But Rose might not be aware that Migori County has suffered serious deforestation and is one of the areas that have lately been facing devastating impacts of climate change. The Macalder area, for instance, hasn’t had any rains in months, even as neighbouring areas experience floods.
“There are effects of climate change that have been witnessed in Migori, especially in Nyatike. They’ve experienced floods, droughts, water shortages, famines, and even conflict in resource use,” said Jevans Osano, an environmental activist in Migori.
According to Mr Osano, the mining activities themselves significantly contribute to climate change through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, which are used to run the stone crushing machines.
Kephers Ojuka, chairperson of Migori County Miners Association, however, believes that the Macalder land should be spared, if for no other reason, to protect the livelihoods of those relying on the mining activities in the area.