TRI Field Notes: Following a History of Displacement in Kasigau, Kenya

TRI Field Notes: Following a History of Displacement in Kasigau, Kenya

By Robert Mwaniki, 2015 TRI Fellow

Kasigau is a series of villages located on an elephant corridor that connects the Tsavo National parks of Kenya with the Mkomanzi Reserve in Tanzania. Land use in this corridor is mainly made up of community ranches that are used by livestock herders, both local residents and migrant Somali herders. Livestock grazing supplements rain-fed agricultural production. Over the last few years, however, this area has experienced insufficient or delayed rainfall periods which have stressed crop and livestock production.

To preserve this celebrated wildlife corridor, various organizations, governmental and non-governmental, local and international, have developed projects offering alternative forms of livelihood that are less reliant on natural resources. Such projects included guesthouses for tourism, bee-keeping projects, outdoor facilities, and activities for both corporate and private groups. Other projects have focused on giving the local community better access to education – building and refurbishing school buildings, building water harvesting and storage systems with related infrastructure, and working with local women’s and youth groups. Despite attracting interest from conservation and development agents, most conservation projects in Kasigau haven’t gone past the initial implementation stage, and if they have, projects teeter within the first few years before dying off.

Development-related projects, on the other hand, seem to fare much better. From conversations I have had with various project-implementing agencies, the project staff perceive local political interference as the main reason for failure. Despite agreements with local leaders and communities, at some point during the life cycle of a given project, disagreements arise that escalate into battles of will and initial agreements about the project are rejected. In multiple instances, investors who required land to be sold or donated, had their land agreements trashed, and in one extreme case, the project organizer was literally chased by a mob of angry residents. This sudden turn of events, despite progress in negotiations, and following through all the recommended process in project implementation, has been the bane of the community, and intriguing research on the causes of such aggressive actions.

My research focuses on understanding how a local history of colonial deportation in Kasigau continues to affect local perception of “outsiders.” The deportation event occurred during World War I, a direct consequence of German cross-border aggression from Tanganyika (present day Tanzania), to the British colony of Kenya. After being accused of aiding a German raid on a British military camp based in Kasigau, British troops forcefully removed Kasigau residents from their homeland. The community then spent 22 years in two different locations, with a many community members drying from a poisoning event by locals at the site of their first relocation. The residents were eventually allowed to return back to Kasigau.

In the video below, Kasigau residents commemorate the 100-year anniversary of WWI.


But some 89 years after resettling, the deportation narrative itself hasn’t remained static. From preliminary data, the changes to the narrative occur in three categories: between generations, between villages, and within villages. Between generations, the first generation of those exiled have a more uniform version. The divergence becomes more pronounced as the narrative progresses down the second, third and fourth generations. The lost details from the original narrative are then filled with what the narrator believes happened, based on contemporary events that have shaped/been shaping the life in each respective village. One of the ways that influence how the narrative has been changing is from what locals believe to be the cause of the deportation; ignorance and naivety. Most respondents believe that their forefathers should have been more inquisitive of the role of the British army camp, that they should have understood the hostilities between the British and the Germans and, should have been more suspicious of the Germans wanting to know the whereabouts of the British camp. Had their forefathers behaved in this way, they would never have been exiled or suffered as they did. This sense of vulnerability is one of the ways that the narrative has shaped their attitudes towards outsiders.

Interviewing a community resident.

Interviewing a community resident.

As a Tropical Resources Institute fellow, I aim to bring greater understanding as to why communities, like Kasigau, are seen as resistant to community projects. My interviews suggest that the resistance experienced in previous years is based on a widely held belief that any project requiring local commitment before receiving tangible results is reminiscent of the deportation of their forefathers. This is particularly so for projects that appear to place “their” natural resources, especially land, under joint management. One example of this is that community leaders have refused to have their land adjudicated in order to get title deeds. The leaders say that the ranches that surround Kasigau belonged to their forefathers, but were lost while they were in exile. The leaders argue that the registered ranch members of the surrounding ranches are in faraway parts of the district/County and they have no claim to land that was formerly under the Wakasighau before their deportation. The leaders say that adjudication should only proceed after they get their original land back.

By understanding such claims by the Wakasighau, and knowing the root cause of these arguments, I aim to better understand how communities like Kasigau view themselves, how outsiders view them, and how such communities think they are perceived.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics.  The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  For more information on research and fellowships visit